Mikadroid: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla Review

At a time when Toei were dominating the video market across Japan with their tailor made releases, Toho saw fit to cash in on the V-Cinema enterprise in the early part of the nineties by producing their own brand of high concept, low-budget feature films. Mikadroid was the first in Toho’s “Cineback Series”, developed two years prior to shooting by Tomoo Haraguchi, a specialist in make-up effects, whose original idea was to place a zombified WWII soldier in the forefront of a horror flick. However, 1989 proved to be a turbulent time in Japan. A man by the name of Tsutomu Miyazaki was arrested and charged with the murder of four young girls; his fascination with horror, violent manga and anime influenced his attacks and subsequently earned him the notorious moniker of “The Otaku Murderer”. He would later be referenced again by Ataru Oikawa in influencing his 2004 Tokyo Psycho. In light of these tragic events the horror genre hit a bit of a lull patch and Toho was no longer incredibly enthusiastic about putting out these specific genre titles. Forced to rethink his idea Haraguchi worked on reformatting the concept, this time with science fiction leanings. In 1991 the fascinatingly named Mikadroid: Robokill Beneath Disco Club Layla was unleashed onto video store shelves.

The story takes place in modern Japan, after recounting an event in 1945, as World War II drew to an end. A scientific experiment on Olympic athletes was meant to enhance its subject with super-human abilities, but it went tits up. The Japanese army was ordered to destroy the test labs and subject, facing imminent loss of the war, but the head scientist manages to free his new creation “Mikadroid” and two other subjects before he’s killed. Now, in present day Japan, that old laboratory lays underneath a disco called “Layla”. Suddenly Mikadroid turns up and starts killing anyone who has remotely been in contact with the club for some reason. Two unlucky people end up in its sights: Juyo (Hiroshi Atsumi), an electrician and Saeko (Yoriko Douguchi), a designer find themselves trapped in the underground parking lot, with no way out of their predicament, that is until two heroic soldiers from 1945 turn up and offer to protect them.


Mikadroid is a case of interesting design over failed execution. From a technical standpoint it presents some nice ideas from Haraguchi and primary special effects man Shinji Higuchi, both of whom have since worked together the successful nineties Gamera trilogy and Haraguchi’s enjoyable second feature Sakuya: Slayer of Demons; Haraguchi has also put his skills to good use in the nasty All Night Long series and perhaps most effectively in Akihiro “Higuchinsky” Higuchi’s Uzumaki. As is often the case with low budget horror and sci-fi features one must use anything they can get their hands on, and in Mikadroid’s case it’s pure, 100% practical effects - a stand out being
The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.
the death of Rijuu, whose face has the life sucked out of it.
And so there’s no arguing a lack of inventiveness here, even miniature sets and various props help establish a fitting enough environment and we can clearly see that the crew used everything at their disposal to enliven the aesthetics beyond expectation. As for the Mikadroid itself, it has to be said that it’s far from the scariest thing we’ve ever seen on film, looking more like one of the Kerberos Panzer cops from Jin-Roh who ended up eating too many pies on his late shift. It sounds like a creaky floor board when it walks and moves at a snails pace. For a film taking itself this seriously in all areas that makes for one major pitfall. Still - kudos for actually building the thing.

As a first time director though, Haraguchi doesn’t prove to be anywhere near as accomplished behind the camera as he does with his innovative effects and design work. Mikadroid is a languishing mess of a film that barely sustains its run time; interestingly enough it originally clocked in at sixty minutes, but at the behest of the studio the director was ordered to produce close to an additional fifteen minutes. You’d expect then to see some worthwhile additions to the biscuit-sized back story, instead of unbearably long shots of people walking around. Haraguchi, at this early stage in his career, demonstrates no knowledge of how to create tension and suspense, which are imperative in a film of this calibre. There’s no sense of rhythm or timing, with a camera that’s almost permanently fixed on action scenes, creating some highly tedious bouts of gunplay and forgoing any sense of impending doom or even fashionable scares. He simply lets each situation unfold before our eyes in the laziest of exchanges, and while he commendably defeats his budgetary limitations by using shadow play he tends to get a little too “arty” for his own good, which ends up drawing the line between serious and comical. Occasionally though he shows promise: early on with his Chris Marker Le Jette style photo sequences or the odd effective composition, stemming from aforementioned “arty” bit, but on the whole it would be all too easy to put these down as being flukes.

