Noboru Iguchi would seem to be in the enviable position, at least to his mostly male fan base, of doing exactly what he likes and never having to grow up. A veteran director of low-budget exploitation films, Iguchi has an unabashedly adolescent obsession with short-skirted schoolgirls, spandex-clad superheroes, blood sprays and bathroom humor. His 2012 film “Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead” (“Zonbi Asu”) is exactly what the English title sounds like.
And yet many of Iguchi’s films, beginning with his 2008 international breakout “The Machine Girl” (“Kataude Mashin Garu”), have screened at foreign festivals and been distributed abroad, which is more than most of his serious indie counterparts have achieved. This naughty Peter Pan has a grown-up sense of how to keep his career going.
His new film, “Slavemen,” would seem to another Iguchi exercise in wish fulfillment for developmentally challenged guys. The wimpy hero, Yasuyuki (Yuichi Nakamura), dreams of making films, but his waking reality is mopping floors, while living with his supportive, if much put-upon, sister (Chieri Ajioka). One day, this janitor/filmmaker and his colleague happen upon a porny photo shoot presided over by Kiryu (Ryohei Abe), a rich businessman’s son who was once Yasuyuki’s high school classmate.
Realizing that he and Yasuyuki were in the same cinema club, Kiryu sneers to his companions, “He was our slave” and then to his former victim, “I thought you would commit suicide.”
As he escapes from this flashback to the horrors of his past, Yasuyuki encounters a pretty girl in a “maid” costume handing out packs of tissues to passersby and, when she treats him with unexpected kindness, he becomes instantly infatuated. He wants to film this paragon, named Ayano (Kayako Okuda), but can barely say hello to her.
How can this pathetic loser defeat his old nemesis and win the girl? Since this is an Iguchi film, the answer is “become a superhero.” The company of Kiryu’s father (Kanji Tsuda), another nefarious type, has invented a helmet with a beam that, by focusing its wearer’s rage, dissolves its targets into nothingness. Once Yasuyuki rather incredibly acquires this helmet — called the Slavehead — he dramatically turns the tables on his tormentors.
Iguchi, who also wrote the script, takes the story beyond simplistic revenge fantasy in ways silly, convoluted and mind-bending. The thrills of martial-arts battles and the vicissitudes of Yasuyuki’s pure-hearted love for Ayano keep the action clipping along, but, together with these genre staples, the film offers some dizzying speculations on the unintended consequences of screwing with the space-time continuum.
Yasuyuki finds that it is not only frustratingly hard to zap enemies with the helmet’s beam (he must first “scan” them — a process that a blocking hand can stop), but also the results, if successful, include rebooting the past. And our hero is not in control of whether the cards of fate fall positively or, as is often the case, negatively. Furthermore, if he attempts and fails to scan his enemy twice, a female voice in the helmet warns him that “a tragic destiny” will befall him. What does that mean? A mysterious “god of death” may hold the answer.
Gamers may find the various abstruse rules and conditions familiar but to this nongamer they were on the arbitrary and excessive side. On the other hand, the “Alice in Wonderland” surrealism of the story, with characters assuming radically different identities and personalities in each new alternative reality, struck me as an oddly apt expression of everything from Buddhist doctrine (see the karma and reincarnation sections) to the multiple-universe theory of modern physics.
Or maybe it’s just that Iguchi, at the advanced age of 47, is trying to mess with his audience’s minds on a higher, more sophisticated plane, while still indulging in his own brand of disreputable, infectious fun.