Yellow Fangs/リメインズ 美しき勇者たち

yellowfangs

Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki Yusha- tachi, 1990

It’s ironic that the very film which commemorated the 20th anniversary of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba’s JAC (Japan Action Club) stunt team was the same one that financially ruined the man and forced him to sell up. Chiba’s directorial debut, Rimeinzu: Utsukushiki Yusha- tachi [Remains: The Beautiful Heroes], hit Japanese theatres in 1990, failing miserably, despite having a well respected man behind the lens, a solid cast and some remarkably high production values. Chiba’s self-funded project, in which he collaborated with Kinji Fukasaku, was based upon a real-life event which took place in 1915 Hokkaido, which became known as the ‘Tomamae Incident’. Reportedly, a bear weighing in at almost 750 lbs, took to exclusively mauling women and children over the course of two nights, before it was eventually subdued and slaughtered by local villagers.

That’s about as far as Chiba goes for historical accuracy, taking great dramatic licence to flesh out the remainder of the narrative with reflective musings and token melodrama. Yellow Fangs, as it’s known in the west, follows five hunters: highly skilled in bear-culling, who set out to kill the fabled beast whom they’ve come to nickname ‘Red Spots’. When they think they’ve found the elusive Mr. Spots high up on a mountain trail, a rival hunter interrupts and kills it without hesitation, not realising that they got the wrong bear. Before the mystery person has a chance to run off he’s spotted by one of the hunters, Eiji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who realises that it isn’t a man after all, but in fact a young woman from his past named Yuki (Mika Muramatsu). As she scarpers, Eiji stops and recollects the first moment he ever laid eyes on her, while the reason for her new guise becomes all-too-apparent over time.

It’s a shame that Yellow Fangs became known more for cursing ol’ Sonny with bad luck rather than being the respectable film it is. The most immediately grabbing thing is of course the beautiful, snowy landscape of rural Hokkaido, which equally looks as unwelcoming as the reportedly difficult and expensive shoot attests to. The search for the bear is trepid in itself, with constant elemental threats all around. Chiba does a wonderful job of generating a steady amount of tension, thanks to some skilled framing devices, by utilising first-person perspectives to heighten panic, whether it be from the rampaging bear itself or the scared townsfolk scrambling to safety; quite impressive given the natural constraints of not being able to capture the required footage quite so authentically. Lead actor Hiroyuki Sanada also shows his combined talent for music, chiming in with a suitable score; though at times the impromptu guitar-synth cues feels as if they belong in a Rocky montage, Sanada throws in some haunting pipes and percussion to underpin emotions and help maintain a certain amount of uncertainty throughout. Such understanding of visual and audio aids do wonders for what otherwise remains a story of sparse dialogue, particularly during its first act.

It’s after this that the initial excitement of the picture wears off, as the mid-way point presents its share of pacing issues; flitting back and forth from flashbacks to present day for the best part of an hour, it tries its best in paving the way for an onslaught of sentimentality and few decent chase sequences. Central to all of this is of course the relationship shared between Eiji and the aptly named Yuki. Chiba gives us two sympathetic figures but it’s all played out fairly routinely, with the predictable nature of the pairing – and some hopeless wailing on Mika Muramatsu’s part – slowing down proceedings. In-between several semi-romantic bouts we’re also treated to popular spiritual beliefs and male posturing. Our bear-culling heroes come equipped with not just spears and rifles, but well chosen words as they lament the foreseeable end of days by stressing how their selfless acts of heroism lead to one becoming a true man. Such philosophies are rife throughout various cultures, yet despite the very real nature of how bear hunters seem to look at the world around them, you can’t help but think just how utterly ridiculous it is to brave walking up to a bear and trying to stare it down (apparently just killing it from far away won’t do). During these lengthy rounds of exposition, before the film “re-encounters” for the final stretch, the director also finds time to tap into social fears. Not only is the bear itself a symbol of terror – and a god-like beast we later learn – but so too is humankind under the inevitable threat of change. Chiba does well to work in his eco-commentary, which warns of man destroying nature through his own greed via a subplot involving mining, just as he does in touching upon the inequalities of men and women in the work force, but frankly it’s nothing that hasn’t been spoken of before, better or otherwise, despite how admirably his cast take to the serious challenge.

All interest in the film returns once it gets back down to serious business, and by that I mean bear fighting! The final fifteen minutes is terrifically staged, as Eiji and Yuki are pitted against their grizzly foe in a small, abandoned house. Chiba and cinematographer Saburo Fujiwara’s camerawork is astonishingly good in lending an epic feel to such an intimate setting. The pacing is fierce as the tension ratchets, seeing the beast attack from all angles as the walls collapse around our protagonists. It’s pure survival horror by this point, and coupled with Muramatsu’s half-nakedness (though momentarily amusing choreography) and Koichi Sonoi’s remarkable editing – which does its best to hide the fact that the bear is in fact a man in a suit – it makes for a truly memorable piece of cinema. A great shame indeed that a man of Chiba’s talent wasn’t afforded many more chances to show just how capable he is in the hot seat.

