Around the turn of the century, Japan acquired a reputation overseas as a purveyor of high-class cinematic schlock. Filmmakers like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono were the luminaries in a wave of extreme cinema, peddling giddy confections of ultraviolence and questionable taste.

There’s still clearly an appetite for this kind of stuff, but Japan’s movie industry has been increasingly reluctant to come up with the goods. While Sono’s recent “The Forest of Love” was a return to inglorious form, Miike has spent most of the 2010s lost in commercial cinema purgatory, and few directors who’ve come in their wake have managed to make transgression feel like so much fun.

Adapted from the lurid manga series “Peephole” (“Ana Satsujin”), “My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer” would seem destined for a place in the poor-taste pantheon based on its title alone. So it’s hard to reconcile the pungency of the ingredients with the flavorlessness of the resulting film.

My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer (Hitsuji to Okami no Koi to Satsujin)
Director Kayoko Asakura
Run Time 103

After an attempt to hang himself rips a chunk out of his apartment wall, university dropout Etsuro Kurosu (Yosuke Sugino) discovers he’s created a peephole into his neighbor’s room. And what a neighbor she is: Rio Miyaichi (Haruka Fukuhara) is a comely student with a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial, who spends her evenings curled up with a book or savoring her wholesome home cooking.

Only after clocking some long hours of spying does the love-struck Etsuro realize she has another pastime, which viewers will likely already have guessed from the film’s title. Donning a form-fitting raincoat, Rio turns into an angel of death, dispatching victims with a well-practiced flourish of her utility knife. When she’s done, a clean-up crew arrives to remove the evidence, overseen by the dour, black-clad Rena (Noriko Eguchi).

On realizing that Etsuro has been watching her at work, Rio prepares to put him out of his misery. But something about his willingness to die at her hand sends her heart aflutter, and she ends up agreeing to date him instead. A suicidal shut-in and a serial killer: What could go wrong?

To die for: Yosuke Sugino plays a suicidal shut-in who falls for a murderer in 'My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer.' | © 2019 'MY GIRLFRIEND IS A SERIAL KILLER' FILM PARTNERS © LARSSON / KODANSHA
To die for: Yosuke Sugino plays a suicidal shut-in who falls for a murderer in ‘My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer.’ | © 2019 ‘MY GIRLFRIEND IS A SERIAL KILLER’ FILM PARTNERS © LARSSON / KODANSHA

Although it sounds like the kind of scenario Sono might come up with, “My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer” strikes a different tone. Working from a script by Izumi Takahashi, director Kayoko Asakura reins in the excesses of the source material, ditching the sexualized elements and adding a spoonful of sugar to help the nihilism go down.

Most of the film plays as a lightweight romantic comedy, treating its heroine’s penchant for slaughter no more seriously than Alicia Silverstone’s obsession with shopping in 1995’s “Clueless.” It’s a potentially interesting approach, but Asakura doesn’t take it nearly far enough, and some occasional ironic touches aren’t enough to excuse the staleness of the cliches.

When the sister of one of Rio’s victims (Manami Enosawa, doing her best balsa wood impersonation) starts vying for Etsuro’s affections, the film plunges deeper into rote youth-romance territory. Rio’s slayings — all balletic flourishes and plumes of CGI blood — begin to feel like a welcome respite from the drudgery.

There was the potential for a much funnier movie here — and a much nastier one. By refusing to play to its basest instincts, “My Girlfriend is a Serial Killer” is unlikely to satisfy extreme cinema junkies. It’s hard to imagine it satisfying anyone.

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