When I was 12 I thought the movie parodies in “Mad” magazine were hilarious. Now I suppose I’m harder to please — or just older — but parodies that self-consciously mock their source, while cutely paying homage to it, quickly put me in a trance.
What to make of Noboru Iguchi? This prolific director of splatter horror, robot action and other exploitation pics creatively looks, walks and quacks like a parodist, with his more obvious reference points being 1970s “pinky violence” films featuring miniskirted, ass-kicking heroines, and old Hollywood slasher films with screaming teenagers and fountain-like blood sprays.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Iguchi has moved beyond straight parody to make these magpie borrowings his own. The big difference is that while the American director takes himself more or less seriously as an auteur, his Japanese counterpart is having naughty, trashy fun — good taste and political correctness be damned. This sense of bad-boy enjoyment is infectious, if Iguchi’s many foreign festival invitations and overseas DVD releases are anything to go by.
His latest film, “Live” (pronounced like “hive” not “sieve”), sends up the many “death game” films made since Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial hit “Battle Royale” started the whole trend in 2000. Based on a novel by Yusuke Yamada, “Live” has a bigger scale and ambition than some of Iguchi’s earlier efforts, including his 2008 international breakout “Kataude Machine Girl (The Machine Girl),” though no one is ever going to mistake it for a slick, TV-network-produced shocker. The action scenes strive to be cool, but verge on clunky, while the generic soundtrack could have been lifted from any of a thousand straight-to-video action cheapies.
That said, “Live” is infused with a goofy sincerity and headlong energy that made me half-believe Iguchi meant business — the operative word being “half.”
The hero, Naoto Tamura (Yuki Yamada), begins the story as a selfish, obnoxious, soon-to-be-unemployed part-timer in sore need of what might be called “life lessons”; though I think “a good kicking,” may be more appropriate.
One day Naoto receives a package with a novel titled “Live” inside. He also receives a video message on his smartphone showing his kidnapped mother who will be killed by lethal injection unless he wins a “death triathlon.” Arriving at the assigned starting line, he finds other frantic competitors anxious to save captured loved ones. Following the orders of an unseen organizer, they begin the race, knowing they can better their chances if they not only beat their rivals, but terminate them.
They figure this out, and more, on the fly, which makes for a bit of confusion initially, though the meaning of “death” in the race’s name soon becomes clear enough, as each competitor successively succumbs in ways gruesome and bizarre. Meanwhile, a desperate Naoto allies himself with two fellow runners: the flakily earnest Rumi (Ito Ono) and the perpetually grinning, hard-to-read Shinsuke (Yuki Morinaga).
The race escalates once this trio enters an empty 30-story building called Hell Tower (a reference to the five-tiered pagoda in the 1978 Bruce Lee martial-arts action film “Game of Death”). Here they encounter two skimpily clad women armed with crossbows, intent on hastening their demise. Some runners flee this new threat like frightened chickens, while others use long-dormant skills — kickboxing and rhythmic gymnastics among them — to survive, at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, Naoto, who began the triathlon unsure if he wanted to take part — why risk his precious neck for Mom? — begins to reluctantly fill the role Rumi has assigned him: Hero of this life-or-death drama. He also starts to show signs of caring about more than No. 1. “Why do good people die in death-game stories?” he asks rhetorically. “We should stop hunting each other!”
How seriously should we take this in a film preoccupied with bobbling female bottoms, shot in lingering (as well as lingerie) close-ups; a film preoccupied with the various bizarre ways the human body can be sliced and pierced? The film’s growth-through-pain character arc is a genre standard, but is Iguchi also goofing on it?
Where the usual parodist would be winking away furiously, Iguchi plays it fairly straight. “Live” may not be a good death-game film, if grip-the-armrest thrills are the criterion, but it manages to be a fun one, as long as you share its maker’s warped sense of humor.
Fun fact: At the world premiere of “Live,” director Noburu Iguchi appeared for the stage introduction in a yellow running outfit from the film rather than his usual fundoshi(Japanese-style loincloth).