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Yo-Yo Girl Cop/スケバン刑事 コードネーム=麻宮サキ

yoyogirlcop

Sukeban deka: Kôdo nêmu = Asamiya Saki, 2006

Sukeban Deka – roughly translated from slang as “Delinquent Girl Detective” – is based on yet another popular manga series, this time taking its cue from Shinji Wada’s 1976-1982 run, as featured in Flowers & Dreams publications [Hana to Yume]. The success of Wada’s comics paved the way for a television series in 1985, which lasted for three years and originally starred teen idol Yuki Saito as the title’s lead heroine, Saki Asamiya (look out for Saito playing Saki’s mother in this 2006 update). In fact part of Sukeban Deka’s legacy on film is that it has used teen idols (primarily singers) of the time to take on the role of its central protagonist. One year into the television series’ run, actress/singer Yoko Minamino replaced Miss Saito and thus helped to steer Sukeban Deka’s second series into movie territory in 1987, with the simply titled Sukeban Deka: The Movie. By the time that the television series had headed into its third year, Yui Asaka had been placed in a central role, not as Saki Asamiya this time, but Yui Kazama. Its continued popularity with Asaka saw it spawn a second film with Sukeban Deka the Movie II: Revenge of the Three Kazama Sisters. Things dramatically slowed down after this and Shinji Wada’s teenaged figure of justice only saw a two-part OAV from Toei, released 1990-91. Then the series disappeared for thirteen years, before the original manga stories saw a reprint back home.

However, with once famed comic creations enjoying a renaissance in recent years, such as Cutey Honey, Tetsujin 28, Astro Boy, Zero Woman and even Shigeru Mizuki’s Yokai monsters, it seemed appropriate, or rather inevitable, that Toei would revisit another one of its hot properties, now on the verge of facing its thirty year anniversary. Sukeban Deka: Code Name = Asamiya Saki, then, is the latest attempt at bringing Shinji Wada’s work to life for a new generation. Labelled internationally as the catchy Yo-Yo Girl Cop, it stars Hello! Project alumni Aya Matsuura as the sailor-suit clad, yo-yo swinging super-detective high school student!

Organization K is an elite sect which specially trains underage agents in order for them to infiltrate high schools and get the low-down on any dubious activities taking place on the grounds. Their previous agent (played by Masae Ohtani from Hello! Project’s Melon Kinenbi) was killed in action whilst investigating a mysterious viral website known as ‘Enola Gay’, which purports to supply information ranging from bomb-making to suicides. The head of Organization K is Kira Kazutoshi (Riki Takeuchi), who must now find a replacement – and fast. When a former agent of his ends up facing a prison term for breaking immigration laws, he finds the perfect opportunity to exploit the situation. Enter a young woman (Aya Matsuura), also known only as K, arrested on the streets of New York and personally delivered by the police to Kira’s base. Kira presents the case to the girl, who is herself facing charges of violent assault. It turns out that the woman being held in police custody is her mother (Yuki Saito), who is to stand trial in three days. If her daughter wishes to see her free then she’s going to have to accept Kira’s mission: to enter a high school under the name of Saki Asamiya and weed out the masterminds behind Enola Gay. Begrudgingly she accepts.

Upon arrival Saki manages to have a run-in with the popular snobby girl Reika (Rika Ishikawa), befriend a bullied girl by the name of Tae (Yui Okada) and learn of some strange goings on with regards to the school chemistry club. Rather conveniently it’s a race against time, with a 72 hour countdown taking place on the Enola Gay website. Who is behind this mysterious campaign and why are they so hell-bent on making bombs? Only Saki Asamiya, armed with her trusty yo-yo can save the day….which we all know she will of course.

Yo-yo Girl Cop: now there’s a title that says “Hey! Let’s have fun watching schoolgirls get dirty with yo-yos for 90 minutes”. To an extent we do get a little of that: two attractive, dressed down – so to speak – J-pop artists (Rika Ishikawa also belonging to the Hello! Project) locking limbs and exchanging blows. Yo-Yo Girl Cop doesn’t remotely shy away from offering a little fan service, then, but its achilles heel is that it takes some of the fun elements from its precursors and places them into a narrative that’s perhaps played a little too seriously for its own good.

