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Lady Battle Cop (film still)

Sex, cyborgs and videotape: an introduction to Japanese V-cinema

In the 90s, Japan’s direct-to-video film industry – a world filled with sex, action, and cheap, titillating crime – was booming. Two decades on, we select the unlikely cult classics it left behind

As Japan’s economy boomed in the late 80s, its film industry faced a crisis. Box office sales were plummeting towards an all-time low of 122.9 million in 1996, with major studio Nikkatsu declaring bankruptcy by 1993. As home video devices became increasingly affordable, nationwide video rentals from some 16,000 stores would total 840 million in 1989. The solution was obvious: instead of pouring megabucks into big-screen productions, the big studios would focus on cheap, eye-grabbing straight-to-video films to pose on rental store shelves. In 1989, with the release of Toei’s Crime Hunter, a wild and revolutionary new arena of production and distribution was confirmed: so-called ‘V-Cinema’. 

It would transform the industry in the decade thereafter. Male consumers lapped up promises of big guns and (often) even bigger boobs advertised on video box covers, as low-budget B-movies were churned out en masse. Within a year of launching its V-Cinema label, Toei was making 22 per cent of its annual income from video releases. In the process, all kinds of talented young actors and filmmakers suddenly found themselves with a new platform to showcase their talents. Some of the biggest names in Japanese cinema today – from Venice Silver Lion winner Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Cannes 2023 Best Actor winner Koji Yakusho (Cure) – all cut their teeth working on direct-to-video (DTV) productions in the 90s.

Japan’s video explosion would reach a high point in 2003 when Takashi Miike’s V-Cinema release Gozu ended up at Cannes Film Festival, rejecting the western perception of DTV as unworthy of quality or attention. Now, in May 2023, industry expert Tom Mes has just published a first-of-its-kind academic resource on the phenomenon via Routledge, titled Japanese Film and the Challenge of Video. To mark the occasion, Dazed looks back on some gaudy and colourful highlights from a filmmaking movement with an unlikely legacy.


Two trigger-happy cops, Joe and Ahiru, raid an apartment to arrest a Rambo lookalike, but their getaway is thwarted when their car is shot up by a gang of hoodlums in clown masks. As the captive escapes, Ahiru (V-Cinema icon Riki Takeuchi, Dead or Alive) takes a shot to the head. Joe (Masanori Sera) then wakes up in hospital with an insatiable appetite for revenge.

The first Toei V-Cinema production – presented in boxy 4:3 aspect ratio so as to better fit old-school TV screens – wastes no time on character development or even much plot or dialogue. Instead, Crime Hunter focuses its delirious 58-minute run-time on close-ups of huge guns as shoot-outs erupt every five minutes, leaving just enough space for a sex scene, a reference to The Godfather, and shots of a nun, a macaw, and a jar of severed fingers.

The gambit was an instant success for Toei, who made back their $500,000 investment multifold on the rental market. V-Cinema exploded thereafter, with rival studios setting up their own video-cinema imprints to churn out as many cheap and titillating crime, action and sex films as they could.


Low-budget Japanese horror movies found a new audience via straight-to-video distribution in the mid-80s just as “video nasties” were causing a moral outcry in the west. And though lowbrow highlights like the 35-minute giallo-inspired Biotherapy (1986) and body horror creature feature Demon Within (1985) actually predated the studio-led V-Cinema revolution, the production and distribution model would provide a foundation for the DTV explosion thereafter.

The most infamous works of this period were those of the Guinea Pig canon, a series of six sleazy torture porn mini-features that fore-fronted physical effects and gory set pieces. The series would gain notoriety after a much-circulated rumour suggesting that eccentric American actor Charlie Sheen (Platoon; Two and a Half Men) had reported the 42-minute second entry, Flower of Flesh and Blood, to the FBI in the early 90s, believing he’d watched a genuine snuff film. 

After several videotapes from the series were found to be in the possession of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki – who murdered four young girls in Tokyo in 1989 – Japanese horror films began to downplay explicit violence in the 90s in favour of the eerie and atmospheric ‘J-horror’ style that became a global phenomenon thereafter. Incidentally, Ring director Hideo Nakata was another director who’d emerged from DTV filmmaking, while the first two films in The Grudge canon were Toei V-Cinema productions.


As bōsōzoku biker gangs and Mid Night Club street racers became notorious in the late 80s, car culture in Japan reached a zenith. So troublesome were these subcultures that the original Megalopolis Expressway Trial movie (1988) was banned from theatrical release; five subsequent franchise entries – beginning with Megalopolis Expressway Trial 2 (also known as Freeway Speedway 2) – then followed on Toei’s V-Cinema line.

There’s little plot to speak of: one car enthusiast is killed in an illegal street race so his mate steps up to race for vengeance. But the movie – which opens with close-up silver chassis fetishising and continues with gratuitous montages of rubber-burning on racetrack circuits and freeways – is scintillating enough thanks to its zippy vehicle-mounted camerawork. 

