Fantastic Fest Minis: ‘Battle League Kyoto,’ ‘Robo Geisha,’ and karoke pole dancing

10.05.09 8 years ago

Viz Pictures

Look at that near-random collection of words in that headline.  Delicious, isn’t it?

I love the way it works at film festivals when you get these accidentally thematic days, where every title collides to sort of create this overall theatrical experience.  It’s one of the particular highs I chase at festivals that is unique to that atmosphere.  And on the second day of Fantastic Fest this year, I had one of those days, and it was just plain bliss.

The day began with a morning screening of “Kamogawa Horumo,” which is evidently retitled as “Battle League Kyoto” for Western markets.  I didn’t know what kind of film it was as I walked in and sat down, but based on the title, I expected underground fight leagues and blood and violence and general badassery.


Instead, it’s a charming comedy about a young man named Abe (Yamada Takayuki) who meets and falls for a girl named Kyoko (Sei Ashina).  Determined to win her over, he joins a club that she’s joining just to be close to her.  He has no idea what the club is at first, and for a good twenty minutes of the film, neither do we.  It all seems a bit wacky until the new members participate in a ceremony that finally allows them to see the Oni, the tiny invisible creatures that the club uses to face off against other university clubs in battles-by-proxy.

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I don’t think audiences used to state-of-the-art effects would really buy the Oni, but so what? This isn’t a blockbuster, and the effects have charm and character on their side.  The Oni are hilarious little warriors, and their battles are very funny.  What makes the film work is the angst of Abe as he struggles with his pursuit of Kyoko, never realizing that the nerdy girl in his club (Chiaki Kuriyama) is in love with him, and a much better fit overall.  Yes, it’s familiar stuff, but the young cast hits every note just right, and if you’re a fan of Kuriyama as Go-Go Yubari in “Kill Bill” or from her work in “Battle Royale,” you’ll be surprised at how adorable and geeky and cute she is here.  It’s a 180-degree turn from what she normally does, and it seems to indicate that she’s capable of playing a wider range of roles than she has so far.

Later in the day, the first secret screening of Fantastic Fest was held, and despite the best efforts of the Fantastic Fest team, it wasn’t that much of a secret by the time the film began.  That’s cool, though.  Just means that the people who were in the theater for the world premiere of “RoboGeisha” were there because that’s the movie they wanted to see.  And chances are, if you went into it because you are familiar with the work of Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura, then you walked out satisfied, because these guys and the lunatics they have collected to work with them are turning out the most delirious pure exploitation anywhere in the world today.

When you look at films like “Toyko Gore Police” or “Machine Girl” or “Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl,” you get the sense that these guys are just overgrown kids who have been set loose with a make-up kit, a camera, and absolutely no sense of limits.  The results are totally daffy every time, and I can’t really call their films coherent, but there’s an energy that makes them work.  It’s just plain fun to watch them throw gore and sex and crazy at each of their ideas by the bucketload, and “RoboGeisha” is a perfect example of that.  I couldn’t tell you what happened in it, because I’m not sure.  I can’t even tell you what it’s really about.  And yet, if you like exploitation films, this is one I’d absolutely say you should track down once it’s released in Japan, because it entertained me all the way through, constantly inventive and always trying something new.

As the screening ended, madness and nudity erupted in the theater as Tim League joined the filmmakers and some of the cast in drunken antics onstage that involved darts being stuck in butts, lapdancing, and the single strangest contextual Kurosawa reference I’ve ever seen.  I’d say more, but I’m afraid the authorities might get involved.

After “RoboGeisha,” the night concluded over at The Highball, which is Tim League’s newest Austin entertainment venture, a club that features bowling, private karaoke rooms, and delicious food.  It’s instantly one of the best places in Austin, a natural extension of the philosophy that makes The Alamo Drafthouse one of the best places in the world to see a movie.  In this case, one of the actresses from “RoboGeisha” took the stage mid-karaoke to perform a pole dance, using a pole she brought with her from Japan, and the performance managed to bring the entire club to a stand-still.  What I find remarkable about pole-dancing has nothing to do with sex.  It’s just plain strength.  I doubt I could get my pasty ass to the top of that pole in any position, but to watch this girl swing herself around using just her legs, defying gravity and physics with her moves, was just plain impressive, and as pure a “dance” as any other I can name.  After she finished, the karaoke kicked back in, and I finally made my way back to my car, drained from a full day of my favorite film festival.

And loving every second of it.

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