Kenta Fukasaku has been something of a one-hit wonder, leaving his mark only with a good screenplay in 2000’s Battle Royale. After his father Kenji Fukasaku passed away in 2003 he took over the directing reigns and finished its sequel Battle Royale: Requiem (for which he also wrote), to much critical disdain, proving that there can indeed be too much of a good thing. 2005 saw him tackle a straighter drama with Under the Same Moon, but again it looked to be a fruitless endeavour. Yo-Yo Girl Cop has Fukasaku go back to what he presumes he knows best and as such his offering is one of relevant concern. Much like the Battle Royale films, Yo-Yo Girl Cop harbours a cynical streak, whereby it examins the lives of dejected high-school teens belonging to a system governed by adults who can’t possibly understand what they’re going through – or so we’re led to believe. Suicide and bullying go hand-in-hand without vigilant watch and the younger generation feel that only they can solve their immediate problems by themselves, while their peers carry on with their business in total oblivion or out of sheer ignorance. Indeed it’s all rather worrying and even here the events of WWII Hiroshima is once again dug up to counterpoint our criminals’ perfect ideals, that violence is the only way to bring attention to the world. While the intent is to pitch a tale of anti-violence in general, Yo-Yo Girl Cop is nonetheless one which sees the goodies take out the baddies by playing them at their own game. Surely though we just want brainless entertainment here?

The Sukeban Deka series rarely deviates from its initial premise. The idea behind it is that Saki Asamiya stays undercover at a school so that she can filter out the ruffians. In some respects Western fans may be able to relate similarly to the early nineties Johnny Depp series 21 Jump Street, whereby youthful looking officers were sent undercover for similar tasks, with the emphasis being that they could therefore infiltrate and relate to the victims with minimum fuss. Indeed, the storyline here is rather grand and blown totally out of proportion, which is befitting of most action comics, anime or films in general. If only it actually offered a lot more bang for buck, though. With a sleek run time of 100 minutes, Fukasaku finds himself doing a lot of juggling throughout, addressing obvious social concerns, while trying to flesh out his characters in an appropriate enough manner – and that’s before he even really tackles the action side of things. Yo-Yo Girl Cop’s action sequences are sporadically staged and are kept brief, employing Michael Bay school-of-editing techniques and featuring a minutiae of comical gestures.

More disappointedly is that for a franchise which rides on such a whacky gimmick, there isn’t a great deal of yo-yo fighting on display. Saki is set up here as being useless with a yo-yo, which certainly pays off in terms of the aforementioned humour strewn throughout various intervals, but it gives little leeway toward us seeing any memorable turns of event; employing CG effects on a number of occasions leaves few desired moments, as there’s a shockingly short supply of imagination on display, despite such technical freedom. Moreover, the fact that Takahiko Hasegawa – a two-time national champion – provided his talents as an instructor for Matsuura and Ishikawa, makes us wonder just what on earth was going on behind the set. Granted, both girls are not trained fighters, nor yo-yo masters for that matter, but you’d expect a bit more under the given circumstances, especially seeing that Tarantino delivered a masterful sequence featuring an equally unskilled Chiaki Kuriyama in a similar vein for Kill Bill – Vol.1, which leaves us to ponder how Fukasaku’s film might have benefited had he a more intense action choreographer and relied less on covering up his stars’ lack of fighting prowess via other means. That said, both girls do a remarkable enough job of getting physically involved throughout the various setpieces, but of the two Ishikawa most certainly comes off the better as the villain of the piece, showing at least some sort of knack for what she’s doing. The final act, though derivative in its own right, is handled nicely enough however: we’ve a huge warehouse showdown, complete with teens brandishing automatic weapons, while two now skimpy-clad schoolgirls (the general rule being applied that our heroes and villains must dress in figure-revealing costumes for the ultimate showdown) go at it hell for leather. That alone saves Yo-Yo Girl Cop from being an almost pointless exercise.

But you’ve got to hand it to the stars; they acquit themselves very well. You can sense that Riki Takeuchi understands the silliness of it all, what with his usual over-the-top, larger than life manner, as he drags his leg around, whilst keeping the gurning slightly toned down for a change. To be fair though his character is an essential part of the plot and he manages to handle the fatherly figure of Kazutoshi with enough empathy and charm for us to buy into, which at least strays somewhat from his familiar gangster types. The star though, Aya Matsuura, is particularly impressive given the range of emotions she must deal with. Saki is every bit as much a victim as the students she sets out to protect and Matsuura does well to balance this, alongside her violent streak and piercing stare. And yes, of course she scrubs up nicely in her biker/sailor suit as well. As does fellow singer Rika Ishikawa (Hello! Project’s v-u-den), whose role in the film is ridiculously signposted, but she carries the role out with aplomb and relishes the opportunity to threaten Matsuura’s character, before kitting herself out with fetishist PVC garments. Shunsuke Kobozuka makes for an average villain, being fairly underused in playing a character with an underdeveloped motive, while Yui Okada (also from v-u-den) is effective enough as Saki’s tormented friend Tae, although she has to be one of the most ridiculously naïve people on the planet when it comes to the final act. And while I’m at it, just what the hell is it with the bloody Hello! Project’s involvement here anyway? Even v-u-den’s Erika Miyoshi has a part. That accounts for the entire group!

