|From his eccentric physical ticks as L in the Death Note franchise to his manic energy as the overactive nerd in the TV drama Sexy Voice and Robo, Kenichi Matsuyama has proven himself to be one of the best young physical actors in Japanese cinema today. He solidifies that reputation with Detroit Metal City, the manga-based comedy from TV variety show director Toshio Lee. Here, Matsuyama takes on his toughest role yet, playing a character with two clashing personalities in one crazy, twisted story of dreams, identity, and music about murder.
Much like the comic, the film eschews basic exposition and dives straight into its gimmick. Matsuyama plays Negishi, an innocent country bumpkin who goes to school in Tokyo to pursue his dream as an easy-listening pop star (He specifically mentions Kahimi Karie and her French-style J-pop as his inspiration). He takes to the street everyday with his guitar to perform his saccharine-filled, pure love ballads (one of his songs literally translates to "Sweet Lover"). However, his real talent lies in his alter ego, Johannes Krauser II, the songwriter-lead singer of the death metal band Detroit Metal City. After a few years in Tokyo, Negishi has found success as Krauser, spending his nights in over-the-top makeup screaming about rape and murder on stage.
Negishi is so good as Krauser that devout Detroit Metal City fans, made up of people from all social circles, have no idea that underneath the antichrist image and the over-the-top Marilyn Manson persona lies a shy, nerdy weakling. Despite Negishi's hate for such music, he's forced to continue being Krauser because of the overbearing pressure of his abusive record company boss, not to mention the fact that no one likes his ballads. One day, Negishi finds new motivation to quit Detroit Metal City when he runs into music column writer Aikawa (the very cute Rosa Kato), an old classmate that was one of the few fans of his real music. After discovering that she hates Detroit Metal City, Negishi is determined to rid himself of his death metal image once and for all. However, Negishi's boss sees his real talents and wants to exploit them in various ways, including having Negishi take on death metal legend Jack Il Dark (Gene Simmons of KISS in a cameo) in a battle-of-the-bands showdown.
Detroit Metal City retains much of the humor from the comic, but it also follows the now-trendy, over-the-top style of humor made popular by Kankuro Kudo that also recalls the golden days of Hong Kong mo lei tau comedies. Like other recent over-the-top Japanese comedies, Detroit Metal City steers clear of common logic, but director Lee and screenwriter Mika Omori keep the comedy coming at such a furious pace that the audience barely has any chance to breathe, let alone figure out plot holes. Of course, this is also because the filmmakers knew well enough to leave the source material alone, only taking out some of the more extreme comedy to keep the film more youth-friendly.
Matsuyama is also another major reason why it all works, and his physical transformation from the weak Negishi to the aggressive Krauser must be seen to be believed. In addition to exaggerated reactions to everything as Negishi, Matsuyama also relies on the clear difference in the physical traits of the two personalities to distinguish them. A lesser actor could have easily taken the exaggerated personalities and overacted to the point of annoyance, but Matsuyama manages to remain likable throughout without being out of character. While Matsuyama's performance is not of award-winning caliber (subtlety has no place in the world of Detroit Metal City anyway), it's easily the best of his young career.
Deep down, Detroit Metal City is essentially a superhero movie disguised as a music comedy. The story paints Negishi as an unwilling individual whose Krauser persona is not only his secret talent, but also the source of inspiration for his societal outcast fans (The slogan "no music, no dream" is repeated throughout the film). Krauser's effect on his fans makes up a large portion of the film's sentimentality, and drives the overall message home. However, since Detroit Metal City's music would likely inspire more crimes than dreams in real life, one wonders how serious the creators really are about their message.
Lee drops the ball here by delivering that message as is. Like last year's Maiko Haaaan!!!, the sentimental moments feel crammed in to give the film some kind of emotional gravitas, and it never truly fits with the overall tone. However, Lee also knows not to completely dispose of the humor by including a hilarious scene that sees Negishi using Krauser's influence for good. It's an ingenious way for Negishi to balance his two personas, but it's also the balance between crazy comedy and sentimental ideals that Detroit Metal City struggles to find. Still, with loud songs that climax with endless repetitions of the f-word and a character that likes to throw burning cigarettes in people's faces, Detroit Metal City doesn't seem to be searching for any balance, gravitas, or poignancy. As it is, it's one of the funniest Japanese comedies of 2008, and that's surely enough. (Kevin Ma, 2008)