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“Maniac Driver,” Kurando Mitsutake’s tribute to classic Italian “giallo” sex-and-splatter flicks, arrives at a moment when Japanese theatrical films, from indies to mass audience fare, shy away from the sort of explicit sexual content once considered a big draw.

Also, the giallo subgenre has declined since its peak in the 1970s, best reflected by the films of directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and a similar trajectory was followed by the “pinky violence” films Toei churned out in the ’70s. Films with titles such as “Sex & Fury” and “Porno Jidaigeki: Bohachi Bushido” once flourised here but have since vanished from theaters. It’s not that sex no longer sells in Japan, but it long ago migrated to the AV (adult video) sections of video shops and is now rampant online, just as it is everywhere else in the world.

Mitsutake, whose previous films “Gun Woman” (2014) and “Karate Kill” (2016) were also genre outings with a retro feel, incorporates his influences with an undercurrent of black humor. He does this, though, without the meta jokiness found in other Japanese attempts at mixing Eros with action. One Hollywood parallel is Quentin Tarantino, though Mitsutake is working with a tiny fraction of his American counterpart’s resources. Shot in only five days, “Maniac Driver” is ragged around the edges with performances — especially by its professional AV actresses — that do not exactly plunge the depths.

Maniac Driver
Rating
Run Time 75 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Even so, the film’s energy, invention and knowing affection for its giallo source materials power this old-school exploitation entertainment past its technical rough spots and well-worn genre tropes. While objectifying its women with leering close-ups of posteriors and bare breasts, the film celebrates their agency and resilience. “The world would be better off if women ruled it,” the psychotic protagonist muses at one point. “I’m not an enemy of women,” he adds, though he is bent on taking one with him to the great beyond. Call it a shinjū (double suicide of lovers) without the love and only one suicide.

The protagonist, a taxi driver named Fujinaga, is played with stone-faced creepiness by veteran character actor Tomoki Kimura. Fujinaga prowls the streets of Tokyo in an ominous-looking President Sovereign sedan looking for fares — and a victim. Not just anyone will do, however. As explained in a voice-over and graphic flashback, Fujinaga was driven mad with grief and rage after an unnamed assailant, wearing a black motorbike helmet that made him look like an alien insect, attacked his naked wife alone in their apartment and slowly drowned her in the bathtub, chortling evilly beneath his shaded visor.

Wearing an identical getup as his wife’s killer, Fujinaga now nurses a perverse desire to kill a woman so that her survivors can also taste his loss and despair. He encounters potential victims who inspire not only murderous urges, but also erotic fantasies that suddenly appear full-blown on the screen. Staged with stylized movements and lighted with strip-show reds and blues, they range from the disturbing to the ridiculous.

As the story approaches its absurdist climax, the references shift from giallo to Dennis Hopper’s lewd gangster Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet” and Robert De Niro’s deranged cabbie Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” In the credits, Mitsutake even dedicates “Maniac Driver” to “Frank and Travis.” Not that Fujinaga surpasses these two iconic characters, but he — and the film — carve out their own memorably warped identity.

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