Gunslinger Girl

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“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

The Resident Evil animated films

residentevilanimeThe Milla Jovovich series are not the only films set in the Resident Evil universe. There have also been two feature-length computer animated movies: Degeneration was released in 2008, and Damnation four years later. A third, Vendetta, is scheduled to be released in Japan this spring. While made in Japan, with a Japanese director and crew, the voice cast are English-speaking. As with the novels, the stories and characters are in line with the universe of the computer games, rather than the live-action features, and tend to occupy spots in the timeline between the entries in the game series. Therefore, there’s no Alice, but the animated films contain their fair share of strong heroines and, of course, action.

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Resident Evil: Degeneration

degenerationThere’s a new EvilCorp in town, and its name is WilPharma, as we learn during the montage of news stories which opens this. In game terms, the film takes place after the events of “Resident Evil 4”, which saw the dismantling of the Umbrella Corporation. Its assets and research naturally proved too valuable to destroy, and WilPharma has taken over, with the announced goal of developing a vaccine for the troublesome T-virus. However, some dubious medical research in India leads to the company being targeted by protestors from TerraSave. It’s one such demo, at the Harvardville Airport, that kicks things off, as a plane of infected subjects crashes into the terminal, where Senator Davis is trying to avoid the protestors. TerraSave’s Claire Redfield (Court) finds herself trapped with the Senator, before they’re rescued by a team of soldiers including Angela Miller (Bailey) and Leon S. Kennedy (Mercier).

Claire goes to the WiiPharma research facility, at the invitation of researcher Frederic Downing, and discovers they have the even more lethal G-virus being studied. There is… oh, dammit, let’s just call it “quite a lot more plot”, involving WiiPharma’s efforts to sell the virus as a bioweapon to General Grande; Angela’s brother, Curtis (Smith) an ecoterrorist who deliberately injects himself with the G-virus; and the true identity of the mastermind behind it all. It’s probably too much to be crammed into 98 minutes, especially when you also have to fit in copious amounts of action. The second half, in particular, is more or less one long action sequence, with Angela and Leon trying to survive in the facility. It’s a change of focus, since Redfield was the main protagonist during the first half, becoming the guardian of a friend’s child during the attack at the airport, maybe reflecting her switch to pacifism (albeit pacifism of an oddly bad-ass kind!).

Being CG, and of a 2008 vintage, the animation is good at doing what 2008-era CG was good at, which is movement rather than emotion – as you’d probably also expect from a film produced by a video-game studio. The sequences and shots where the camera is swooping in and around the battle participants, are sometimes spectacularly good, and in general, while in motion, this is effective and exciting. Beyond the technical, its problems are more a plot which lurches from frantic action set pieces to expository lumps, and seems to rely too much on viewers being familiar with the characters and creatures from the games. But it has to be said, WiiPharma certainly seem to have a better handle on the proper use of containment mechanisms than Umbrella ever managed…

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star: Alyson Court, Paul Mercier, Laura Bailey, Roger Craig Smith

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Resident Evil: Damnation

adawong-jpgIncluded here largely for completeness, since the action heroine content likely would fall a little short of qualification on its own. Not that it’s entirely lacking, as the video at the bottom shows. But it’s definitely more a vehicle for Leon S. Kennedy (Mercer/Dorman). Which brings me to one of the odd things here: that is not a typo, it’s a double-credit for the character, because two different actors played the role, one providing the voice, the other the source for the motion-captured animation. Not sure I’ve seen that before.

Anyway, Kennedy finds himself dumped into the middle of a former Warsaw Pact satellite nation, the Eastern Slav Republic, which is being torn apart by a struggle between Government forces, under President Svetlana Belikova (Lee/Lee), and rebel groups. Both sides are making use of B.O.W’s, Bio-Organic Weapons, which have now been developed to such an extent that humans can now mind-control some of the creatures, using a parasitic organism called Plaga – albeit not without some unpleasant effects. Meanwhile Ada Wong (Taylor/Andersen) – hang on, last time I saw her, she was dying in one of the novels? – is trying to insert herself into Belikova’s circle, with her own agenda in mind. It all builds to an extended battle, pitting Leon and rebel commander, Alexander Kozachenko (Wittenberg/Earnest), along with the Lickers the latter controls, against the monstrous Tyrants fighting on behalf of Belikova.

