This Film is Nuts
My buddy decided one day that he was had to show me Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. and I obliged him. He had mentioned it a few times and it sounded kind of insane. What was just meant to be him showing me a bit of the movie to see if I might want to watch it later, turned into us actually watching the whole thing. I knew it was a B movie and I really wasn’t expecting much, but Kabukiman was both funny and entertaining throughout.
To fully get at what made this movie work for me at least, you have to understand a little bit about myself. Growing up, when my father was alive, we watched a lot, and I mean a lot, of films we probably shouldn’t have at such young ages. I’m talking films like the Ace Ventura here. Of these films, one of the ones that ended up being a favorite amongst my father, sister, and myself was the 1994 film, The Mask.
In many ways, Kabukiman is a B version of The Mask except if it were more sexually explicit, hyper violent, and somewhat racist. Now I know that makes this film sound horrible, and there are definitely some parts that were not great, but it was a lot more tasteful than one might imagine from just a vague description and promotional materials.
A quick overview of the film for those who are unfamiliar (I suspect that is almost everybody reading this):
Harry Griswald is a NYPD cop who is possessed with the spirit of a great Kabuki master. This has made him ‘the chosen one’ to do battle with ‘the evil one’. He is also out to do good deeds and fight crime in the name of the law. The only problem is that a number of corrupt people in the community and their henchmen want him dead so that they can gain power when ‘the evil one’ come to take over the world. Sgt. Kabukiman must use his special superpowers to outsmart and out-fight the bad guys. -Josh Pasnak (source)
Griswald finds himself transforming into Kabukiman and gaining special powers throughout the film. He must also learn how to control these powers by learning from the beautiful woman, Lotus. Each time Griswold becomes Kabukiman there is a transformation that is akin to The Mask and the character behaves in a very similar fashion.
Before I dive too deeply into the film itself let me talk a bit about the film’s background and explain a bit about Kabuki. We’ll go ahead and start with the film’s background first. Kabukiman came into being in 1990. The film only came into being from an off-handed joke from director Lloyd Kaufman made about making a film about a spin-off character “Kabuki-Boy” seen in the 1989 film The Toxic Avenger Pat II. Japanese investors became extremely interested and thus the film was propelled into production (source).
The film was not destined for success however, and would not gain much traction until Tromeo and Juliet played in theatres during 1996. That was when many films produced by the (infamous) independent studio, Troma, started receiving more attention. Since, the film has gained cult standing like many of the Lloyd Kaufman films. From what I was able to tell though, from user reviews and ratings across various platforms, Kabukiman is least like the others from this studio.
Seeing as this film was backed by Japanese investors due to the style and emphasis placed on certain elements of Japanese culture, it is important to take a moment to learn about what Kabuki theatre actually is. Additionally you may wonder, how relevant exactly is Kabuki in this film?
Believe it or not, I actually took a class in college where we spent a lot of time learning about various forms of Japanese theatre. These included Bunraku, Noh, and of course, Kabuki. Additionally, I read a lot of articles about the history of Kabuki to really see just how well Kabukiman actually managed to capture the cultural significance and styling in this type of theatre for its film. Since it is a bit difficult to just describe the full extent of this theatre art, I’m going to include a video below that shows and discuses a bit about it. I highly encourage you to take the time to view the video despite its 28 minute length.
Video from the Japanology YouTube channel
For additional, or alternate reading if the video is not your preference, on Kabuki theatre you may want to head over to the Bratinica page on the subject. I chose that one to refer to because it is easily digestible and not so academic like the other things I read. Furthermore, it also has additional links to more articles and such should you desire them.
As crazy as this may sound, Kabukiman actually does a fairly decent job at capturing aspects of the traditional performance art. It is more similar to the blend of old and new that the video mentions. If you have not seen the film yet, perhaps this is hard to imagine, so let provide you a quick example:
Just from this image alone, you can already see several elements of Kabukiman’s character that relate to the typical styling of a real Kabuki performance. His costume tells you he is the hero along with the face paint. Beyond this, the film even opens with a ridiculous Kabuki performance of the 1970’s TV series, The Odd Couple that is more true to form (until it is interrupted).
Of the goals and aspirations that the Japanese investors had for this film, the portrayal of the unique styling of Kabuki theatre is easily what Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. manages to get right. As for the merchandising and other hopes that the investors had… not so much. Now, we are finally ready to actually discuss the film itself.
Let’s get the more problematic elements of the film out of the way first. There were exactly two scenes in the film that I really didn’t like. The first being the attempted rape (though the attempted part is debatable) of one of the female characters in the beginning. It was meant to introduce a main villain group but it was just a little too much for my tastes. I get it, the bad guys are very bad, but the scene was handled pretty poorly and it detracted from my enjoyment when it was the focus.
