‘√964 Pinocchio’ (1991): Vengeful Outcast, Emetic Spirit

Content warning: Graphic description of bodily fluids, excretion; violence pertaining to these elements.

Often compared to its well-loved companion in the cult subgenre of Japanese cyberpunk, Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989), Shozin Fukui’s √964 Pinocchio (1991) is a film awash in discharge. In the course of the sickening biomechanical metamorphoses that characterize the style—flexed most prolifically in the late 1980s and early 1990s—characters emit blood spittle with the velocity of popped pimple pus, pull rods of metal from between seeping muscles, and find themselves caked in effluvial mash mysteriously conjured in the fragmented time of the jump cut. √964 Pinocchio is no exception; the film processes the collision between two amnesiac social outcasts by way of this commitment to bodily ejecta and physical transformation. The central question of its audience is thus born of its nauseating viewing experience: how does one deal with a film with so much vomit in it? The answer —if you can stomach it— is to take the film’s emissions metaphorically: as a narrative revolving around members of a loathed social underclass, √964 Pinocchio expresses alterity through excretion, grappling with conceptual otherness through the fundamental human fear that that which belongs in the body will find its way out.

The film opens aptly with two ejections: Himiko (Onn-chan) is released from a psychiatric institution while model number 964 (Haji Suzuki) in the Pinocchio line of cyborg sex slaves is turned out of his brothel for failing to sustain an erection. The two meet on the streets of Tokyo, where a tender kinship is formed predicated on their shared amnesia: both Himiko and 964 have had their memories wiped. Until their respective gruesome transformations midway through the film, the pair foretell the film’s unceasing emesis through binge, gorging themselves on free samples at the supermarket. Later, Himiko attempts to teach 964 the name tattooed on his back (“Pi-no-cchi-o!”), the latter’s garbled utterances in response evoking a pre-retch gag. To really bring home its queasiness, the frame is tinted a sickly green. 

Himiko and 964’s joyous romp through Tokyo is not to last, however: at the film’s halfway mark, something shifts, leading the pair to revolting corporeal metamorphoses. The telltale symptom of these is the aforementioned excretion: spurts of blood cascade from 964’s mouth as a yellow-orange material which can only be described as “goop” erupts from the crown of his head, caking him as if his guts have been turned inside out. Himiko drips thick saliva from her gaping mouth as she flicks her tongue in a frightening serpentine mime. In perhaps the film’s most patience-testing sequence, Himiko wanders through a combination train station-mall suffused with the film’s signature green light, swinging her arms deliriously and throwing up mountains of thick mush on the floor. The absence of non-diegetic sound in this sequence leaves only her retches and yelps audible as she writhes about in the expelled contents of her stomach. 

A sweating Himiko (Onn-chan) wanders through a train station hallway bathed in greed light.
Image courtesy of Unearthed Films

What is most interesting about this sequence, however, is the reaction of passersby in Himiko’s range. As she surges toward crowds in the station-mall, some recoil from her in terror, scattering and fleeing to avoid her perceived contagion. Some deliberately ignore her in her doubled-over state, glancing her way but continuing right on past the pool of discharge. Others simply do not see her. What this sequence thus illuminates through its examination of the observer—somewhat akin to a work of vile performance art—is the relationship between Himiko as social outcast and the body politic writ large, expressed first and foremost through the base textures of corporeal emissions. In embodying the stock urban raver, Himiko challenges those around her with the terrifying reality of the body’s internal processes projected onto the external world, engaging in them a quasi-evolutionary flight response. As blood indicates injury and vomit illness, the vital human fear that that which belongs in the body will end up outside it parallels a collective fear of undesirable elements of the populace escaping their containment. It is apt, therefore, that Himiko and 964 are first unleashed upon the city in expulsion: like the vomit expelled from Himiko’s mouth, indicating bodily crisis, the pair’s presence outside the confines of their respective invisible spaces (the psych ward, the brothel) initiates a crisis of social order. The disgust or feigned ignorance with which the station’s crowd responds to Himiko is not simply a reaction to vomit (as an indicator of illness, its presence could very well engender a response of aid and concern for well-being). Instead, the fear Himiko produces is of a greater civil magnitude, as she represents an invisible excretion made terrifyingly visible in the body of the living city: the population’s “sickness”—the unclean, unhoused, physically or mentally ill—set free of the confines that maintain a middle-class illusion of urban propriety. 

964 (Haji Suzuki) runs through a busy Tokyo street chained to a stone prism.
Image courtesy of Unearthed Films

Like in Himiko’s scene in the station, the film’s climax—and most memorable sequence—depicts 964 eliciting this same reaction in the city-dwellers he encounters. Chained to a large concrete prism and running through the avenues of Tokyo, his face caked in toxic powder and blood streaming from his mouth, 964 clears crowds with his terrifying, clown-like appearance, outstretched hands, and pleading babble. Shots of street performers and shopgoers precede 964’s rampage, heightening the sensation of an urban placidity ruptured by an aberration of its own creation. As he runs, notably calling out for help that no one will grant him, he repels pedestrians like identical poles of a magnet—they crowd around him, but do not permit themselves to get within arm’s reach. Similarly to Himiko’s raving moment, the mechanics of crowd motion in √964 Pinocchio evoke a look-but-don’t-touch approach to the spectacle of human misery, situating it firmly within the urban landscape but isolating it from the alleviating potential of intervention. 

At the film’s close, this denial of aid is met with vengeance from the outcast: 964 sprints full throttle towards the headquarters of the corporate overlords that sold him into sex slavery in the first place. Arriving to a demand that he vacate the premises, he exclaims, “Help me! Why don’t you help me?!” a cry for relief directed both at the corporation’s representatives and at society writ large. “The only way we can help you is by killing you,” they reply; with no escape but death, 964 takes his revenge by punching a hole through his maker’s (Kôji Ôtsubo) abdomen, letting the viscera spill out onto the grass below. Thus, the very same fear of excretion that characterizes 964 and Himiko’s threat to the social order from which they are excluded is repurposed into a power of self-assertion and retribution. The maker’s insides come out and he dies twisted in pain, the evolutionary human fear made lethally real by the hand of the reject.

What √964 Pinocchio finally evinces, therefore, is an image of alterity made manifest by the metaphor of the body turned inside out. Its sickening presentation—from body horror to nauseating sound design—engenders in its viewers a profound physical discomfort projected onto a social structure whose balance relies on the invisibility of its underclass. The individual body turned body politic, the existential crisis of the emetic inside-out phobia realizes the threat to the social order inherent in the visibility of the so-called base human. In other words, where Tokyo is a body, 964 is the blood and bile that’s supposed to stay hidden within its cavities. Watching √964 Pinocchio is like lifting an urban sewer grate to reveal the coursing flow of waste below; what the passersby of the film’s world fail to recognize is that a body too is beholden to its blood and bile, just as a city is beholden to its sewers.