For the curious amongst you, the Hello! Project is some Japanese pop-music creation bent on world domination. Harvesting girls from all over Japan, from pre-pubescent teens to adults who can’t quite make it as solo artists, it’s collectively amassed no fewer than thirty sub-groups, which includes those that are currently inactive. Many of its artists have since gone on to successful solo singing careers and some have dropped into relative obscurity. Personally I don’t mind a bit of Morning Musume with my “Morning Coffee” though.

It’s perhaps not the finest compliment to say that Kenta Fukasaku’s Yo-Yo Girl Cop is his best feature to date. After all it’s fairly consistent at checking off the usual boxes, while being a bit haphazard and a little more demanding than it should be. In addition it almost feels like an advertisement for the Hello! Project, so make of that what you will; at least you know you are getting attractive girls who sometimes fight in short skirts, but then you also get a few who mope about and do sod all. Given that it goes some way toward fleshing out its characters with some workable twists and fine performances, while offering some entertaining action in spots, it deserves a little praise, and I certainly wouldn’t scoff at a sequel under the guidance of a far more assured director. Should Fukasaku return I can only urge him to dial it down a notch and dispense with the self-importance and remember that films starring yo-yo-swinging girl cops should above all ese be fun.

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Chanbara Striptease/おっぱいチャンバラ

chanbarastriptease.jpg

Oppai Chanbara, 2008

Take three hot AV Idols, throw them in period attire and have them flash their boobies in the heat of battle, and you pretty much have the recipe for Chanbara Striptease, from the producers of zombie bore-fest Chanbara Beauty. Actually I lied, Sasa Handa in tertiary support doesn’t even get her kit off here, which kind of brings into question what she’s doing in the film in the first place. It’s not for her acting!

Akira Hirose’s Chanbara Striptease (a.k.a. the more direct Oppai Chanbara) is a fairly pedestrian motion picture, in which a young woman (played by Ryo Akanishi) is transported 300 years into the past, only to discover the origins of the martial art that her mother had handed down to her shortly before passing away. At 65 minutes in length it does its job: we’ve a melodramatic fish out of water scenario centred on a lovelorn young man and a perky heroine; some over-the-top ninja antics led by a sultry Ruru Anoa, and unintentionally humorous sex scenes. Oh, and to reiterate, the frequently gratuitous bearing of magical breasts. That’s all you lot care about anyway isn’t it? Tits.

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Blind Woman’s Curse/怪談昇り竜

blindwomanscurse

Kaidan nobori ryû, 1970

At the end of the sixties, during which time Daiei and Nikkatsu studios were facing somewhat financial difficulties, thanks to poor box office attendance, Teruo Ishii was enjoying freelance reign after a string of hits with Toei. As Nikkatsu moved ever-closer to focusing primarily on Roman Porno flicks, they sought Ishii’s services in the hopes that he’d direct their ‘Rising Dragon’ series, which belonged to the female yakuza sub-genre. Unpreventable commitments elsewhere meant that Ishii could only devote time to two of the three features, the first two of which starred Hiroko Ogi: he would direct The Rising Dragon’s Iron Flesh (Nobori ryu Tekkahada, 1969), while assistant director to Seijun Suzuki, Masami Kuzuo, helmed its follow-up The Rising Dragon’s Skin Exposed (Nobori ryu yawa hada Kaicho). By the time that Rising Dragon Ghost Story (or Blind Woman’s Curse as its become synonymously known in the west) came around, Ogi had moved on to another venture. Nikkatsu and Daiei were beginning to form new strategies, in a bid to secure the box office once again, which happened to involve pooling their resources in looking for promising new acting talent. Enter Meiko Kaji, whose distinctive looks and physicality earned her her first major film role. Teruo Ishii, armed with Miss Kaji, a script co-written by soon-to-be Roman Porno extraordinaire Chusei Sone and the eager blessing of their studio, thus developed what was to be one of the most unusual melding of genres ever seen: a ghostly macabre yakuza tale, which has since gone on to become a cult classic.

The film follows Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), who is second in line to take over the Tachibana clan. One rainy night, Akemi and her men are involved in a fierce battle with a rival gang, during which time a young woman intervenes, but whose face meets the tip of Akemi’s blade. As the woman lies on the ground in agony a black cat proceeds to lick her wounded eyes, signifying the beginning of a karmic haunting for young Akemi. Soon after the street brawl Akemi is sentenced to three years in prison and upon finishing her term she re-enters the world with a new philosophy on life. Joining up with her clan she learns that it too has re-evaluated its standing, with its elder Ojiki even wanted to disband it and live out the rest of his years running a small restaurant.