Thankfully, that same scene is quickly interrupted with the first big display of Kabukiman doing his thing so this isn’t a heavy mark against the film. It is something to be aware of though. There is a fair amount of hyper violence and nudity in this film so if that is going to bother you, now you know.
The second time the film lost me was towards the end with the final boss confrontation. It was a disgusting scene, which alone is no big deal, but it was also just a little too silly. That’s saying something since Kabukiman is a pretty goofy film as is. I draw the line when the bad guy has heads for hands, makes them kiss each other, and then swings his giant green caterpillar dick all over the place.
Again, thankfully this moment doesn’t last too long. That’s something I have to applaud Kabukiman for. Even when I felt kind of iffy on something, it never sat there for too long. The director knew when to take focus away from something or just move on all together. This is something that even big budget movies have a hard time with so I really appreciated the execution here.
The last problematic element of the film is there are times where it is slightly racist and there is dated language that some may find offensive. Personally, didn’t bother me at all since it matched the time and setting of the film. Just another thing to be aware of if you are particularly sensitive towards that sort of thing.
In terms of production the film is done a lot better than I thought possible for a 1990 independent film. In fact, when I first looked up when the film was made I was really surprised to see it was that old. I figured it was a ’90’s era film, but closer to the mid or late nineties. Kabukiman has several transformation sequences (that are different), the FX are fairly good, and the film/sound quality was consistent as well.
What really would have killed the film, however, is if Kabukiman/Griswold’s acting was not up to snuff. Since the film relies heavily on the comedic timing, styling, and delivery of both dialog and physical movement, Rick Gianasi really needed to be on point for his portrayal of Griswold and Kabukiman. He delivers a performance that reminded me a lot of Zach Braff known for playing “J.D” in Srubs.
This takes me to the film’s greatest strength: the comedy. I laughed a good deal while watching this film. Jokes ranged from traditional slapstick to more clever wordplay. Kabukiman’s humor is by no means, “smart” but it didn’t need to be. Naturally, this sort of thing is subjective but I wholeheartedly believe that there is something for everybody in this film when it comes to its humor.
My favorite sequence would definitely have to be when Griswold has yet to master his Kabukiman powers and accidently becomes a clown instead. The whole thing is really absurd but totally logical in the film’s context. It’s one of those things that is obvious and predictable before it happens, but still manages to exceed expectations despite that.
Earlier, I mentioned the amount of nudity and violence you’ll see in this film. It is almost always very abrupt and unexpected. For the most part, Kabukiman doesn’t kill people. However, sometimes he does, and in horrifying ways. These moments are played off as comedic though and I found they enhanced the film due to the unexpected nature of when these scenes would occur.
As to the nudity, I was less crazy about that. The one rape scene was obviously not one I liked but the other times nudity was used in the film it didn’t bother me really. It made sense and was generally tasteful enough when used outside of that one instance, where it isn’t meant to be.
If I had to describe Kabukiman in a word it would be: whimsical. It is a fun time that is fairly cartoonish and harmless. While I haven’t seen the other Troma films, and I highly doubt I would enjoy those, this one seems really toned down and more tailored to a general audience. This sentiment has been echoed by numerous reviews I read as well. It is just a fun watch, full stop.
There is more that could be said about Kabukiman but I think that would take away from some of the fun involved with the film. This is one that would be best enjoyed with friends, maybe over some drinks, but could easily be enjoyed alone. I highly suggest it for fans of movies like The Mask as they are most assuredly going to enjoy this film.
Worried about having to buy or rent the film? Have no fear! You can watch the film free, and legally, on YouTube! In an interview, the director, Llyod said he wanted his films to be made freely available with an option to purchase because he was just happy to have somebody take the time to view something he made. So there really is no excuse to not at least give this a try. The film is provided below, again in full, for your convenience.
YouTube might try and trick you into buying this, but you do NOT have to. It will play for free from the official Troma YouTube channel. If the above does not work, try this link and choose the corresponding option.
If you do enjoy the film you can find it very easily online from various retailers including Amazon for about $25. That’s a more than fair price for this film if you ask me. Though, since you can watch it for free, I suggest doing that first before investing in a physical copy.
Have you seen Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., if not, did I convince you to give it a try? Let me know in the comments below. Also, if you’ve seen a real life Kabuki performance I’d love to hear about it as either a response article or just in the comments. If you enjoy the extra effort I put into this review, please swing by my Ko-fi page and buy me a coffee. It really helps me out, and as always, thanks for reading!