Death Powder (1986)

There is cyberpunk film, and then there is Japanese cyberpunk film. While cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction film, Japanese cyberpunk borrows many of the themes of cyberpunk but ventures into extremity and generally eschews or defies traditional narrative interpretation. Blade Runner is just as much an influence as the likes of Videodrome and Eraserhead here, and body horror is a typical component. There is a specific set of core films within this style, of which Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the most well known. All of these movies trace their history back to Burst City, a dystopian punk film from 1982 that proved to be hugely influential for underground Japanese filmmakers, but the film that really got things moving was Shigeru Izumiya’s 1986 film Death Powder.

What is Death Powder like? Well…it’s gory, but not to the level of later Japanese cyberpunk movies like 964 Pinocchio. There is a plot, in which three scientists are holding a female robot prisoner created by another scientist, and this robot can breathe the titular death powder. But a lot of other things are going on, and once the actual powder appears, it is no longer really possible to say what is actually happening, because the character who gets it in the face begins to imagine his own omnipotence and hallucinates the past, a possible future, hideous monstrosities, violent men, and even a montage of nighttime city shots set to smooth jazz. This is a film that isn’t quite sure of what it is doing as a film, so it becomes extremely avant garde and less of a workable movie that one can sit and easily digest. If anything, I felt more like this was an initial run at the ideas that would champion the subgenre, but they are still half-baked and not fully formed.

It’s tough to quantify Death Powder, partly because it is so incomprehensible, but also because it is unreliable. The audience has also taken the death powder, so what is fantasy versus the reality of the film is unknown. Is the explanation for the robot’s creation by Dr. Loo real? It looks more like a music video. Do the workers at the end really end up eaten by a wall of flesh? And who are the scarred people and their wheelchair-bound boss?

Also, what is life without flesh? If there is a poignant question for the future, it’s the back and forth argument that the hallucinating man has within his own mind as his face bubbles and melts away, arguing over whether life as a robot is really life or if the flesh is just a prison containing the true self. Somewhere Ray Kurzweil is shouting at the moon, I’m sure.

Do not expect any easy answers from this genre; you won’t get them. I love the original Tetsuo, but it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, as can Death Powder. If you take an interest in extreme film and look these up, Death Powder might be the best place to start, because it is a bizarre and twisted heap of a film but also a great introduction to the productions that follow, even if I believe the later ones make for a better ride.

Also, flesh wall. I want you to really think about what that must look like.

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