With the Tachibana clan now in a much humbled state a gang boss by the name of Dobashi (Toru Abe) seeks to exploit their weaknesses. It turns out that he has a mole placed in the Tachibana clan, whose job it is to make sure that the Tachibana’s go to war with another rival gang, led by Aozora (Ryuhei Uchida). Once these two go head to head Dobashi can clean up the pieces and rule the town for himself. But Akemi no longer wishes to fight, and hopes that she can mediate in a more effective manner, making Dobashi’s plan all the more desperate. When a travelling circus comes into town things soon turn upside down with the arrival of a mysterious blind woman and the deaths of Akemi’s loyal friends. A series of spooky encounters draws Akemi ever closer to facing her fears and dealing with past sins in Teruo Ishii’s bizarre tale of revenge and redemption.

Blind Woman’s Curse initially bares all the hallmarks of a fairly formulaic ninkyo yakuza tale, with director Ishii moving as usual at a quick pace, establishing our characters swiftly and then formulating a plot filled with false loyalties and seedy orchestrators. Indeed, most of the first half of the film is an assured splicing of quirky humour and melodrama, with glorified battles of honour, as well as exchanges of disparaging dialogue between rival clans, who seek to usurp one another. As the film passes the thirty minute mark, however, it becomes something else entirely; quite literally Teruo Ishii turns it into a freakish house of horrors, whereby a crazy athletic hunchback (played by Tatsumi Hijikata, who one year prior starred in Ishii’s Horror of the Malformed Men) leads the film into a far more decadent territory of sex and murderous intrigue. Ishii ushers in a series of incredibly cheesy, though fun special effects, which, along with his stylised compositions, allows proceedings to take on the surreal form that he was always so fondly remembered for. Seeking to weave a thread of uncertain horror, peppered with light scares, the film’s symbolic notion of inevitable retribution wrapped in a little Bakeneko superstition carries it through a deliberately paced and foreboding middle act, as it builds toward its inevitable crescendo: a strikingly staged showdown within a desolate town between Akemi and the eponymous woman of the title.

Despite the sheer predictability of the central storyline, in which the heavily signposted arrival of the title’s mystery blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) signals a strong tie with Akemi – and Ishii’s futile efforts to try and conceal the big twist for as long as possible – Blind Woman’s Curse is elevated further thanks to its commendably strong cast. Kaji, making her debut appearance is quite impressive. Granted she’s no show-stopper, but as a precursor to the kinds of laid back and quieter characters she’d take on at Toei in the early seventies, her presence is a curious one for completeists alone. There are, however, lengthy durations in which Miss Kaji is absent, making way for a host of wonderfully colourful and over-the-top tertiary support, who happily prance around the intimate and surreally-lit environment of quaint houses and opium dens, complete with their obligatory fill of naked ladies and more-than-corrupt gang bosses. When paired with Ishii’s trademark bouts of fitting humour as well, it’s enough to ensure that Blind Woman’s Curse remains as ridiculously fun as it is totally absurd, right through to its very end.

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Battle Girl/バトルガール

battlegirl

Batoru Garu, 1991

When a meteor crashes into Japan, creating an unexplainable force field within the heart of Tokyo, the Ground Self-Defence Force, led by Captain Fujioka (Pink Eiga veteran Shiro Shimomoto) places a blockade around the city as they declare martial law. Shrouded in darkness, its citizens have little place to go, nor viable means to survive, with the immediate closure of all services and an escalation in violent crime. Unfortunately the meteor’s landing seems to have brought even bigger issues: a virus capable of raising the dead and turning them into dim-witted cannibals.

Enter K-Ko (Cutie Suzuki): a young woman working for a vague organization, which has asked her to help find survivors and fend off the zombie horde because she’s the best of the best of the best – in whatever it is she does. Armed only with the latest in battle-suit technology, K-Ko must save Tokyo and take down a very bad man with only one goal in mind. I’ll leave you to guess what that is.

Kazuo Komizu began his career at the tail-end of the 1960s as a screenwriter for the rising Pink Cinema scene, making his debut as a co-author on Koji Wakamatsu’s Go Go, Second Time Virgin. It was one of very few films in Komizu’s career which would make it onto DVD in the west in an official capacity over a decade ago: a dark coming-of-age tale of sexual exploration and abuse. Komizu and Wakamatsu would continue working together for a couple more features, allowing Komizu to explore other avenues as an Assistant Director. He would subsequently go on to work with other esteemed directors, such as Pink Cinema greats Masaru Konuma and Mamoru Watanabe; experiences that would prove especially fruitful throughout the eighties with Komizu gaining more immediate recognition thanks to a number of self-penned “erotic” horrors (“erotic” being applied very loosely I might add). Shortly after the notorious Female Market he made his directorial debut with Guts of a Virgin in 1986. Like many others that featured his involvement, it was bootlegged for quite some time, until U.S. label Synapse issued it and one of its two follow-ups several years ago. Continuing to show its appreciation for the director’s work, the company put forth his 1991 V-Cinema outing: Battle Girl.

