Everyone loves movie music, don’t they? That fusion of images and sound can create true cinema magic regardless of genre.
Maybe you’re old school, and love the swelling, bombastic scores of Max Steiner and Wolfgang Maria Korngold – or perhaps you’re a rocker and have King Creole or The Girl Can’t Help It constantly on your turntable. Maybe you love the swinging sixties spy vibe, and have John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Hugo Montenegro loaded into you iPod. Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai, and Mario Nascimbene have legions of fans with their sophisticated Euro sounds – are you one of them? Does John Williams theme from Jaws still send shivers up your spine?
With a bit of help from a few friends, over the next week or so, I am going to be looking at movie soundtracks – from spy films and beyond. I am going to drag out some of that old vinyl and shine a light on a few of my favourites – and hopefully serve up a few aural gems that you’ve never heard before.
Today I am joined by author, Andrez Bergen, who shares his five favourite soundtracks below.
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Inception by Hans Zimmer. Let it be known that Zimmer’s work with Terence Malick (The Thin Red Line) and Christopher Nolan (the Batman movies) were scores I loved so much I had them on repeat hundreds of times, I sampled them in my own music, and they have influenced some of my writing. He’s also done a lot of crap. The German composer’s soundtrack for Inception therefore had to be insanely good to win me over – and it did. Sad, nostalgic and rousing all at one, there’s a rough, raggedly layered quality to the work. Superb stuff.
The Third Man, by Anton Karas, who single-handedly (with his zither) scored Carol Reed’s 1947 film noir classic. Word has it the Austrian worked up to 14 hours a day for twelve weeks to produce the soundtrack, using a stringed central European instrument until then largely unknown. Definitely most memorable here is ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ — which is used as the train platform melody at Ebisu Station in Tokyo. It’s a remarkable, mesmerizing tune that conjures up images of, well, Orson Welles (in his younger days) with a smug smile as he settles back to talk cuckoo clocks. And there’s nothing better than that.
Ran, by Toru Takemitsu. I love most of the soundtrack music utilized by Akira Kurosawa, especially from Fumio Hayasaka (Drunken Angel & Seven Samurai), but for Ran (1985) he inducted Takemitsu, a man who composed music for over 100 films in 40 years. Renowned as a hands-on composer who acclimatized himself with the on-set action during filming, Takemitsu’s work on Ran is a piece of art that fully compliments the movie it defines. Most striking are the moments of absolute silence while all hell breaks loose on-screen. The “found” sounds of reality, here, are soundtrack unto themselves.
The Italian Job, by Quincy Jones. You know, I very nearly slotted in the score for the 007 film You Only Live Twice in here, which I do cherish, until I noticed that Todd Stadtman had already done so in his version of Liner Notes. So let’s look at another British production from the swinging ’60s, made two years after Sean Connery hit Japan. Instead we get Michael Caine (as Charlie Croker) waltzing around Italy, and swap Bernard Lee’s M for Noel Coward’s Mr. Bridger. But it’s the theme music — put together by the great Quincy Jones, 36 at the time – that makes this film stand out. Jones has worked with people as disparate as Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Michael Jackson, and he did the soundtracks for In Cold Blood and The Anderson Tapes. The opening credits song here, ‘On Days Like These’, with lyrics by Don Black (a regular on the James Bond movies) and vocals by Matt Monroe (From Russia With Love), is a sublime number that lulls the senses — cue suave gent in wraparound shades and a cigarette in his mitt, heading out for a Sunday drive along a scenic mountain route. That is, until he heads into a tunnel and collides with a carefully placed Mafia tractor. Later on, after a successful, often hilarious bank heist, the film winds up with the bus hooning around corners and mountainous cliffs to the dulcet tones of the Cockney-inspired ‘Get A Bloomin’ Move On’. Perfect bookends to a perfect movie.