This is particularly well done, a lengthy, escalating sequence of animated carnage, even if it does require something of a deus ex machina to show up at the end. It’s clear that animation has progressed markedly since the first movie, and this film takes full advantage of those improvements in its action scenes. For the purposes of this site, I’d really like to have seen more of Wong, whose moral ambivalence is intriguing; I reached the end, and still didn’t know on whose side she was supposed to be. [She does show up in RE: Retribution, played by Li BingBing, albeit dubbed there too]. The scene below, where she goes hand-to-hand with President Belikova, is a lot of fun – Belikova certainly counts as one of the more hard-core politicians I’ve seen! Bet she could kick Hillary Clinton’s ass…

And that is as close to politics as I’m ever going to get o

Dir: Makoto Kamiya
Star (voice): Matthew Mercer, Dave Wittenberg, Courtenay Taylor, Wendee Lee
Star (motion-capture): Kevin Dorman, David Earnest, Jolene Andersen, Melinda Lee

Kill La Kill

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“Not sure if serious…”

killlakillAfter I watched the first episode of this show, I was sure it was a delicious parody of anime shows, particular the “super-powered high-school” genre. It seemed to be taking the concepts of shows such as Sailor Moon, say, and ramping everything up to 11. The violence, in particular, is somewhere beyond Dragon Ball Z in terms of excess, except with copious additional amounts of arterial spray – though people survive far beyond the point at which any normal person would be a desiccated husk. I mean, just look at that heroine’s outfit on the right. They cannot be serious, can they? But the longer this went on… the less sure I was whether it was a parody. If it is, it’s an impressively straight-faced one.

The setting is Honnouji Academy, a Tokyo high school ruled over by Satsuki Kiryuin (Yuzuki), who runs the place as a neo-fascist regime, enforcing her will through selected pupils. Her chosen ones are enhanced by “Goku uniforms” of various levels, made from a strange substance called life fibers, which give the wearer superhuman abilities. But into this comes Ryuko Matoi (Koshimizu), a transfer student with an agenda all her own – as well as her own enhanced uniform, a sentient outfit called Senketsu (Seki), and half of a pair of giant scissors, which she starts using to take out Satsuki’s minions. For Ryuko is seeking the killer of her father, the scientist who developed Senketsu, and seems like Satsuki played a significant role in that murder.

There’s more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that just about no-one here is quite what they seem, right down to the life fibers, and by the time you reach the final episode, loyalties and alliances have gone to a completely different landscape. For something which feels like it should be shallow, tongue in cheek and certainly has copious amounts of fan service (albeit being fairly even-handed in its OTT depiction of both sexes), there’s clearly considerable effort gone into the plotting. But, let’s be honest, the main focus here is on the fights, as Ryuko first makes her way up the chain of command toward her nemesis, and then discovers the truth about what’s going on and has to recalibrate her sights. There’s hardly one of the 24 x 25-minute episodes which does not consist of at least one-third major, major animated mayhem, with Ryoko beating the tar out of one or more enemies, and taking as much damage as she receives.

As such, it does get somewhat repetitive – if you’ve seen Ryuko’s transformation sequence once, you’ve seen it several dozen times – and there isn’t much sense of escalation to the action. But it is brashly hyper-energetic, relentlessly female-driven, largely romance free and perfect for viewing in small, highly-caffeinated doses. If only I could figure out whether or not it was intended to be one big in-joke or not, I know whether or not to feel guilty about enjoying it.