It’s a slight departure for Kazuo Komizu. Nowhere near as violently graphic, nor sexually depraved as his earlier features, the director takes a different step in his career with a feature that despite its unrated certificate here, is largely an inoffensive and lightweight affair, with not a great deal to even warrant parents shielding it from young prying eyes. It’s the director at his most sedate, helming a science fiction horror with all the enthusiasm of a cat on its way to the vet.

It’s not long before Battle Girl’s influences start to seem apparent, coming across as a bit of a pastiche of U.S. cult action/SF cinema and Japanese comics. From George Romero and John Carpenter to Mamoru Oshii, Komizu’s feature, with its representations of social decay, comfortably nestles itself within the Cyberpunk genre; its dystopian visions and socio-political commentary lending themselves to a rather typical scenario involving national isolation and the fight for independency. Having a considerably lower budget and lacking the necessary visual flair, however, Komizu doesn’t exactly reach any remarkable highs. Instead the film is overly content in rallying off bouts of convoluted techno-babble to make as much use of its sci-fi trappings as possible, much to the distilling of an already short run time and the opening of a few plot concerns as the narrative forgoes more of the important characterization that it alludes to early on.

But throughout these 74 minutes Battle Girl does have its moments and at least shows it for being just as ridiculous as Komizu’s earlier efforts behind the lens. While its fairly invariable appearance doesn’t make for any real excitement, it tends to deliver the goods in an unintentionally humorous manner, both in the acting and action departments. The fight sequences, largely carried out by Cutie Suzuki – wearing a non-flattering bin liner of a battle suit – and fellow pro-wrestlers Devil Masami, Eagle Sawai and Shinobu Kandori, are rather surprisingly poorly choreographed: nothing more than slowly performed exchanges of blows, accompanied by cartoon sound effects, which do well to raise a few smiles, albeit at the expense of stripping away any tension that the director is trying to build. With its added explosions, perpetual smoke and unusual smatterings of green blood, Battle Girl isn’t particularly original by any means, but it’s nonetheless a functional time-waster for those who may yet to tire of, well, cute chicks fighting zombies.

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Robo-geisha/ロボゲイシャ

robogeisha.jpg

Robo-geisha, 2009

“A new type of girls movie, with tears and laughter!”, announces the trailer, which then promptly goes on to boast 70,000 Youtube viewings for the original teaser.

You see, Noboru Iguchi has been afforded quite a luxury; his movies don’t require obscene amounts of money pumped into their advertising campaigns – The Machine Girl having earned him instant cult status amongst internet crowds, and with it the assumption that everything he touches must subsequently turn to gold. That doesn’t guarantee huge box-office success, however, as back home they tend to receive very limited theatrical runs and live or die by their DVD sales. Western Asian cinema fans have certainly taken quite a shine to the works of both he and his visual effects partner Yoshihiro Nishimura over the past couple of years, and time will only tell just how long they’ll continue to ride the bloody wave of success.

Robo-Geisha tells the story of orphaned sisters Yoshie (Aya Kiguchi) and Kikue (Hitomi Hasebe). Kikue is in the throws of Maiko training, while her younger sister and general dogsbody can only dream of attaining such a rank. Day in and day out Yoshie is bullied by her sister, until one day a client of Kikue’s takes a shine to her. He just so happens to be Hikaru Kageno (Takumi Saitoh), who with his father (Taro Shigaki), runs super military weapons manufacturer ‘Kageno Steel’.

Whisking the pair away to a big ol’ castle, it is soon revealed that Kageno Steel has been hatching a dastardly plot to kidnap young trainee Geishas, weaponizing their bodies and brainwashing them into becoming the ultimate assassins. In the eyes of Hikaru, Yoshie shows the most potential, but she’s soon forced to make a difficult decision; one which will affect her better moral judgement and forever change her life.

Robo-geisha enjoys a distinctly snazzier appearance over that of its elder sister; shot in lush Hi-definition and bursting with colour and exaggerated performances, one can’t help but be reminded of the many manga-like J-Dramas currently doing the rounds. In fact the story itself is so befitting of any number of Japanese social melodramas that in some respects Iguchi’s script could be touted as lazy. However, like The Machine Girl, his film appears to have an intent of lampooning the conventions readily associated within the genre. At the heart of Robo-geisha therein lies a simple tale of a sibling rivalry, replete with an excess of overripe sentiments through which an epic struggle between two girls seeking acceptance unfolds. Much of the feature’s first half deals with domestic violence and unspoken affection in the run up to our protagonist’s transformation; Yoshie is a rather doughy-eyed figure, dressed down so as not to greatly reveal her all-too-evident beauty and portrayed thusly as the caring underdog of the piece, while her elder sister stands as the epitome of superficiality and selfishness.