Mothra, by Yuji Koseki. Again, this was a last minute decision as I originally thought to field Akira Ifukube’s rousing score for 1954’s Godzilla. But there’s something enchanting about this wildly original soundtrack put together by Koseki, otherwise most famous for composing a baseball song for Japan’s second most-popular team, the Hanshin Tigers. Probably this enchantment has much to do with vocalists The Peanuts (twin sisters Emi and Yumi Ito) who also star in the flick. Their song ‘Mosura ya Mosura’, with an extra-added Polynesian influence and the lyrical handiwork of Ishiro Honda (director of both Godzilla and Mothra), is all tribal drums and a reverberating vocal hook, making it one of the catchiest riffs to hallmark a movie.
Andrez Bergen is an expat Australian writer, journalist, DJ, photographer and ad hoc beer and saké connoisseur who’s been entrenched in Tokyo, Japan, for the past 11 years. He published the noir/sci-fi novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat in 2011 and just published his second tome, One Hundred Years of Vicissitude through Perfect Edge Books.
He’s currently working on #3, titled Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa?
Bergen has also published short stories through Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, Snubnose Press, ‘Pulp Ink 2’, Another Sky Press and Solarcide, and worked on translating and adapting the scripts for feature films by Mamoru Oshii, Kazuchika Kise and Naoyoshi Shiotani.
The Executioner II: Karate Inferno is a broad comedic caper film, with a pinch of extreme violence added at the end (which may be somewhat jarring to Western audiences). As for the ‘Karate Inferno’ promised in the title, it is more of a ‘Karate Camp Fire’. There is very little fistic mayhem in this film compared to many other Chiba films. However, if you ignore the title, and enjoy caper movies, then you’ll find this film is very entertaining.
As the film opens, Lady Sabine, a rich heiress, is preparing to exhibit her jewel collection in Tokyo. The price piece is a necklace called The Star of the Pharaoh, which is valued at one million yen. However, before the exhibition, the necklace is stolen, and Sabine’s young daughter is kidnapped. The criminals want one million yen for the necklace, and the girl.
The insurance company – through a shady intermediary named The Commissioner (Ryo Ikebe) – recruit three super crooks to steal the money back from the criminals once the exchange has been made. The super crooks are Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba), Takeshi Hayabusa (Makoto Sato), and Ichiro Sakura (Eiji Go).
The exchange goes wrong. Sabine’s daughter is rescued, however, the money and necklace remain in the hands of the criminals. As a result, the super crooks don’t get paid. Further more, Sabine deals directly with the criminals, paying an extra million yen to have the necklace returned.
Koga is not happy about being stiffed his fee, and decides to steal the necklace from Sabine. He scales the side of high-rise building, cuts through the window and steals the necklace, but only to find it is a fake. The real necklace is in a vault on the nineteenth floor, of a high-security building. The super crook team re-assembles to break into the vault – with the usual, caper film tropes in place.
As I mentioned at the top, the film, which is so light in tone for most of its running time has an extremely violent ending – with eyeballs popping from their sockets, and a liver being torn from a body.
The sexual content is playful, but puerile (in an Animal House kind of way). There are upskirt shots and leering in high-rise windows scenes. It would also appear only half of Japanese women wear panties. It should be noted that Japanese movies and television have a different concept of what is offensive and/or adult. I remember when I was a teenager, visiting Japan in the mid 1980s, and flicking on late afternoon children’s television – and discovering a delightful little animated show, where a cheeky little bird would swoop down on young ladies, and rip the girls top off with its beak – thereby exposing the lady’s breasts.
I found The Executioner II: Karate Inferno to be a great deal of fun – if somewhat uneven. Now having said all that, I must point out that I have not watched the previous film, The Executioner – which is said to be almost the reverse of this feature. It is full of violence and nudity – and light on for comedy capers. So, if you were to come to this film from The Executioner, and were expecting more of the same, I could see how this film may disappoint. After all, Chiba does have a reputation for in-your-face actioners, and Karate Inferno never really delivers on that score.
I still consider myself a Keigu Eiga novice. Over the last couple of years, I have sampled a good number of Godzilla films – not as many as I would like, only around eight – but I haven’t really branched out into the other monsters. Today I rectify that (well it’s a start) with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. As far as monsters go, Gamera, as giant turtle, isn’t really as threatening as Godzilla, or even King Kong. And although I have never seen them, the early Gamera movies are generally derided for being pretty cheesy. But this feature, Guardian of the Universe isn’t too bad at all. I enjoyed it immensely – only slightly hindered by a slow start – it is over thirty-five minutes into the film, before Gamera really makes his first appearances.