Dir: Hiroyuki Imaishi
Star: Ami Koshimizu, Ryoka Yuzuki, Aya Suzaki, Toshihiko Seki

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay

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“Zombies vs. wrestlers.”

battle-girlA meteor crashes into Tokyo Bay, creating a cloud of “cosmo-amphetamine” that infects everyone in the area. When they die, that drug immediately takes over, bringing them back to life as flesh-eating zombies. Colonel Kirihara is leading the rescue mission, and sends his daughter, K-ko (Suzuki) into the contaminated zone to scope things out. She finds that one of his underling, Captain Fujioka, is using the chaos to carry out human experiments, deliberately infecting survivors with the cosmo-amphetamine, in order to turn them into an unstoppable force of undead soldiers. He’s not willing to let anyone get out alive, least of all K-ko. Fortunately, her father gave her a battle suit, which helps to even the odds against the living dead army she faces.

It’s a small-scale production, though has had more than the usual thought put into it. I appreciated, for example, the scene inserted at the beginning, to explain why the power remains on in the city, despite the unfolding disaster. The first half is nicely put together, with K-ko making her way through the city, encountering the “Battle Kids”, a bus-driving group of black marketeers, and uncovering Fujioka’s evil pans for those unfortunate enough to be inside the quarantined area. It’s less effective down the stretch, becoming not much more than a series of human vs. zombie battles, that blur into each other without much sense of escalation. It’s no spoiler to say it leads to the inevitable battle between K-ko and the soldier-scientist. Albeit, only after an unconvincing gobbet of exposition, with clumsy lines like, “If the world powers dare to wipe out our nation, we’ll counter attack with 35 meltdown-ready nuclear plants in Japan and a cosmo-amphetamine mutant army which has no fear of death.”

At the time, Suzuki was one of the biggest stars in Japanese women’s pro-wrestling, and acquits herself fairly well in the action scenes. These are blocked and shot in a similar way to puroresu, with a minimum of editing, and some of her ring rivals also show up as members of Fujioka’s “Human Hunter Unit,” including Devil Masami, Shinobu Kandori and Eagle Sawai. This explains why the combat includes moves not normally seen in hand-to-hand battles, including the tilt-a-whirl backbreaker and tombstone piledriver. It does not, however, explain the battle bikini, worn in particular by one opponent. You’ll know her when you see her. Or them, if you know what I mean and I think you do…

Overall though, time has been fairly kind to this 1991 Japanese video production. A quarter of a century later, it appears to have had a significant influence on the Resident Evil films, particularly Apocalypse. It has perhaps also benefited from the renaissance in the zombie genre over the past few years. While still unquestionably low-budget, what seemed somewhat underwhelming when I originally watched it in the late nineties, now seems quite acceptable, and maybe even ahead of its time.

Dir: Kazuo Komizu
Star: Cutie Suzuki, Kera, Keiko Yahase, Kenji Otsuki

Iron Girl: Ultimate Weapon

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“Post-apocalyptic soft-porn sci-fi soap-opera.”

irongirlHaving used my entire quota of hyphens for this review in that tag-line, what do we have here? I could remember virtually nothing about the original, even though it was only a couple of years ago we reviewed it. Seems to have ended up with the same vaguely mediocre rating though. The problem here, however, is mostly one of pacing. After a brief flurry of impressive activity at the beginning, there’s not much happening on the action front for about an hour, and what takes its place falls short of adequate entertainment.

It’s the same setting, with Japan’s technocracy having imploded, and the country now a slew of little fiefdoms, where bandits and bounty hunters roam the land. Chris (Asuka) is the latter, trying to raise enough reward money so she can buy a device that will restore her memories. She was unconscious and suffering from amnesia when found by fellow bounty-hunter Kento (Iwanaga) and his sidekick, Miriya (Kishi). Now, with the aid of her nifty cyborg suit ‘n’ sword, she’s taking out the leaders of the Sparti gang, who are less than impressed with her work. So, they lure here away from the peaceful settlement where she lives, and while she’s out, get medieval on the scientists and others who are there. This doesn’t exactly discourage Chris, obviously.

