+Good set and costume design
Other films by Masato Harada: Kamikaze Taxi, Bounce Ko Gals, Inugami
Director: Masato Harada
Stars: Masahiro Takashima, Brenda Bakke
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, Mecha
Gunhed (translated from Ganheddo) is a Japanese cyberpunk film produced by Toho, featuring mechs and all the other sort of stuff you'd expect from an 80s cyberpunk movie.
The plot of this film is the tricky part. It's hard to follow. Here's how I understood it: a group of bandits (treasure hunters to put it nicely) who infiltrate a complex of some sort on an island to steal or recover something. Many of them are killed by the complex's security systems and one of them is even turned into some weird monster android thing. They find some survivors and the remaining bandit, who is the main character, must fight his way out of the complex to safety by using a giant transforming mech, known as a Gunhed, that he found.
It may sound like a simple plot but it's pretty hard to follow. And while I appreciate plots that are daring enough to not hold your hand and let you figure out what's going on for yourself, this one was a bit different. Vague stories can be done very well; but this film is vague without any ambiguity, symbolism, open-endedness, thought-provoking material, etc. It's vague in a very meaningless and disappointing way and is ultimately fairly unsatisfying when it comes to plot.
Luckily the film has other things going for it. This film actually has an interesting origin to it. It started out as a script for a new Godzilla film, where Godzilla would fight against a giant supercomputer; it was nearly made but Toho decided to make Godzilla vs. Biollante instead. Toho didn't completely scrap the idea though; the script was re-worked into what became this film: a story about bandits using mechs to fight a supercomputer.
It may not be what you'd expect when you hear the word Mech though. Many people would surely think of the mecha genre often associated with anime; shows like Mobile Suit Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion. But this is one of the rare live-action mecha films and let's just say it may not be what you'd expect from a Japanese mecha film made by Toho which started out as a Godzilla movie. Don't expect giant robots fighting over the Tokyo skyline. There is some mech combat in here, and it is pretty awesome, but it's in a more, for lack of a better word, realistic way. The mech is about the size of a tank (it can transform to stand up though) and the combat and design are more military-technology orientated than fantastical.
Perhaps this films greatest achievement is its visual element. The film obviously didn't have a huge budget but they used what they had very well and very creatively. The set and costume design are especially impressive. The mech design, done by Shoji Kawamori (this is his only credit on a live-action film), is beyond awesome. The entire complex which the film takes place in is unlike anything you've ever seen (well, outside of a cyberpunk film at least). It's a wonderful cyberpunk atmosphere. The effects are really good too, from the transforming mech suit to the combat sequences. The film's style sort of reminds me of Tetsuo: The Iron Man's style, another Japanese cyberpunk film released the same year. I wonder if there was any inspiration taken. Gunhed is almost like an odd combination of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Hardware and the MechWarrior video games, rooted in anime sensibilities. Sound awesome? Well, yeah, it pretty much is.
Unfortunately I could only get my hands on the English dub, not the original Japanese version. I usually try to avoid dubs, and this film is a fine example why. The dubbing isn't anything great, it's actually fairly bad for the most part with the exception of a few good voice actors. It's certainly passable though and it doesn't detract much from the film in any way. The Japanese actors themselves did a decent job; from the beautiful Brenda Bakke to Masahiro Takashima who, to further the Godzilla connection, later starred in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II and Godzilla vs. Destroyah.
Though unknown to most, Gunhed has led a fairly respectable legacy. It's one of the first live-action mechas I can think of and probably led to the many live-action mechas that were released in the early 90s, like Robot Jox. A Video Game was based off of it, as was an entire manga series. Footage from it was included in a Front Line Assembly music video. It has been referenced in William Gibson's novel Virtual Light and director James Cameron is a self-proclaimed fan of the film. The original mech prop is even on public display in Japan in this day. So don't go thinking that this is another obscure and forgotten cyberpunk film; it remains remembered and appreciated by many.
Gunhed is not a fantastic film but it has some awesome things going for it like cool mech battles and a fantastic visual style with impressive special effects. A must watch for fans of mecha or cyberpunk, or even worth seeing for Godzilla fans who want to see an enemy that the Big G himself nearly faced off against.