As the film begins, the Patrol Boat Nojima is escorting the freighter Kairu Maru off the Indonesian coast, heading up, back toward Japan. The Kairu Maru’s cargo, and the reason for the escort, is one ton of plutonium. All hell breaks loose, when the Maru runs aground on an atoll – the weird thing being that they were in 3000 feet of water at the time. Of course, every fears an environmental disaster of epic proportions – but thankfully the ship’s hull was not breached. But this uncharted atoll is a mystery – especially when it is discovered that that atoll is actually moving – also heading towards Japan. A young scientist named Yonemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara) joins a research team to find this atoll.
Seemingly unrelated, Professor Hirata, an ornithologist, is called to the island of Himegami, off the Japanese coast, as there have been reports of a giant bird causing havoc. But after a storm, and the disappearance of the entire population of Himegami, including the Professor – the police are called into investigate. They contact his first assistant, Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama), to pick up the pieces. She flies out to check the scene.
The island has been trashed – and the only sign of the Professor is found in (sorry folks) a giant turd. It can be assumed that the monster bird, which made the deposit, has eaten the Professor. Later Nagamine and the police venture further into the jungle interior of the island searching for the killer bird. As they wander aimlessly, it flies overhead. The bird’s size – it has a 15 metre wing span – panics the police chief who then exclaims that this job in no longer in his jurisdiction. He wants to get off the island he becomes a snack for the giant flying fiend.
But the bird is not after them. It is migrating to the Goto Archipelago, where food (people) is more abundant. Nagamine and the police follow the bird in a helicopter – and while in pursuit, she takes a photo of the creature in flight. Inadvertently, when the flash goes off, she discovers that the creature does not like bright light. But that is the least of her discoveries. As the creature circles around, they discover that there are two more of the flying killers.
Of course, these beasts aren’t birds at all – as they have no feathers, and they have fangs. They are, in fact, Gyaos, a creature that is ancient and evil.
Meanwhile Yonemori and his team, have been busy with their atoll research. They have tracked the moving atoll, and launch a team to investigate the floating, rock covered anomaly. The team land in an inflatable dinghy, and begin a search. Among the rocks they find a series of small comma shaped beads – I won’t tell you what the beads do, but I can assure you, they come into the story later. Next they find a large carved stone tablet, half buried amongst the rocks. The research team break out the picks and shovels and begin to dig it free.
Finally the tablet is free and Yonemori arranges for a helicopter to fly over from the research vessel, and airlift it out of there. But before this can happen, the tablet shatters, and the atoll begins to move once again. The rocks covering the surface of the atoll begin to crumble and fall away. Yonemori and his team and thrown from the atoll into the churning water – and there they see that the atoll is in fact a giant creature that had been encased in stone. I probably don’t need to tell you, this is Gamera.
Back at Gyaos central, Nagamine has been asked by the Japanese government to come up with a plan to capture the flying fiends. And that plan is to drive them forward, with spot lights ained at them from helicopters, towards Fukuoka Baseball Stadium which has a retractable roof. Once the creatures are driven inside, the roof will be closed, and Gyaos will be trapped. The army will then tranquilize them, and cage them.
While all this is being prepared, Yonemori returns and at monster HQ, informs everybody that they have another problem – and that is a giant sea creature heading their way – yes, Gamera. But the powers that be, are too busy with their Gyaos problem, and ignore the giant turtle that is on a collision course with the city.
Nagamine’s plan almost works. However, the tranquilizer shots are fired before the roof is fully closed and one of the Gyaos gets away. As it flies out over the sea, Gamera leaps out of the water on his hind legs. Then he proceeds to stomp through the city, causing the expected (and quite welcome, by this viewer) monster mayhem.
The question is – is Gamera a friend of the Gyaos, only in town to reek more destruction? Or is he an age old rival, and humanity’s only hope at stopping the flying forces of evil?