In between the opening, where she saves a brothel from harassment, and the final assault on the Sparti headquarters, there’s not much going on. You get a fair amount of Chris using her sexuality on men, then whacking them in the crotch, to the extent this begins to feel like a Japanese version of Ow! My Balls! [or a Japanese game-show; you decide] This could be a commentary on the male gaze, except the film itself is obviously extremely interested in that perspective of Asuka, as evidenced by the gratuitous shower-scene. There’s obviously some unresolved sexual tension between her and Kento, and she has her own sidekick to fend off, a lecherous guy wearing aviator goggles, who provides broad comic relief. It’s all not very interesting, unfortunately.

The action scenes do seem a little better, with Asuka making a greater impression this time – experience does matter, it seems. If there’s nothing quite as memorable as the opening fight, where she traps an opponent’s sword with her high heels(!), the film delivers some fairly decent battles in the final chunk. Chris works her way up the Sparti chain of command, until facing someone (thing?) who may be her equal in terms of technological enhancements. It’s likely no spoiler to say the film does not end with the heroine recovering her movies, instead setting things up for a third entry in the series. I guess I’ll be watching it, and imagine by the time that happens, I’ll have forgotten all about this second movie, just as much as I did the first.

Dir: Kenichi Fujiwara
Star: Kirara Asuka, Hiroaki Iwanaga, Asuka Kishi, Ryunosuke Kawai

The Sister Street Fighter series

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Sister Street Fighter
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sisterstreetfighterfI have reviewed this previously, way back at the birth of the site, as part of the Women Who Kick Butt box-set, where it was easily the best film present. However, that was in a dubbed version, and having recently got hold of a copy in the original Japanese, I thought it deserved a re-watch. I’m pleased to report it remains a supremely loopy bit of fun, fully meriting the seal of approval and deserving of its own page, However could it be otherwise, with dialogue such as the title caption above, or the unforgettable line, “I killed fifty bulls with my bare hands in South America, you know.” It’s 70’s martial arts plot #26: central character goes to look for missing relative. In this case, it’s Tina (Shihomi), whose brother, an undercover cop, vanished while looking into a Japanese drug cartel. She agrees to follow in his footsteps, and soon finds the gang, under boss Hayashi (Yamamoto), handle snoopers with extreme prejudice. As that caption suggests, they bring the merchandise in using heroin-infused wigs(!), and the eccentric boss is now keeping Tina’s brother as a plaything in his basement – presumably alongside the “men who know where they are and care, but don’t drink.”

Oh, and Hayashi also collects martial artists: “Some rich men buy race horses or keep an expensive dog as a pet. But I keep unusual humans instead of animals. It amuses me.” This includes everything from an expert in the Okinawan Kobudo, a chained sickle, through to a pack of Thai kickboxers called the “Amazon Seven.” There’s also a guy with a mohawk who shoots poisoned darts from his blowgun, and bunch of fairly ineffective minions, who walk around wearing what look kinda like ski-masks made of straw. Wisely, they remove these before going into battle, although this does make me wonder what the point is. These and more will all, at some point or other, be faced down by Tina and/or her own allies, including colleagues of her brother, Sonny Hibachi (Chiba) and Emmy Kawasaki (Hayakawa), as well as a ballet-school teacher, because everyone in Japan knows some version of karate, it appears. [I should also mention the unfortunate logo of the karate school is a swastika!] Though Tina’s most startling skill is her ability to fall hundreds of feet from a high bridge, then re-appear without the slightest explanation as to how she survived.

