We live in a time of film adaptations of comic books massive and tiny, from Iron Man and The Dark Knight to Wanted and The Surrogates. But I don’t need to see any more. I have seen Detroit Metal City and it is a testament to awesomeness.
Detroit Metal City is based on Wakasugi Kiminori’s eponymous manga serialized in Young Animal magazine. As far as I can tell, Detroit Metal City isn’t available in an official English translation, but you can get a feel for it at Young Animal‘s website. The art’s less polished than in many manga, but I like the roughness. The movie’s smoother and very funny. I saw Detroit Metal City while writing for the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2008 Midnight Madness program blog. Watch out for spoilers.
In the film, Soichi Negishi (Matsuyama Kenichi) moves from rural Japan to Tokyo and ends up becoming Johannes Krauser II the lead singer, guitarist of special tooth-playing ability and most brutal of lyricists for the death metal band, Detroit Metal City. Then he begins a double life, hiding his stage identity from his love interest Miss Aikawa and desperately trying to escape the metal destiny engineered for him by DMC’s manager, Matsuyuki Yasuko, herself a testament to awesomeness. According to director Toshio Lee, the movie covers the manga’s first two volumes, spanning Negishi’s arrival in Tokyo to his duel with the Demon God of Rock and Roll, Jack Il Dark, played by Gene Simmons. Yes, Gene Simmons from KISS. Detroit Metal City is named after the KISS song and their make-up and heels hearken back to KISS as well.
I expected to dig the metal parts and I did, especially the scene where Johannes Krauser “raids” Jack Il Dark’s signature piece, “Fuckingham Palace.” It’s not that Krauser sings “fuck” over and over; it’s how he sings it. And the integration of Tantric Buddhist elements into DMC’s metal world were cleverly done. For DMC fans, Krauser isn’t Satan, he’s Yama, King of the Underworld. I especially liked Jack Il Dark’s Metal Buffalo, a reference to Yama’s mount (played by a cow).
Having expected to wait impatiently through Negishi’s college days and love problems, I was totally surprised by how much I enjoyed his offstage life, including his trendy* songs. Negishi had specifically come to Tokyo to live his trendy dream. He wears little sweaters. He has a “mushroom cut” that gives his head an unfortunately phallic profile. He wants to be a musician, but he wants to write love songs with hand claps about being in love with girls who bake cheese tarts. He earnestly tells his trendy friends, “No music, no dream.” He’s just so sweetly, dorkily sincere in his dreams that I can’t help thinking of Mary Tyler Moor and That Girl. The mod trendy aesthetic. The clean Jet Age look. Miss Aikawa’s Audrey Hepburn hair. In fact, the opening credits capture Negishi’s sense of wonder and possibility in the big city with bright colors and happy freeze frames. Negishi is going to make it after all.
Just not the way he wants to make it, unfortunately. One of my Midnight Madness colleagues sees Negishi reflecting a dualistic conflict between an imposed American culture and Japanese tradition. For me, not so much. I see a more basic, possibly banal tension: sometimes people don’t like what they’re good at. Sometimes people are bad at what they do like. Negishi’s pop songs are so awful a poodle is his only fan. But his metal songs, about mother-rape and killing everyone, are amazing. Krauser’s fans love them. Negishi hates them. In the post-screening question and answer session (part 1 and part 2), Matsuyama said he decided to play Negishi/Johannes Krauser II as aspects of the same person instead of treating Johannes Krauser II as a split personality or some sort of possession. Portraying Krauser as a separate personality would emphasize Negishi’s aggression or repression and metal as an outlet—or a trigger—for either. It’s kinda trite. Instead, the movie focuses on Negishi’s ambivalence about his talent and I think that it’s better for that.
Negishi is torn between the sweetness of his trendy chic and his Death Metal skills, leading to some wonderfully incongruous scenes where Negishi is in his Krauser costume but out of character, helping a more successful pop performer through stage fright in an amusement park bathroom or bopping along to a punk girl band at a battle of the bands.
Negishi’s metal life isn’t what he wants. But he knows the answer all along. He knew it when he dropped off his demo to DMC without even hearing their music because “No Music, No Dream” was written on their poster. By the time he duels Jack Il Dark for dominion over metal, Negishi realizes that it’s not just his dream, it’s the dream of DMC fans and all of Japan. He doesn’t like the music and he doesn’t like the dream it produces, but he believes in music, dreams and the power of dreaming itself.
Go to DMC!
*Characters in the movie consider “trendy” a specific aesthetic that includes mushroom cuts and songs with handclaps.
Carol Borden has no idea who would win a duel, Dethklok or Detroit Metal City, but knows it would be brutal.