Gamera; Guardian of the Universe does everything a giant monster flick like this should do, and does it all pretty well. There is some CGI, but mostly it is miniatures being trashed – and that’s the way it should be – it is a part of the film’s charm. Gamera would return to save the earth one year later, in Gamera: Attack of the Legion.
Country: United States Director: mink Starring: Steven Seagal, Matthew David, Takao Osawa, Eddie George, William Atherton, Juliette Marquis Music: Stanley Clarke
Into The Sun, is another gratuitously violent spy thriller from martial artist Steven Seagal. What small enjoyment that comes from this picture is derived from the depiction of Japanese culture, particularly underworld culture. But that alone isn’t enough to lift this film above any of the other similar films that Seagal has done in the last ten years.
The movie opens in a small village in the Myanmar Jungle, within the Golden Triangle. Life appears normal in the village. The women are cooking exotic dishes; the children are playing, riding elephants, and the men are in the fields picking poppies. Apart from the villagers themselves, the small community also plays host to a ragtag army of dealers and would be drug-barons. They spend their days smoking and cursing, whilst waving around their AK47’s. Watching all this, hidden in the jungle are Travis Hunter (Steven Seagal) and his partner. They are a C.I.A. surveillance team. As they watch, a young village girl ventures into the jungle to answer nature’s call. Two armed thugs follow her in and attempt to rape her
Hunter can’t just sit there and watch the violation happen, so he breaks cover and ventilates the attackers. The other drug dealers hear the shots and swarm into the jungle firing their weapons. Hunter and his partner flee and make their way back to a pre-arranged extraction point, fighting a running battle as they go. The chopper touches down and picks them up. Just as it seems that they have made it to freedom a bullet hits Hunter’s partner in the chest. The titles roll.
After a stylised title sequence, in Japan a diplomat is assassinated at the US embassy. The head of the CIA in Japan, Block (an out of character performance by William Atherton), calls in Hunter to help out. They need Hunter because they believe the Yakuza are involved. Even though Hunter is American, he grew up on the streets of Tokyo, and is familiar with the local customs and traditions. Speaking of traditions, this film borrows one from Dirty Harry. Before Hunter is allowed to go out on the streets and solve the crime, he is partnered with a rookie agent, Sean (Matthew Davis). You’ve seen it all before, so I won’t go into the dynamics between Hunter and Sean, but suffice to say, they don’t get along.
After a bit of preliminary investigation, Hunter finds out that many of the young Yakuza are working with the Chinese Tongs. The ringleader for this merger between the two rival underworld groups is Kuroda (Takao Osawa), a slightly unhinged gangster from the Tony Montana school (or Carmonte for you traditionalists).
The film starts off promising enough, but half way through the story flounders, and we are left waiting for the climax, between Kuroda and Hunter. While we are waiting it gives Kuroda’s henchmen an opportunity to be violent and unpleasant to the other supporting characters. This is supposed to make us want to see Hunter extract retribution, but in the end, seeing him stoop to gratuitously violent methods of revenge, makes him barely any better than the villains of the piece.
I don’t think there is much point in me slagging off this movie, after all it is a Steven Seagal film. People who choose to watch his films know what they are in for, and he delivers. But as a spy film it doesn’t really stack up. It is what it is – another B-grade action film.
Country: Japan Starring: Katsuhiko Sasaki, Hiroyuki Kawase, Yutaka Hayashi, Robert Dunham, Kotaro Tomita, Wolf Otsuki, Kanta Mori, Shinji Takagi, Hideto Odachi, Tsugutoshi Komada, Kenpachiro Satsuma Writer: Jun Fukuda Director: Jun Fukuda Cinematographer: Yuzuru Aizawa Music: Riichiro Manabe Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka Original Title: Gojira tai Megaro
As a highly paid professional writer – you believe that don’t you? – I am expected to do a modicum of research before I present a film review. But there is one huge gap in my cinematic knowledge that needs to be rectified. Now don’t get angry at me – don’t throw anything at your monitor – but I have only seen three Godzilla films. Firstly, a hacked version of the original (Godzilla: King of Monsters) and Godzilla: 1985, both watched as practically a kid. Then of course, the American 1998 version – but it is probably best that we ignore that. What I am clumsily saying my knowledge base of kaiju eiga is quite poor. So taking the bit between my teeth, I ventured out of my darkened hovel, shielding my eyes from the sunlight, and made my way the largest shopping centre in the area. As I scoured the multiplex, I found (ignoring the American version once again), only one Godzilla film – Godzilla Vs Megalon.