Yamaguchi’s directorial style appears to consist of tilting the camera semi-randomly, leading to some sequences being Everyday Etsuko Shiomis, seen from unusual angles. But he also is smart enough to stand back when appropriate, letting her and everyone else do their thing, and this is when the film earns its keep. Watching Shiomi duel with nunchakus is worth the cost of admission alone, with the rest of the fights, and the general lunatic approach, merely a bonus. Released almost exactly a year after Enter the Dragon, the debt owed to that classic is certainly clear, not least in the tiger claws wielded by Hayashi. If some performances may be on the functional side (watch the drug withdrawal scene for truly epic over-acting), it still does a better of job of repaying its debts than many other imitators of the time, being an enjoyable slab of excessive kung-fu action in its own right.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Shohei Yamamoto, May Hayakawa, Sonny Chiba

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread
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ssf2Even before the original film was released, the studio was spurred into making a swift follow-up, and the rush into production shows itself in a plot more than somewhat similar to its predecessor. Koryu Lee (Shiomi) looks for Birei, a friend from high-school, at the request of Birei’s father, after she vanishes from Hong Kong. She tracks Birei down in Japan where the girl is being used as a mule by a diamond-smuggling gang, operating under the front of a company owned by┬áKazunari Osone (Murota). They don’t take kindly to Koryu’s investigation, and send a range of thugs to stop her, which only encourages Koryu, naturally. However, turns out there’s a more personal connection, since her sister Bykuran (Mitsukawa) is working for Osone – both on her feet and her back, if you know what I mean…

Sure, it’s smuggling diamonds not drugs, and Koryu’s sister instead of her brother who is in bed with the criminals. But if you watch this back to back with the original, it’s almost going to seem like a mockbuster rather than a sequel, albeit made by much the same people. One semi-significant difference is that replacing Sonny Chiba, you have Kurata, playing a martial-arts master who joins the Osone gang with his own agenda. The opponents for our heroine are still the same selection of fighters with different talents, each introduced with a caption describing their origin. But these seem significantly more restrained than first time round, outside of the transsexual killer with her lethal fingernails.

The main problem is Yamaguchi’s direction, apparently considerably less stable than previously. It was a while ago I watched the first film, so perhaps I just didn’t notice it there, but for this entry he seems to have developed a terrible habit of moving the camera enthusiastically during Shihomi’s fight sequences. Which might have worked better, if the SteadiCam had arrived in Japanese cinema at the time of shooting. Instead, the results more closely resemble handing the camera to a amphetamine-crazed chimp, and are an unpleasant distraction, rather than providing any kind of enhancement to proceedings. It’s a blessed relief, whenever things calm long enough for viewers to appreciate the actual skill possessed by Shihomi, with her use of the nunchakus remaining a particular highlight.

The film does seem to have jacked up the exploitation aspects, with surprisingly disturbing (for the mid-seventies time) gore, in particular some eyeball violence, with what feels like more nudity as well. These are occasionally combined, such as the removal without anaesthetic of the smuggled diamonds, from the buttocks of the woman smuggling them. That’ll leave a mark. Not sure that’s necessarily a plus, since Shihomi’s wholesome and earnest intensity was one of the pleasures in the first film, making it stand out from the more common and salacious “pinky violence” cousins, that this sequel appears to be aping.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Hideo Murota, Yasuaki Kurata, Tamayo Mitsukawa

The Return of the Sister Street Fighter
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ssf3The third in the series is something of a return to form, not least because Yamaguchi goes back to holding the damn camera steady. But, really: another friend/relative has vanished into the clutches of a yakuza smuggling ring? At this point, it’s going beyond the realms of coincidence and, as Oscar Wilde (somewhat) said, now looks like carelessness. In this case, it’s cousin Shurei, though it’s not entirely clear if she is the cousin of Koryu (Shihomi) or the detective who gives our heroine her mission. The details are largely irrelevant, however. For what matters is that Koryu has not yet touched dry land after her arrival in Yokohama, accompanied by Shurei’s adorable little daughter Rika, when she is ambushed on the pier.

Having survived that, she links up with Shurei’s sister, Reika, then goes to meet “Suzy Wong”, who supposedly knows Shurei’s whereabouts. Koryu learns Shurei has become the mistress of Oh Ryu Mei (Yamamoto), “the shadow ruler of Yokohama’s Chinatown,” before Suzy becomes another in what turns out to be quite a lengthy string of dead bodies. For Mr Oh’s approach to henchmen employment is to have the potential candidates fight each other in death matches to determine who gets the four open spots as his enforcers. One of these ends up being Takeshi Kurosaki (Kurata), though if you’ve seen the second film, you will not be at all surprised to learn that he has his own agenda once more. Really, it’s like they’re not even making a token effort in terms of the script at this point.

