Ever since the very first horror films premiered on the brightest screens of our darkest theaters, the genre has been entertaining, emotional, and thought-provoking all in good measure. Monster movies in particular are packed with layers of meaning, providing a metaphorical blank check to interrogate society, ideas, aspects of the human experience, and more. What does The Host tell us about government? What can we learn about the dark side of human sexuality from Splice? What do we learn about the dangers of rogue science from Frankenstein or Jurassic Park? These sorts of questions are what this column will explore, the meanings of our favorite monsters.
One common facet of monstrosity shared by many horror antagonists, monster and otherwise, represents a fundamental violation of a basic element of the human experience–unkillability. Every living thing we know has vitality that can be expunged, and our own mortality is so central to our self-understanding as a species that it fuels our culture, our religions, and everything we know about the human experience. So when we encounter something that’s inexplicably unkillable, it’s a prime source of horror–whether it’s Michael Myers braving bullets and fire to zombies inexplicably pulling themselves towards you after dismemberment, the danger of the antagonist is multiplied by its unnatural ability to just keep ‘ticking’.
In this article, we’ll explore these horrors of unkillability, the antagonists who JUST WON’T DIE, through looking into the Japanese cult horror classic Tokyo Gore Police (with a brief detour to look at ‘The Shape’ himself, Michael Myers).
Tokyo Gore Police and the Injury-Proof Engineers
Tokyo Gore Police takes place in a nearly post-apocalyptic future Japan, where the country has become under siege from a mad scientist known as ‘Key Man’. Key Man has engineered a virus that mutates humans into monstrous entities called ‘Engineers’, towards the end of amassing an army of them. What makes Engineers so horrific? The simple fact that any injury they sustain instantly transforms the body part in question into biomechanical weapons. To respond to this growing wave of monstrous mutants, a militarized, privatized, effectively fascistic police force responds to crime–and Engineers–with brutal totalitarian force.
The sudden and surprising mutations surely violate our entire understanding of the natural order of things, creating hybrid monstrosities with chainsaw appendages and bionic eyes that, frankly, shouldn’t be possible. It’s as horrific, outlandish, and gory as it sounds, turning virus-infected heroes and villains alike into biomechanical mutations in no time at all. That, however, is only one part of the story.
The other part of the horror of the whole situation is that the virus renders the Engineers incredibly, oddly difficult to kill. How exactly do you kill something whose injuries inexplicably and almost instantly become healed, turned into weapons that make them more gruesome and destructive than before? It signals that the Engineers are now something other than human, because the virus that renders them almost unkillable takes away one of the central vulnerabilities of the human experience, the possibility of death, signifying monstrosity. To highlight this point a little further, let’s take a slight detour to a sleepy little midwestern town, Haddonfield, IL, and it’s most dangerous resident–Michael Myers.
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About a Boogeyman
To show the connection between the unkillable and the monstrous a little clearer, it’s useful to discuss an iconic horror antagonist whose ability to embody evil is, in serious part, connected to the fact that he inexplicably can’t die: Michael Myers, aka ‘The Shape’. Ostensibly born a human child, he’s frequently referred to as an embodiment of evil itself–as though he’s something other than human. Take, for example, Dr. Loomis‘s frequent reminder (to literally everyone who will listen) that Myers “isn’t a man!”, but rather something else entirely.
One of the elements of Myers‘ inhumanness, of course, comes from his endless and remorseless hunger for murder. At the same time, perhaps the attribute that fuels most of the mythos around the character, is that Michael is inexplicably unkillable. He’s survived any fatal injury you can think of: knitting needle to the neck, multiple bullets, shot in both eyes, blown up, hit by a truck, impaled, and decapitated. Part of the terror the character invokes is that, regardless of what you hit him with, Michael Myers inexplicably gets up, grabs a knife, and slowly hunts you down. What can you do to an unkillable man?
It violates our own understanding of bodies, of what it is to be a living thing, and certainly of what it is to be human. It’s this element that fuels the horrors of the Halloween, Child’s Play, and Friday the 13th franchises, and it’s this element that adds to the horrors of the Engineer plague in Tokyo Gore Police. The near unkillability signals that these criminals are no longer human beneath their frightening biomechanical appendages. Indeed, it’s because of their unkillability that they become so visibly monstrous–the weapons spring from injury, injuries make them MORE than what they were before. That fact makes them much harder to kill, much more dangerous… but it also throws a wrench into our understanding of the natural order. But why is imperviousness to death so unsettling, so important to our understanding of the natural world?
Let’s Talk a Bit About Death
As I mentioned before, our understanding of the natural order of things is that all living things are subject to death, to not-living. As living humans, we know we one day will no longer live; this is perhaps a major reason why most religions feature beliefs about what comes after life so heavily–the question of what comes after inevitable death has long been one of our most important questions in our understanding of ourselves as a species.
In fact, death is so central a part of ‘life’ that many philosophers have encouraged people to intentionally embrace it. Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zhao argued that we should embrace death as just another transformation of matter from one state to another–it should be celebrated, not feared or mourned. Similarly, notable samurai warrior and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi taught in The Book of Five Rings that “generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” In a warrior’s life, like all lives, death is an ever-present potential. As such, one must must always be aware, and unafraid, of its possibility and its eventual inevitability.
Similarly, in Western philosophy the Stoics viewed death as both natural and a return to nature. In their understanding, physical death is inevitable. Death is a fundamental part of life, and therefore fearing or running from it is futile and serves no purpose. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that “Death, like birth, is just a natural process, material elements combining, growing, decaying, and finally separating and completely dispersing” (Meditations IV.5). Death is as natural and essential as anything else. Stoic philosopher Seneca echoed the call to embrace death in writing “let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.” Death can come at any moment, and it comes for us all eventually, so the Stoics caution us to embrace it and let it orient our priorities around that fact.
The ever-present inevitability of death is perhaps the second fact of human existence… (1) we are, yet (2) we won’t forever be (at least not on this plane). So when we encounter something that simply cannot be killed… it’s unsettling to say the least.
The Horrors of the Unkillable
Here we have the central horror of the Engineer plague in Tokyo Gore Police–they are so nearly unkillable that injuries paradoxically render them stronger, not weaker, violating everything we know about living existence. (It doesn’t help that they manifest inexplicable biomechanical weapons either). Fear of unkillable entities has been central to horror, from the 1954 Godzilla sequences of exasperated scientists fretting over the impotence of weapons to the undead horrors of vampires and zombies to Freddy Krueger’s lament against Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs Jason: “Why won’t you DIE???”
Beyond the violations of form that the Engineers obviously display, beyond their existence as hybrid mutant monstrosities, their most fundamental horror is that they illustrate the violation of one of the most central elements of life: they’re nearly impossible to kill. A living being that can becomes stronger as you hurt it, whose physical monstrosities emerge from its unkillability. Paradoxically, the ability to die is so central to the ability to live in our own understanding that the Engineers’ threat isn’t in their chainsaw arms, but in the fact that they’re something largely beyond the cycle of life-and-death as we know it. Like vampires and zombies, you can extinguish their life… but doing so takes means and abilities well beyond the standard.
In short, Tokyo Gore Police shows us a particular version of a plague of nearly unkillable villains. The horror is amplified by the physical transformations they undergo, sure, but an army of maniacal unkillable killers would be dangerous without the telescope eyes and chainsaw hands. As scary as the prospects of death and dying can be, Tokyo Gore Police reminds us that perhaps it isn’t death that we should fear (a point the Stoics would happily reiterate). Instead, what we need to fear most are the things which can not die.