After the success of their 80’s trash classic The Toxic Avenger gave them global recognition on a cult scale (not to mention their endearing mascot, Toxie himself), the boys at alternative, independent studio Troma seemed to be sniffing around for another bizarre superhero-type to put in one of their typically gonzo comedies that usually comes laden with sex and gore and while filming the second Toxic Avenger in Japan, head honcho Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz were approached by Namco (that’s right, Pac-Man and Tekken, Namco) to create a brand new superhero based around Kabuki theatre – as you do.
Handing over a wedge of cash to get them started Namco (and Hertz, apparently) were somehow surprised that the co-writer/director of a movie that included someone shot gunning a guide dog to death didn’t want to turn in a movie that was accessible to children and so the strange odessy of Sgt Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. was born.
Detective Harry Griswold is to police work what Jerry Lewis is to everything else on earth, but when he gets caught in the middle of a shootout that’s been orchestrated to wipe out a specific Kabuki theatre troupe, one of the dying members passes special powers onto him in the form of a bloody kiss. The powers are that of the mighty Kabukiman, a legendary warrior who resurfaces in order to stop the rise of The Evil One, a creature of pure evil (natch) who will no doubt doom the world to an unimaginably shitty fate. Imbued with the Kabuki powers to shoot heat seeking chopsticks, launch debilitating sushi and fly at the speed of an octogenarian with dodgy knees, Griswold initially has a tough time controlling these weird powers and often magically conjures up kabuki robes and wooden sandals at the most inopportune moments. However, when Reginald Stuart, an evil as fuck philanthropist, realises that one of Griswold’s colleagues is on the verge of uncovered his dirty deals, her death spurs him into action but his inexperience nearly gets him killed.
Enter Lotus, the granddaughter of the elderly Kabuki actor who gave Griswold his powers in the first place, who relentlessly puts our hero through a gruelling training regime that involves handstands, counting grains of rice and more blows to the groin with a cane than is strictly necessary without instituting a safe word first.
Soon Griswold is brought up to speed on his eccentric powers and is ready to step up to his responsibilities as Kabukiman just in time to see Stuart succeed in his quest by summoning up The Evil One and becoming it in a typically gratuitous transformation scene. Will this malformed creature conquer all or can Sgt Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. make the world safe again for lovers and kittens and apple pie and all that shit?
If I were to start by saying that Sgt Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. is a little weird then you could count on me getting a nomination in the World Understatement Awards that’s being held in Copenhagen next year (I’m joking, it’s not), but while this film about a chopstick flinging superhero seemingly be par for the course when compared to Troma’s usually bonkers output, tonally this bizarre comedy is a little different.
You see, thanks to the difference of opinion between the filmmakers about how messed up the finished should be, Sgt Kabukiman has – even for Troma – some overly strange shifts in tone that leaves in a strange kind of no man’s land where it’s too offensive for general audiences and yet too restrained for the Troma faithful. The humour is still the super broad and double goofy type of vaudevillian pratfalling seen in The Toxic Avenger Part II, but the production values – never the most dependable thing in a Troma movie – seem noticably higher than usual, certain higher than the amazingly cheap looking Class Of Nuke ‘Em High sequel at any rate, which only came out a year later. This usually wouldn’t be a problem with any other production company but here it oddly manages to offset the childish comedy to a weird degree leaving a lot of jokes stranded high and dry at the expense of being able to rent live tigers, jaguars and a baboon and film a spectacular car crash which Kaufman then decided to continue to reuse in at least five of his other movies so far.
Another thing that is at odds with the slicker look is Troma’s penchant for working overtime when it comes to drawing stunned laughter from suprisingly dark sources and a broad daylight gang rape scene is just confusingly out of place with the rest of the good natured stupidity – I personally would have gone with Namco and Hertz on this, fellas… In fact after being lensed for a 1990 release, it didn’t appear theatrically until 1996 in a truncated PG-13 version denying the world from a villian with a large green maggot for a penis…
However, what’s somewhat of a relief is that despite Troma’s notorious lack of taboos, Sgt Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. contains less lazy stereotyping than you’d dread, although at times it admittedly veers dangerously close to the realms of grand theft culture considering you have a white man dressed in exaggerated Kabuki make-up pulling martial arts poses and defeating one foe by vanquishing him with the flash from a massive Sony camera. However, once you get past the hero developing a massive craving for raw fish or wrapping up a pimp and his top whore in a massive sushi roll, you can see that the filmmakers actually have a fair amount of respect for the medium of Kabuki and, in a truly amusing in-joke, refferences Puccini’s Madame Butterfly heavily in the soundtrack.
Despite the fact that Sgt Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. wasn’t embraced anywhere near as fully as the Toxic Avenger, that hasn’t stopped him becoming rather a large mainstay in Troma’s media presence with the character (with a different actor under the makeup) hosting interviews for their YouTube channel and having a substantial role in the fourth Toxie movie – talk about getting your money’s worth from a character that honestly isn’t that funny.
Still, if nothing else, you can’t claim to have seen much else like it and it accurately follows the beats established by many other superhero origin stories to the letter, but there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s trapped between being too Troma and not Troma enough leaving it’s audience troma-tized for the wrong frustrating reasons.