That said, I enjoyed this one significantly more: as noted, the cinematography is less flailing, there’s no shortage of action, and there are some surreal touches (both deliberate and, I suspect, accidental) that enliven proceedings. For example, [mild spoiler] Mr Oh is wheelchair-bound, though this certainly doesn’t stop him from being wheeled around to slap under-performing minions silly. Except, at the end, he suddenly leaps from his wheelchair into battle. I guess he was just being a lazy bastard the rest of the time. In the “accidental” category, there’s the saxophone rendition of Danny Boy, which accompanies the Very Serious conversation between Koryu and Suzy, in a spectacular display of inappropriateness.

I wondered why chunks of this felt so familiar, and eventually discovered I had reviewed this previously, back in September 2008. I wasn’t as impressed at that point, awarding it only two stars at that point (though I appear to have been equally amused then by the whole Danny Boy thing). Either my tastes have changed over the intervening years, or perhaps I was influenced by watching this in close proximity to the inferior second film? But, if I ever become an evil overlord, and have a mortal enemy in my grasp, I will not stop a henchman about to kill them, with a quip such as, “The crows will feed on her by morning anyway.” That never ends well for the evil overlord…

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Yasuaki Kurata, Rinichi Yamamoto, Akane Kawasaki

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth-level Fist
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ssf5The fourth entry marked several changes, although given it was also the final one, that suggests these were not considered too successful. A new director was brought in; Ozawa is best known for The Streetfighter, starring Sonny Chiba, which inspired the spin-off series here, though this was the last of the 30-odd films in his career. Shihomi also plays a different character from the earlier movies: Kiku Nakagawa, the daughter of an upwardly-mobile kimono designer who is trying to marry her off to a salaryman. Kiku is having none of it, not when her Okinawan friend, Michi (Love), needs help. For Michi’s half-black stepbrother, Jim (Wallace), has been targeted by the drug-smugglers he has fallen in with, who are using a movie studio as a front for their activities, under its owner Fujiyama (Kawai).

This takes a long while to get going, with Kiku having precious little to do in terms of action until the final 20 minutes or so. When it does, have to say, she and Michi deliver one of the best fights of the entire series, in an extended brawl around the film lot. Until then, it’s as much social commentary as anything, with the siblings the target of prejudice for their mixed-race nature [something which also formed a significant aspect of Rika the Mixed-Blood Girl and its sequels]. This is also more explicitly feminist than its predecessors, and not only in the arranged marriage Kiku wants to avoid. When that falls through, her father tries to set her up with Detective Suji Takagi, but he’s an unrepentant chauvinist and tells Riku: “Men are attracted to a woman’s gentleness. Cooking good food for your husband and raising your children well – isn’t that what makes a woman happy?” Showing remarkable restraint, she somehow managed to avoid punching his lights out as a counter-argument.

There seems to be a bit more comedy in this one, and additionally, it seems somewhat brave of Ozawa to make a film linking a movie studio to the Yakuza, given the long-standing whispers linking Toei, the company behind this series, to organized crime in the seventies. [According to Federico Varese, “Bosses not only took a keen interest in their portrayal and demanded to pre-approve the content of movies but also encouraged the production of hagiographies about themselves and their gangs.”] Maybe that explains why it was the last movie he ever directed… While this was also the last entry in the Sister Street Fighter series, Shihomi continued acting for another decade, before marrying fellow-actor Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, marrying him and retiring from acting at the ripe old age of thirty-one. However, these four features likely remain the definitive works in her filmography, showcasing her skills, and putting them front and centre, where they belong.

