Go Nagai’s Horror Zone

Go Nagai turned 76 years old in 2021 and in his many decades of work he revitalized the giant robot genre with Mazinger Z [1972], created the perfectly prurient heroine Cutie Honey [1973], and penned the iconic anti-hero Devilman [1972]. Somewhere in there he even found the time to star in The Toxic Avenger Part II. But this article isn’t about his comics or anime or appearances he made in other people’s movies. This is about some schlocky direct-to-video horror movies that he helped create on a shoestring budget. If you dare, prepare to step in to the Go Nagai Horror Zone.

While the films in question aren’t the first ones based on Nagai’s work (several live-action adaptations were made of Shameless School [Harenchi Gakuen] in the early ’70s), these all come from the late ’80s and early ’90s and were, in some cases, co-directed by Nagai. It’s hard to say what led to this spate of live-action films overseen by Nagai. We do know that in 1986 he met Troma Films co-founder Lloyd Kaufman at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which may have led to Go’s cameo in The Toxic Avenger Part II (Lloyd Kaufman still speaks fondly of working with Go Nagai). Perhaps this was what got Nagai possessed by the demon of cinema.

It’s also worth pointing out that the mid ’80s brought with it an onslaught of direct-to-video projects adapting Nagai’s work; Violence Jack [1986], Devilman [1987], Shuten Doji [1989], and Kekko Kamen [1991] all got the OVA treatment to satiate former Mazinger Z watching youngsters that were now horny adults with disposable income. Along with these anime adaptions were live-action films of Kekko Kamen [1991], and Sukeban Boy (so many adaptations of Sukeban Boy!), and, of course, the horror films we’re looking at today.

Released in 1989, Nagai Go no Kowai Zone: Kaiki, featured two shorts co-directed by Go Nagai and Hikari Hayakawa. Little is known about Hikari Hayakawa (in the English speaking world, anyways), but his other works included Agi: The Fury of Evil, the 1991 live-action Kekko Kamen adaption, and two direct-to-video movies based on the work of Kazuo Umezz. Most of his work has never been released outside of VHS and Hayakawa has long since stopped working in film and is apparently a prolific writer on the subject of sushi and still updates his personal blog.

The film opens with our distinguished host, Go Nagai, surrounded by his manga and several of the Devilman garage kits manufactured by Volks. At a glance, it almost looks like a new employee instructional video, except for the fact that Nagai is wearing a Dracula costume.

This image comes from the second volume of Go Nagai’s Horror Zone where he’s not wearing a Dracula costume during his intro. For said Dracula image, check out the beginning of this article.

The first short, Demon Hunger (「鬼餓」), knows exactly who it’s selling to and doesn’t waste much time getting to the nudity as a young woman takes a bath while an unseen force creeps into her house. After a visit with her doctor and being chastised by a parental figure, we learn that the young girl is anorexic and refuses to eat any of the grotesque prop food laid out in front of her.

The next night a long, vaguely phallic demon erupts from her stomach, in all its latex glory, and proceeds to devour the food left on the table for her as the woman moans with orgiastic delight. As goofy as this demon/hand puppet is, the effect of the demon coming out of the woman’s stomach is a pretty gnarly effect and feels more in line with the tone of Devilman than anything in the 2004 live-action Devilman movie.

Hungry, hungry demon.

We also get some shots of zombies and creatures shuffling through the streets for seemingly no reason at all, as they fall over each other like wind-up toys. The dumb cheapness of it all is a little charming. Can’t afford to show a wolf howling at the moon? Take a Dynamic Pro staffer, remove most of his clothes, slap on a pair of dog ears, and bam, you’re set. They’re aware that this is all kinda dumb and silly, but it’s clear they’re having fun with it. You can also spot the legendary Ken Ishikawa in a cameo role as one of the aforementioned zombies.

While the first segment was mostly Dynamic Pro staff fucking around on camera while a monster puppet mugs for the camera, the second short, Revived Darkness (よみがえる闇), goes for a much more atmospheric approach that almost feels like Ultra Q or Twilight Zone. Shot in black and white, a woman visit’s her husband in the countryside, she can’t help but feel she is being watched by a demonic force. There’s a level of restraint in this short that, frankly, has me surprised that Go Nagai had anything to do with it. There’s a palpable sense of dread and some nice camera work with a latex monster at the end of course. Credits roll, and we get a reminder to check out the Devilman OVAs. 1990 brought a sequel, Go Nagai Scary Zone 2: Senki (永井豪のこわいゾーン2 戦鬼), unfortunately, this one is harder to track down, though it looks like it follows a similar format of a schlocky short followed by a more played straight black and white segment.

A Dynamic Pro staffer howls at the moon.

1992 saw two more direct to video horror movies with Go Nagai attached: Go Nagai Horror Theater: Mannequin and Go Nagai Horror Theater: Kirikagami (永井豪のホラー劇場 霧加神’). Directing duties were taken over by Hidehiro Ito, whose filmography consists mostly of Nikkatsu pink films. Even though the Scary Zone branding was ditched, these use a similar format, right down to an introduction with Go Nagai himself (no Dracula costume this time though, and he keeps looking at PAs just off-screen). The other major difference is that each video consists of one 50-minute film rather than two shorts.

Mannequin flirts with Go Nagai levels of excess (or at least as much of it can be conveyed on a budget). A story old as time, a bullied fashion school student has a mannequin that comes to life goes on a murderous rampage against her tormentors. A fun and goofy premise, but at 50 minutes it overstays its welcome. The creature has a penchant for dismembering its victims and in one scene the monster rips the breasts off one of her victims. A similar scene in the OVA Amon: The Apocalypse of Devilman could be a nod to Mannequin, or perhaps I’m just really, really overthinking this. In the climax we learn why the mannequin is taking trophies; she’s wearing fragments of its victims’ bodies in an attempt to turn herself into a flesh and blood human. Now that’s some Go Nagai gonzo shit. Flashes of schlocky genius aside, there’s not enough to salvage the movie from an overabundance of filler. At least it’d be a good source of B-roll for a horror-themed City Pop compilation video.

The mannequin from Mannequin.

Kirikagami is probably the most straightforward of the bunch, and therefore the least interesting. A theatre troupe rehearsing a play are picked off by an unseen assailant. The film is unfortunately both cheaper looking and tamer than its predecessors. How cheap? There’s a scene where a character is stabbed with a sword and blood gushes out in a close-up, but in the next shot, they either forgot to put fake blood on the actor or didn’t want to, because the wound is now an on-screen video effect.

You’re better off going back a couple of years and tracking down Go Nagai’s solo directorial effort Ninja Dragon, originally released in 1990. Ninja Dragon, as the name implies, delivers more of what you’re probably looking for: Ninjas prowling modern-day Japan, gunfights with the Yakuza, and a dude rips off another guy’s face and eats it. It’s Go Nagai throwing whatever his id can conjure up into a blender and hitting “puree.” Ninja Dragon stars musician Kenji Otski (Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Hellsing), wrestler Cutie Suzuki, and even Doraemon creators Fujiko F Fujio. CPM released this one on DVD and VHS in the states, so it’s probably the most accessible version and subtitles and an English dub track exist for it.

Shuriken to the head in Ninja Dragon.

So fire up those torrent clients, crack open some One Cup Ozekis, and invite some friends over to partake in some of Go Nagai’s lesser-known, but no less subtle, works of film.

Happy Halloween!