But it’s not just his style of directing at fault. The narrative is simply dire. The sequence of events practically mirroring The Terminator drag on and on until around forty five minutes into the piece we get slices of exposition which goes on about some “Holy War”, where super-humans were being engineered from Olympic athletes. It’s easy to try and gain some kind of social critique, what with its emphasis on tampering with technology for the sake of deciding an outcome on war, but it never makes enough of its points and relegates itself to the scrap heap, leaving behind gaping plot holes and hoping that the sheer fact that we have a killer robot film is enough to disguise its misgivings. We never truly know why Nabeshima the Mikadroid goes around targeting innocent civilians just because they happen to be at the disco; it doesn’t make him the sympathetic figure that Haraguchi tries to set him up as being toward the end of the film. Surely he’s meant to get back at the system and at the very least hunt down those responsible (if they’re not already dead that is). Unfortunately the bulk of the film struggles badly in most areas. Neither are we presented effective leads in the form of characters Juyo and Saeko. The pair is thrown into a horrible situation and neither of them is well fleshed out. These remain 2-D representations throughout, with only the merest hint of a past with which the slower moments try to build upon. As the film progresses their emotions are raised, but when all we have is Hiroshi Atsumi looking passive throughout and Yoriko Douguchi screeching all the time, even at the most impromptu moments, we lose interest in whether or not they’ll make it out alive. And it’s a shame, because this isn’t an awful cast by any means; we have some ordinarily solid actors here and there (and some surprising cameos from Makoto Tezuka and Kiyoshi Kurosawa) who are sadly given very little to work with.


The DVD

I feel compelled to point out that there are no light-sabres in Mikadroid, despite Discotek’s cover design insinuating such things.

A/V

Mikadroid was originally shot on 16mm and is presented here in its native 1.33:1 aspect ratio; the opening credits appear to be matted. Given the source and the age of the material the transfer looks reasonably good, but is hounded by some unsightly digital artefacts. There’s a constant amount of low level noise which backs the predominantly dark picture that exhibits a muddy green tint throughout. In addition there’s a haloing effect, which seems to stem from the source as if it was taken from a tape master and also a spot of cross-colouring. The transfer is also interlaced, which overall makes for a fairly routine job. Otherwise colours appear quite natural, with strong neon lighting where needed, decent flesh tones and suitable grey interiors, although some spots are prone to bleeding. Detail is fine and there’s a natural grain which captures the gritty intent.

There’s not a great deal to say about the Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track. It’s entirely functional, presenting dialogue clearly, while utilising the effects work adequately. Anime maestro Kenji Kawai’s score is the most effectively channelled piece of the film, managing to create enough of a foreboding atmosphere with a high audio level.

Optional English subtitles are provided and aside from a couple of grammatical errors read fine.

Extras

Discotek has done a good job in sourcing some materials for this release. First up is a “Making of Special” (13.47) which provides a retrospective look at the making of the film. Director Tomoo Haraguchi and special effects designer Shinji Higuchi discuss the origins of the movie and how it evolved into its final state. They prove to be entertaining speakers, detailing quite a lot in such a short span of time, acknowledging the film’s hardships and carrying a deep fondness of the time they spent filming; and it was clearly the actual shooting process that ended up being more fun than the finished product. It’s interesting to see how they achieved several effects, particularly by using cardboard cut outs for some sequences. We’re provided with behind the scenes footage on occasion as they talk. Following on from their chat Haraguchi is then joined by weapons director Nafuki Hisao who explains how he wanted to use realistic weapons and proceeds to demonstrate particular effects with a handful of weapons brought into the interview room. They also talk about the design process, from how the “Mikado Zombie” eventually evolved into the “Mikadroid”. Finally the director sums up his thoughts on the overall experience of making the film.

The rest of the features are slight, but worthwhile additions. “About the Film” offers some solid production notes, while the “Artwork Gallery” shows some interesting concept designs. There is also a very small photo gallery and trailers for other Discotek titles.


Overall

Mikadroid, at best, showed promise for Tomoo Haraguchi, who went on to do far greater things. Although the director and his team clearly loved the project it’s ultimately a highly flawed piece of work that barely entertains during its brief run time. A brave release from Discotek, but not one of their highlights.

Film
3 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

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