Now I may be new to kaiju eiga but the general consensus is that the Godzilla films of Jun Fukuda from the early 1970’s are despised by many hard-core Godzilla fans. But as you have read, I am not a hard-core Godzilla fan – I am a tourist, and when watching Godzilla Vs Megalon, after a protracted opening, at the forty-five minute mark, when Godzilla arrived on the scene to battle Megalon and Gigan, shaping up like a punch-drunk prize fighter, a small tear welled up in my eye. The tear wasn’t because I had been dragged emotionally into the story or at the simple beauty of a monster taking a stand on behalf of humanity – the tear was because I thought ‘what have I been missing?’ Godzilla Vs Megalon is considered one of the worst in the series and there I was thoroughly enjoying myself as the Big G took on two bad-ass monsters. But no doubt I am preaching to the already converted. Let’s have a brief look at the story.
The film starts with another nuclear test. This pisses of the inhabitants of the underground kingdom of Seatopia. You see, Seatopia used to be a continent on the surface of the planet – it is hinted that it may have been the fabled lands of Mu or Lemoria – but an earthquake rocked the planet and sent the land to the bottom of the sea – and somehow beneath the earth. Somehow they managed to create oxygen and manufactured an artificial sun to sustain life. Now they Seatopians live in peace – well they did until us surface dwellers started nuclear testing. The tests have destroyed over a third of their land, and now they decide it’s time to strike back. They choose to send Megalon to the surface to destroy the surface dwellers.
Megalon, like most monsters, is a pretty ugly beast. He looks like a giant cockroach with two huge drills on his arms. On his head, he has a weird antenna, which looks like a five pointed star, which is turned upside down. From this antenna he can shoot energy beams. His mouth is unusual too. He seems to have four lips which roll back so he can fire, or spit out red hot cannon balls.
On the surface, a scientist, Goro Ibuki (Katsuhiko Sasaki ) has been building a robot called Jet Jaguar. Jet Jaguar is a silver robot with a pointy head who is jet propelled – he can fly. The purpose for this robot is never really explained, but the Seatopians send up a few human agents to take control of Jet Jaguar. They use Jet Jaguar almost as a homing beacon to direct Megalon to Tokyo where he can do the most damage.
With a miniature remote control Goro Ibuki takes control of Jet Jaguar once again, and tells him to fly off to Monster Island and get Godzilla. You see, in this film, Godzilla is a good guy. The Big G responds and makes his way to Japan. Meanwhile, Jet Jaguar races back to Japan, but upon his arrival, something strange has happened. He no longer responds to Goro Ibuki commands. It appears that Jet Jaguar has gone into survival mode and become sentient. No his own master, somehow – never really explained – Jet Jaguar transforms himself into a larger robot – the same size as Megalon. While waiting for Godzilla to arrive, Jet Jaguar takes on Megalon. Now the Seatopians are privy to the battle going on, up on the surface, and decide that Megalon needs a little backup. So they send Gigan up to help. Now Jet Jaguar is in an unfair two on one situation. Not only does he have to counter Megalon but also the cybernetic chicken with the buzz-saw belly, Gigan. Natually these two monsters start to give Jet Jaguar a kicking, that is until Godzilla arrives. The last third of this movie is monster fights – and for me that perfect entertainment.
According to Wikipedia, Jet Jaguar was created as the result of a contest Toho studios ran in 1972 for fans to come up with a new super robot hero for them to use. The winning entry was a drawing of a robot called Red Arone. This robot was renamed Jetto Jagā ( Jet Jaguar) and was set to star in his own film – Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon. After much deliberation, Toho decided that Jet Jaguar would not be popular enough on his own, so the film was rewritten to include Godzilla and Gigan.