The contrasting personalities of the two girls makes for an interesting dynamic set against the backdrop of a Geisha house and thanks to a few bouts of role-reversing Iguchi manages to bypass some otherwise predictable routes, even if it does happen to offset the pacing somewhat. The director also finds a moment to take a stab at mass corporate consumption, with his antagonistic suits vying for world domination, while the little people suffer by its hands. Enter an elderly band of disgruntled parental figures – led by a sorely wasted Naoto Takenaka – and the battle between two generations isn’t entirely without relevancy when we begin to see the communication barriers between families and foes take rise.  However, any intended satire this time around lacks the necessary bite, with many of the gags that creep in amidst some lengthy dialogue failing to even raise a smirk, thus inevitability setting an uneven tone for a film of such mixed emotions.

Lifting it out of the doldrums and combating such genre conventions is the overblown CG aesthetics, which, like The Machine Girl, aren’t so much jaw-dropping in their technical prowess as they are absurd and vividly imaginative. As the feature hits its stride midway, Iguchi aggressively culls from obvious sources and allows his work to open up and take on a new lease of life. Yes the Robocop references are here, right down to a homage of the film’s central theme tune, while nods to Kaiju cinema are as hokey as to be expected. The blood-letting is mild, with many practical effects sidelined in favour of animated sprays, overall giving effects guru Yoshihiro Nishimura – who even makes a spirited cameo appearance – few chances to leave a mark. Up-skirt shots, some interesting prosthetic gags – including yet more death-by-food obsessions – and an assortment of weapons strategically placed in various orifices sees Iguchi and Nishimura as the men-children they obviously are: hopelessly immature but uncompromising in their own personal amusement nonetheless.

And, as with the gentlemen’s previous features, Robo-Geisha is not only filled with familiar supporting faces, but also places stars from the adult entertainment world at its forefront. Iguchi, who originally carved a career out of producing AV features, casts Gravure idol Aya Kiguchi in the starring role, alongside a devilishly fun Hitomi Hasebe, with what looks to be Hasebe’s swan song, given her recent announcement that she’s to quit the industry. AV Idol Asami Sugiura and Cay Izumi (head of Gothic-Lolita pole-dancing troupe ‘Tokyo Delores’) make up the curious duo of the Tengun sisters, which certainly leaves no shortage of curves and jiggles to get us through some of the lesser moments.

Give him his dues, Noboru Iguchi’s Robo-geisha is an often visual treat, but a compromised one at that, eschewing much of the rampant gore that its predecessor lapped up, all at the behest of a studio this time hoping to appeal to the pre-teen market and above. Don’t let the UK 18 certificate fool you too much; while the skimpy outfits, lactating acid breasts and occasional CG blood-letting might leave cause for concern – even for its own country, more often tolerant of fantasy violence – this is ultimately a light affair, offering little by way of innovation in comparison to the film which made Iguchi’s name.

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Party 7

party7

Party 7, 2000

Miki (Masatoshi Nagase) is a small-time crook, who’s decided to abandon his fellow gangsters because he feels he no longer has a suitable future with them; taking with him a few million in yen, he flees to the relatively unknown Hotel New Mexico, located in the countryside. But his sense of security is short-lived when his travel agent, Auntie (Yoneko Matsukane), betrays his location to a string of pursuers. Soon Miki is greeted at the hotel by his former girlfriend Kana (Akemi Kobayashi), to whom he owes a considerable debt of money, while she has been tracked down by her gadget-expert fiancé Todohira (Yoshinori Okada). Things finally erupt with the arrival of Miki’s friend Sonoda (Keisuke Horibe), who has been ordered by his boss to kill Miki and bring home the money he stole. But when Sonoda learns of his own boss’ betrayal he soon begins to question himself whether or not his time is well spent with the clan.

Unbeknownst to the recently re-acquainted, the hotel is a peeping tom’s paradise, governed by the mysterious Captain Banana (Yoshio Harada), who has constructed a secret base of operations adjacent to Miki’s quarters. He’s soon joined by a young man named Okita (Tadanobu Asano): a hopelessly addicted and multiple-convicted peeping tom, who suffers from painful childhood memories and is the perfect foil for Banana’s nefarious schemes in keeping the peeping tradition alive. When Banana informs Okita that he once knew his father, the pair reach a kind of bond – but soon a series of events will dictate a very unusual outcome. Matters aren’t helped a great deal when a toy-collecting, trigger-happy assassin by the name of Wakagashi (Tatsuya Gashuin) is in hot pursuit, ready to unleash his arsenal on the unsuspecting runaways. You can be sure that at the Hotel New Mexico, nothing is quite how it seems.

