Director: Shigeru Izumiya
Screenplay: Shigeru Izumiya
Cast: Shigeru Izumiya; Takichi Inukai; Rikako Murakami; Mari Natsuki; Kiyoshirô Imawano
Synopsis: In an unknown time period in the future, three individuals preside over a female android called Guernica (Mari Natsuki). Two of them, a man (Takichi Inukai) and a woman (Rikako Murakami), must contend with the third, an older man played by the film's director Shigeru Izumiya, who has become protective of Guernica to the point that he will harm his compatriots immediately on sight. Mutants are after them as well, and when Guernica projects a white powder from her form over one of the central trio, it induces mutation and hallucinations culminating, once the body becomes too weak for the growing consciousness, to a horrifying transformation for the whole trio.
Death Powder is the only feature made by Shigeru Izumiya, who is more well known as a political and very prolific folk singer who also acts a lot, including voice acting in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko (1994). You don't expect, say, Bob Dylan to create a cyberpunk predecessor sandwiched between the early films of Sogo Ishii or Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), but it wouldn't have been a surprise if Izumiya created a film entire for his own desires, the result of which should prove him proud in how confounding it is. There is a caveat however to this review which in its own way adds to the mysterious tone of Death Powder - the version I had access to, as for many, doesn't translate everything with English subtitles, confounded by the fact there's passages that were subtitled in Japanese either because the dialogue wasn't audibly clear or it was a directorial choice. Because of this I had to watch the film not fully grasping it all, thrown in fittingly into the deep end of a mood piece with material not in my grasp, where sperm are superimposed over cityscapes and later when the hallucinations kick in.
The issue for the viewer will be that the film jettisons its reliance on a plot very early into itself. Death Powder is only sixty minutes long, and while back-story and plot threads are constant, a large percentage of the film is consumed by rapidly interchanging sequences. Once one of the central trio is contaminated by the titular powder, the film is mainly a collage of actors being filmed in various positions and post production visual effects. For some viewers this'll be a terrible movie because it doesn't really gel into a narrative feature with a framework, at a cut-off point after the set-up turning into a series of segments and images. (Baring in mind the lack of subtitles for me in some places), one is left with many questions unasked even after viewing the film twice. The use of sperm imagery, or actors superimposed in front of numbers and mathematical equations. When the female protagonist is named Norris of all things, or the point of the powder existing in the first place. One is meant, especially in the version I saw, to detach oneself from a rational frame point and enter the film by its terms, for others Death Powder having the potential to be rewarding as it perfectly captures a fever dream in presentation.
One thing that is perfectly clear is that through the powder created from Guernica - who's name pointedly is the same as the famous Pablo Picasso painting representing a bombing during the Spanish Civil War (although whether the reference was intentional for any reason is unknown) - induces a higher form of consciousness on the person infected by it, causing them to have their faces shred their top layer like fruit and for a drastic mutation to take place. The end result is not necessary of a positive thing, but an evolution takes place, where people become one giant individual consciousness; imagine Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997) only taking place in an abandoned building with a mass of eyes and facial features being created, one including irregular shapes and a flicking tongue that is both comical and disgusting. The Japanese cyberpunk films made after this one including animation like Akira (1988) were just as likely to depict concepts like body horror and transcendentalism as they would the tropes of corrupt government or dystopian cityscapes; from a foreigner's view, Japan is half some of the most advanced metropolises in the world and half its history including mythology and spiritualism, both of which can still be found in films like this in how the mind is just as much a concern as the physical environment.
Plot points do appear. The mutants, consisting of a patchwork mask wearing man in a wheelchair, one near the beginning and two stretched rubber face goons, briefly appear at times to become a problem for the central trio. There's also the origins of Guernica, where her creator Dr. Loo (Kiyoshirô Imawano) has a music video for a flashback sequence and gets to tell another person to not try to make sense of the events around them, as pointed a choice of dialogue as you could get for the work's mindset. Baring these and some moments of sudden violence, including a rubber hand being cut off, Death Powder spends most of its length under a single, prolonged hallucination where creation and death intermingle through a series of images. This'll be drastically different for anyone who is a fan of other cyberpunk films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man as this feels more like an experimental film in its desire to not follow plot points.
A low budget work, Death Powder emphasises the run down urban environments that are important for Japanese dystopian films very well, even to the point of just filming an ordinary and well kept street outside in the day. Far from a deterrent, many of these films like this or Rubber's Lover (1996) are greatly helped by warehouse rooms, corridors and city streets being the only available locations, the claustrophobia of the former and the lack of fantasy of the later adding a grounded tangibility to the content. The film also includes the (almost) required scene for any Japanese cyberpunk film of having an outdoor scene shot with real bystanders nearby.
Makeup and prosthetic effects are sparingly used but are suitably unsettling. In most Japanese genre films, even kaiju movies like Godzilla (1954), there is a very unique and vastly wider sense of the manipulation and changing of the human body than from other countries, where mutation to the fantastical all have the potential to be depicted in truly imaginative ways which cause one to re-evaluate the original object (or limb or person etc.) in a new light. (Only Canadian cinema has such a consistency to match it). While the content is minimal, Death Powder shares an occasional moment of such unpredictability, the malformed consciousness of many people at the end the most extreme example. Less impressive are the eighties video effects, including actress Rikako Murakami punting a frame of the film shrunk down into a box across a room to represent another character being kicked the same direction. I'll admit its memorable but alongside the computer added text in the film, which evokes American shot-on-video films from this era, it does betray the movie in look.
The music is also strange. Whilst some of it does work, I do wonder about the juxtaposition of the grim ending with such jovial end theme music, whether it was intentional for irony or not.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionistic/Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
A unique issue with rating Death Powder is that I have viewed it twice without the ability to speak or read Japanese and making up for that which wasn't translated. The fact we even have access to the film with English translation is worth being grateful for, but I have to wonder if more knowledge of what takes place in the film would be available to me if I have access to what wasn't translated. Besides this there is a debate however, from what is there, whether it's the mood or the visual effects which are why Death Powder is an abstract film, this sort of cinema meant to take a viewer to unchartered waters rather than rely on surface appearances like the post production effects.
There's plenty of unconventional moments crammed into Death Powder to justify its rating, from the superimposed images of sperm to the constant transitions into various realities, delivery employees being absorbed into a mass conscious to its dreamlike tone, so this isn't an issue. I will admit that a film like Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Rubber's Lover however have a greater intensity to their tones which make them the more abstract of this sub genre. For the simple reason that more happens in them because of their longer length is a factor, as if the kind of content in those films. In Death Powder's favour, the effect of watching the entire sixty minutes if you can engage with the tone does effect you, a disorientating effect that works in lieu of the lack of a fully formed narrative.
Whatever my opinion on Death Powder, as one of the first Japanese cyberpunk films made its worth my hat to it. This subgenre is only small but it's been one of the most rewarding for me of Japanese cinema, with a distinction to it from that nation is contrast to sci-fi from other countries. Death Powder is amongst the grubbiest in tone, not just for having to watch a VHS rip, but for how it was clearly made for its own sake with what resources were at hand. Death Powder also opens the door to an even obscurer area of Japanese genre cinema to me, that of films even lower budget than underground films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man which didn't even last over an hour, usually splatter horror films from the eighties which grew out of the VHS boom. Most are unavailable, but the internet exists and I wouldn't be surprised if I explored any I could get my hands on.
As for Death Powder itself, it's far from perfect, having needed a bit more to its bare boned form to be better. Not necessarily more plot either, but an additional thing to have helped it stood out more. What is there however, was suitably disorientating and volatile, and those are virtues hard to accomplish in any film.