Dir: Shigehiro Ozawa
Star: Etsuko Shihomi, Mitchi Love, Ken Wallace, Nobuo Kawai

Wandering Ginza Butterfly 2: She-Cat Gambler

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“Goddess of gamblers.”

wgb2Nami (Kaji) – or, to give her character’s full name here, Nami the Crimson Cherry Blossom – is still the same ice-cold, vengeful warrior as before. Though for this sequel, for some reason, she has switched to rather more traditional attire, in the shape of a kimono. She encounters Hanae, trying to escape a Yakuza sex-trafficking gang, to whom she has been sold by her father(!). Nami rescues her, subsequently wins Hanae’s freedom in a card game, and returns her to Dad. Turns out he can shed some light on Hoshiden, the man who killed Nami’s own father in a gambling spat, years earlier, and for whom she has been searching ever since. To find her target, Nami needs to embed herself deep in the murky, Ginza world of gambling and prostitution, helped by former friend Miyoko (Kagawa), now part of Hoshiden’s organization, and rival pimp, Ryu (Chiba).

This is slightly better than its predecessor, though is still hampered by too much reliance on gambling. It doesn’t help that the cards here are not the ones familiar in the West. As a result, we only know how the game is going by the reaction of the participants. Imagine watching Casino Royale with no idea of how poker works. It’s like that. When not actually gambling, things improve, and interesting to see Chiba play somewhat against type. Ryu is more stammering comic relief than the typical Chiba hero, though this dates from 1972, a couple of years before his star-making role in The Street Fighter.

As in its predecessor, this isn’t exactly action-packed. The opening confrontation, between Nami and the Yakuza gang on the bridge, looks like it’s about to explode… Right up until she pulls a gun. That’s not exactly very samurai (or geisha), is it, Ms. Kaji? From there until Nami and Ryu storm Hoshiden’s headquarters, it’s restrained, with more drama than swordplay. However, it is better at sustaining interest than part one, helped by aspects such as Ryu’s noble approach to prostitution. As he says, “We don’t force you or watch what you do. Our motto is clean, virtuous and classy,” prompting the sarcastic retort from one of his whores, “Well, you sound like Governor Minobe!” [The socialist governor of Tokyo at that time]

These elements help tide viewers over the card-playing scenes, until all sword-swinging hell finally breaks loose. This is rather at odds with some of the broad stabs at humour previously attempted. The “how to use a bidet demonstration” scene sticks in my mind there, and not exactly as an iconic sequence of comedy. It doesn’t sit easily in a storyline kicked off when a daughter is sold into sex slavery by her own father, and the ending of the series with this entry suggests the intended market was equally unimpressed.

Dir: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
Star: Meiko Kaji, Sonny Chiba, Junzaburo Ban, Yukie Kagawa

The Young Boss

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“Singing samurai swings sword.”

youngboss18 years ago, the maid to a Japanese lord had twins by him. This was, apparently, a disgrace to the family – not the affair, so much as it being twins. So it was pretended she had only given birth to one daughter, Chiyo, who was brought up as the heiress. The mother and other daughter, Yuki, were sent away and after the former died, the daughter was brought up as a sword-wielding boy, Kichisaburo, by her mother’s brother, Edoya Kichibei. However, she still has a certificate proving her birth-right, and various factions are now stirring to establish her as the “rightful” heir to the title. Or, if she’s unwilling to go along with this, the plotters will simply steal the certificate from Edoya, and use an impostor to make their claim.

Misora has a double role here, playing both princesses. Though this dates from 1958, and any interaction uses stand-ins rather than more sophisticated techniques. Not that it matters much. She was a cultural icon, best known as a singer, selling over 80 million records during and after her lifetime. This explains the several occasions on which she bursts into song here. I was quite surprised, since I do not typically expect warbling in my samurai flicks. But she was also an actress, with over 150 films to her credit, and her performance is fine here. As usual, the “woman pretending to be a man” plotline is unconvincing, though at least the haircut and costumes help sell things in this case.

