Double Feature: Battle Heater and Zeiram
There are times when I just can’t help but think, “They just don’t make movies like they did in the 80s.” Is it just nostalgia? Is there something about the way movies were shot in this period that separates them from modern films?
It wasn’t until seeing the two films below that it became all too apparent that my theory has some credence. Both Battle Heater and Zeiram, cut from the same era, reek of 80s filmmaking similar to their American counterparts. Let’s explore:
It’s the kind of premise that sounds ridiculous enough to be fun: A old portable heater rescued by a junk collector terrorizes an apartment full of quirky tenants, and it’s up to the timid junk collector who brought it there in the first place to save the day.
The heater in question, of course, isn’t just any portable heater that most Americans would be familiar with. Our “mansion” terrorizing heater (The Japanese call apartment buildings mansions) is a kotatsu, a modern electric version of a very old style of staying warm. Traditional Japanese homes would have a pit in the center of the room, in which hot coals would be placed. Over the pit would be a table, and folks would sit with their feet under the table (covered with a blanket) one step up from the coals.
The evil electronic kotatsu is a modern portable version of this old custom particular to Japan, simply a table with a heater underneath. One sits with their feet underneath and a blanket on top to keep warm in the winter.
Knowing this, one can see why a killer kotatsu could be the ultimate horror — the ultimate symbol of comfort and safety suddenly electrocuting people or strangling them with coils of electrical wire is a bit unsettling.
Or it might be if the neighbors weren’t wackier than the premise itself (and that’s saying a lot). The owners of the building are a suicidal elderly couple that, upon hearing the screaming from one of the kotatsu’s victims, comment that it’s nice to hear young people being active. Another room is tenanted by a punk rock band (the real life Bakufu-Slump, who coincidentally made it big right before the movie came out) who constantly terrorizes the repairman. Yet another subplot involves a commanding woman and her new, bundle-of-nerves boyfriend, in the process of disposing of her husband (only his torso is left). The antics between these two alone practically sell the movie.
The film ultimately crescendos (as every great 80s movie does) into the ultimate showdown between the repairman and the kotatsu, as he battles to save his dream girl and keep the leader of the punk band in check (who was after the same girl).
Okay, so technically Zeiram is from the 90s (1991) but don’t be fooled — everything from the grain of the film to the crescendo buildup oozes eightiesness.
Our plot here, coincidentally, involves electronics repairmen again, who get a last minute call at the end of their shift to investigate someone stealing electricity. The culprit turns out to be a sexy bounty-hunting alien (with an outfit that looks like she made a suit out of spandex and leftovers from the Tron prototype bin) and soon the pair is wrapped up in a plot that takes them into an alternate universe trapped with Iria’s latest bounty.
Some of the “technology” here is simply hilarious. Her futuristic searching program that creates a 3D model of the world outside of her headquarters looks like it’s about the graphic equivalent of Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe.
Our heroes perhaps provide as much comic relief as the dated technology. Teppei and Kamiya, who constantly bicker and whine, are like a Japanese Laurel and Hardy, and the two provide a good foil for the serious-minded bounty hunter Iria (whom Teppei constantly tries to hit on).
Zeiram also follows the 80s style of filmmaking. The plot sets up the three for the ultimate showdown with the big bad monster, the most difficult Iria has ever faced. The final showdown scene is a long one, but unlike some movies that drag out their endings forever (not mention names, ahem, Lord of the Rings) the action builds and builds until we get the ultimate payoff.
Perhaps we’re waxing a bit too nostalgic, but there’s just something about the style of filmmaking from the 80s that leaves a good taste long after the movie is finished. The big climax from this era has seemingly been replaced by series of small climaxes in modern movies, and something just seems to lost in the process.
NEXT time: For the next column, we’ll take a look at some J-gore, if I can stomach another round. Ja ne! (See you later)