Katsuhito Ishii – a graduate of television commercials and short animation – has but only a handful of feature films under his belt, but since his 1998 hit debut Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl (subsequently based upon the manga by Minetaro Mochizuki) he’s gone on to prove himself as a director who doesn’t bow easily to convention. The closest he’s ever come to making some sort of sense is with his aforementioned debut and his third feature Cha no Aji (The Taste of Tea), while as a writer his most accessible piece is without a doubt the equally mature teen angst comedy/drama Frog River (directed by Hajime Ishimine). These are films with some semblance of narrative flow, though true to form they exhibit Ishii’s natural flare for surreal visualis and cartoon-ish adventurism. Ishii’s very much a director with dozens of good ideas, pouring as many as he can into each outing by adopting his preferred method of vignette formatting, which often follows a non-linear path. In some cases it can tend to be his undoing, however, as he prioritizes oddball set-ups over sensible storytelling, which ultimately affects the pacing of his movies; it’s something which no matter how much of a fan you may be, seems to have only gotten more out of control over time. His most recent live-action work, Nice no Mori (First Contact/The Funky Forest) – an experiment stemming from Cha no Aji’s leftover budget it seems – being a staggeringly long 150 minutes’ worth of strange, incidental sketches, which simply have to be experienced, rather than discussed. This trait of his, then, tends to divide audiences by a substantial margin, and in all honesty I can see why. He’s a director for those with a lot of patience and an acquired taste in the bizarre.

Released in 2000, Party 7 – his second film – came out to fairly high expectations, with Shark Skin Man & Peach Hip Girl having been one of the highest grossing films Japanese films of 1998. It didn’t do amazing numbers though; Tohokushinsha hurriedly got it out on DVD in the same year, after a limited theatrical release, and from there it’s garnered its own little cult reputation. It’s also one of Ishii’s more difficult pieces to assess. Much like the aforementioned Nice no Mori, Party 7 doesn’t get by so much on the set-up, but rather the interaction of its characters and a winding series of events that share loose connections. There’s a feeling deep down that his stories exhibit some kind of social context and have an emotional pull to them, though his efforts to touch upon humanity in general can prove to be all but fleeting excursions, whilst the desire to present cool and quirky characters is all-too-evident. Certainly in the case of Party 7 he often comes close to delivering bouts of poignancy, but he’s all too quick to hold himself back and not tackle a particular issue or a character’s place to any large degree, which is actually quite refreshing from a certain perspective. To be perfectly honest though, the only character he ever tries to flesh out here is that of Okita, whose unhealthy perversions form the basis for several lengthy transitions, consisting of childhood flashbacks and Captain Banana’s unruly attempts at justifying his actions. Whether or not it’s Ishii’s intent to open discussions regarding the voyeuristic society we seem to be living in today is something that only he seems to know about, but the darker undercurrents lining these moments certainly provide the basis for that thought. As it stands it’s more of an ambiguous plot device which allows the populated cast to eventually come together, whereby their own flaws are each brought to light during a maddening series of exchanges as they struggle to realize just what it is exactly that they’ve managed to walk into.

The story itself does follow a basic pattern: Miki steals money from a Yakuza boss, flees to a fledging hotel in the middle of nowhere, and is then chased down by the boss’s hit-men. Once there events escalate beyond unbelievable coincidence; panic sets in and we end up with an series of unlikely mishaps, fuelled by screeching voices. Ishii’s initial approach is pleasantly sedated, though soon we see the pacing issues start to form. For instance the opening act begins with a conversation between Kanji Tsuda’s pathological desk clerk and Yoshiyuki Morishita’s goofy bellboy about an urban legend concerning a poo that fell out of the sky and impacted a small rural village just out of town. It has no purpose other than to provide a comical payoff during the film’s closing credits – which admittedly is very funny. Following on from this is a fantastically animated opening sequence, which eventually settles down, and it soon becomes clear during the following couple of scenes that this is how Party 7 is going to remain: an inconsistently bumpy ride. Ishii’s sense of humour and pacing lacks all known restraint, with the director keeping scenes going for seemingly indefinite amounts of time, many lasting 5 minutes upward and with little cutting between, thus lending a freestyle attitude as if the film was winging it. It’s certainly admirable that at least Ishii can hold our attention and make us laugh over the most mundane of conversations and sudden character outbursts. Highlights include Captain Banana’s “Top Ten Peeps”, Miki and Morishita’s wig incident and the childish bickering between Kana, Miki, Todohira and Sonoda in such a confined space, but it only goes to showcase just how much of a mash-up things really are as it eventually approaches a manic finale, filled with much confusion and killer polar bears.

Yet most of Party 7 works considerably well on account of its fun and extremely colourful cast, many of whom are regular players in Ishii’s films. Notable exceptions are Yoshio Harada as the ‘eccentric’ Capt. B; Masatoshi Nagase – effortlessly cool once more and looking like he just stepped out of Mystery Train – and the gorgeous, pouting Akemi Kobayashi who actually has little to do other than provide the eye candy in what is her debut appearance. But if we’re going to make distinctions then it’s Keisuke Horibe, previously of SSM&PHG who steals the show as the hopelessly gullible and pitiable yakuza member, duped by his own boss, who has bestowed upon him nothing but the worst clothing and accessory knock-offs in all of Japan; while Tadanobu Asano continues to avoid being pigeonholed by taking on a rather risky role in what would be the film’s most tragic character.

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