It’s certainly tame by subsequent Japanese swordplay movies, no surprise given the kinder, gentler era from which this comes. In contrast to their arterial spray, no-one here dies with more than a smudge of blood on their robes. I’d rather have seen the heroine remain as Kichisaburo throughout, rather than reverting to a “princessy” look after her sister’s betrothed shows up to bring Yuki back to her ancestral home. It’s certainly a more interesting character, complete with a minion whose purpose appears to be to rabble-rouse on her behalf, like a personal ring-announce. Witness lines such as, “If you don’t know him, you must be country bumpkins! Listen up. He helps the weak, and crushes the strong. Known as a man’s man, he’s the second generation of Edoya Kichibei.” Meanwhile, in the blue corner…

The other subsidiary characters aren’t very interesting, unfortunately, and get more screen-time than they warrant. The romantic angle – Yuki falls for her sister’s betrothed – doesn’t work, and the political shenanigans of a lot of people with similar top-knots, bog proceedings down more than they enlighten or entertain. It does better when in motion, Misora proving effective with the sword. They wisely give her a style that relies much more on speed than strength, dispatching her victims in two or three swift strokes. It also ends satisfactorily, with a surprisingly poignant ending that sees the heroine step aside and return to her former life so Chiyo can be happy. And just time for one last song, naturally!

Dir: Kiyoshi Sakei
Star: Hibari Misora, Hashizo Okawa, Denjiro Okochi, Shunji Sakai

Sumo Vixens

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“Su’mo money, su’mo problems.”

sumovixensYes, it’s a thinly-disguised excuse to see topless women grappling with each other. It’s from the director of Big Tits Zombie and the charmingly-titled Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy. The budget appears to have been several thousand yen, at least. But, you know what? I didn’t mind this. There’s a sense of self-awareness here that helps defuse (though certainly not eliminate) the creepier elements. When the heroine proclaims, “People have dirty thoughts about women’s sumo, but I believe there’s something more than that,” you want to believe her. Well, at least until the lesbian canoodling starts, anyway, and you realize

Said heroine is Ruriko Sakura (Eba), whose aunt used to be a woman’s sumo champion in her day, which gives Ruriko the idea of reviving the sport. To this end, she recruits former master Szenjirou Arakami (Arase), who has just been relesed from jail for pushing a car loaded with Yakuza into a river. The women they recruit are a motley bunch at best, but Komasa (Mizutani) appears to have strayed in from a pinky violence film, so has promise. However, the Domino Group, a Yakuza-run “agency” has their eye on Ruriko and owns loans held by Arakami. A challenge match is arranged against the Domino girls, and if they win, the loans will be forgiven. If they lose, Ruriko must become their exclusive talent.

It’s the little things that keep this memorable, like the quirky characters, such as the tattooed, green-haired and pierced sumo who spends literally the entire film huffing paint thinner from a plastic bag – even for her bout, she’s like “Here, hold this” to the referee. Or Komasa’s one-eyed nemesis and former partner in a lesbian strip show, Oryu (Kudou), who I’m fairly sure is another pulp cinema tribute. Nakano also slyly subverts some of the obvious sports movie cliches. I trust I’m not spoiling this for anyone, when I tell you plucky underdog Ruriko loses her climactic match in about 0.3 seconds. I think he also takes pot-shots at cable TV – the final match is broadcast there – and its fondness for staged reaction shots.

The action is, as you’d expect, entirely woeful and the camera angles are particularly predatory, tending to focus on specific body parts to the exclusion of, say, the women’s faces. Yet the makers are clearly aware of the idiocy on view, and certainly cannot be accused of taking themselves too seriously. Ruriko somehow manages to keep her clothes on, when all about her are losing theirs, and though she has a boyfriend, he doesn’t turn up until literally the final scene. She’s goal-oriented, committed and you could make the case she’s actually a better role-model of independent womanhood than many depictions in more mainstream works. At heart, though, this could only be fully appreciated by the 16-year-old male audience, for whom it was apparently made.

Dir: Takao Nakano
Star: Eba, Arase, Kei Mizutani, Shouku Kudou