It’s all just a big advertisement, of course – for Nissan cars, Seiko watches, Bose stereos, and Saori Saitō’s rock songs (performed in their entirety on multiple occasions during the film). But there is an interesting legacy to it all: professional race driver Keiichi Tsuchiya – aka the ‘Drift King’, who appears throughout the franchise – would serve as stuntman and coordinator on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift years later.


In dystopian Neo Tokyo, a brutal cartel rules by force. Six months after a violent crackdown leaves tennis champion Kaoru mortally wounded, a mysterious, metal-suited vigilante “more powerful than a hundred armed police officers” arrives on the scene pledging to eliminate all threats.

It’s an utterly shameless rip-off of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop – full of OTT acting, laser bazookas, and heavy metal guitar riffs – but Lady Battle Cop is explosively good fun, nonetheless. And with much of the plot outlined via clunky expositional dialogue there is plenty of room for cyber shoot-outs at the hands of neurotic bad guys, which include a telekinetic bodybuilder-bot who is “literally a lethal weapon”.

The sequel teased in the end credits was never made. But fortunately, cult filmmaker Takashi Miike delivered his own V-Cinema riff on Robocop a few years later, with Full Metal Yakuza showcasing more violent shenanigans at the hands of a bulletproof gangster.


Miike was effectively the poster boy of the entire V-Cinema mythology: the Audition director had emerged as a straight-to-video director in the early 90s, thriving as he churned out up to six films per year. By the second half of the decade, works like Fudoh: The New Generation and Shinjuku Triad Society would elevate him to the realm of cinematic release and film festival distribution, but his propensity for surreal humour, quirky characters and eclectic violence was already firmly established by then.

Osaka Tough Guys was perhaps the best indication of what was to come from the provocative filmmaker. The film opens with a pair of drunken teen delinquents puking in the faces of switchblade-wielding adversaries down an alley in neon-lit Osaka (a scene bizarrely interrupted by a cross-dresser chasing a burly gangster). After being expelled from school and racking up a ¥1m debt at a hostess bar, Eiji and Makoto accidentally join the yakuza, landing themselves in further trouble while continually crossing paths with a beautiful woman.

The fact that 70 per cent of video rental store membership owners in Japan were male in 1993 goes some way to explain the rampant sexism that lines much of these productions. But while it isn’t remotely politically correct, this oddball buddy comedy is still full of vintage laughs. See the boys’ induction into a prestigious gang at a family restaurant overrun by screaming children – complete with a toast of banana milkshakes – for evidence.


If Lady Battle Cop was V-Cinema’s Robocop then Mikadroid is its Terminator. It’s the story of an unstoppable, super-human killing machine (an aborted World War Two lab experiment) that awakens decades after its creation to wreak havoc on a Japanese nightclub parking lot. Much destruction ensues.

The first direct-to-VHS production of Toho Studio (Godzilla)’s short-lived ‘Toho Cinepack’ label is elevated by a number of interesting production choices. The junkyard sets offer a vivid cyberpunk flavour reminiscent of films like Crazy Thunder Road and Tetsuo: Iron Man, while some shadowy sword slayings offer an unexpectedly arty riff on your average robotic killing spree. Best of all is the avant-garde opening sequence, which mixes freeze-frames and still photography with monochromatic video footage of the android’s creation. 

The latter sequence may have been influenced by supervisor Akio Jissoji, the Japanese New Wave filmmaker who won the Golden Leopard at Locarno Film Festival in 1970 for This Transient Life. He’s not the only notable crew member: Ghost in the Shell and Ring composer Kenji Kawai provides a synth-heavy score, while directors Kaizo Hayashi (The Most Terrible Time in My Life), Macoto Tezka (The Legend of the Stardust Brothers) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure) all cameo.


One of the most prestigious filmmakers of his generation – recipient of a Venice Silver Lion in 2020 (for Wife of a Spy) and a Cannes Jury Prize in 2008 (Tokyo Sonata) – Kurosawa is also responsible for two psychological masterpieces of Japan’s Y2K new wave: Pulse (2001) and Cure (1997). Parasite director Bong Joon-ho is such a fan of the latter that he even voted for it in Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time, in both 2012 and 2022. But at the time that Cure was entering production, Kurosawa was still making straight-to-video movies, often shooting entire franchises back-to-back. 

This was the case with six-part crime-comedy series Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself, shot two-at-a-time in the mid-90s. The first entry follows two bumbling lowlifes who get mixed up in an extortion racket and end up accidentally stealing ¥50m worth of crystal meth. It’s genuinely good fun, showcasing Kurosawa’s technical expertise as well as a spate of 90s Japan acting talents, including V-Cinema icon Shō Aikawa (Dead or Alive), Jun Kunimura (Kill Bill) and Ren Osugi (of 1997 Venice Golden Lion winner Hana-bi).

In April, the director announced that his next production will be a revision of one of his other V-Cinema highlights: the remake of 1998 warehouse hostage drama Serpent’s Path has just finished shooting in Paris.

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