All in all, I found Godzilla Vs Megalon to be an enjoyable adventure. It is slightly on the childish side – in fact it has often been labeled a kids movie. But in the end we are talking about a giant monster – and is there anything that appeals more to the cult film lover (or a child) than a man in a giant monster suit destroying miniature cities – I think not!
Zero Woman returns once again, and despite this film’s title, this would not be her final mission, just another in the long line of cheap, exploitative ‘semi-spy’ films from Japan. I say ‘semi-spy’ because Japan seldom makes straight spy films. Their operatives are usually police officers working for special ‘secret branches’ of the force. In this instance, Rei or Zero Woman if you prefer, works for Section Zero – an ultra secret division of the police force that takes on the criminals that the regular police cannot tackle.
The film opens in a nightclub and a table of shady looking types are thanking a gentleman named Mr. Ogato for his assistance in obtaining some work visas for a few men. Ogato gratefully accepts a wad of cash for his efforts. Then a gorgeous woman walks into the club, dressed in a figure-hugging white dress, with a feather boa wrapped around her shoulders and neck. This is, as you would have no doubt guessed, is Rei, Zero Woman (Naoko Iijima)
Ogato asks, “Who is the babe?”
“Your date,” she responds, and removes the feather boa, revealing a low cut top.
Tucked in her cleavage is a pistol. The table of thugs panics. She shoots one minion, and another scarpers. She then places her gun on the table in front of Ogato. It turns out he is not a gangster but a crooked cop from Division Four. Ogato reaches across the table and picks up her gun, but is too slow, as Zero Woman drops to one knee, and retrieves another pistol from her garter belt. She shoots and kills the corrupt cop.
Afterward she reports to HQ, and assigned to track down a serial killer who escaped while the police were transferring him to a maximum security prison. He tracks him down by staking out his daughter. When he returns to see her, Zero Woman confronts him. He grabs his own daughter and holds a knife to her throat. Zero Woman once again gives up her gun, but as the killer reaches for it, she produces another pistol, which she had hidden on her personage somewhere, and shoots him dead.
Next day, Zero Woman takes the serial killer’s now orphaned daughter to a special school where she will be looked after. Upon arrival, however, a press conference is going on. Yumi Ogasawara heads a charity which supports the school. Yumi also happens to be the daughter of an overprotective politician.
We find out a bit more about Yumi – in particular, her social life. When we next see her she is in a hotel room with a guy, and she asks him to torture her. We next see her bound to the bed.
Then later, we see her with a new guy. She drives him somewhere secluded and disrobes. Once again, she asks to be tortured. But this guy balks at the kinky stuff. He calls her a ‘perverted bitch’ and walks away. Still naked, she slips behind the wheel of the car, and then pursues him, finally running him down.
This vehicular homicide happened to be witnessed by Detective Oda and Zero Woman, but by the time they arrived at the scene, Yumi had driven off and disappeared. When the case is handed over , for others to investigate, rather than murder it is cited as a simple hit and run. Both Oda and Zero Woman are told that they are seeing things.
Zero Woman doesn’t take it to heart. She has been around a while, and knows that some cover up or conspiracy taking place. Oda, however, feels that justice is not being served and begins to look more deeply into the matter. Suddenly the hitmen come out of the woodwork gunning for both Oda and Zero Woman (even though she is staying away from the case).
But when Oda is killed, and a hitman comes calling on Zero Woman when she is taking a shower (a perfect opportunity for some gratuitous nudity), she realizes that she has to find out what is really going on, if she is going to survive.
This film really has very little to recommend it, and once again, like many of the other Zero Woman films, it doesn’t really feature that much espionage, in this case it is more of a story about a corrupt politician. But there is one sequence that is so bat-shit insane and surreal it almost makes the film worth viewing for this sequence alone. In the scene, Zero Woman has been captured, and rather than just killing her, the bad guys have on their payroll a malignant little dwarf named Mr. Renfield. Renfield seems to be a jailer and torturer, and it is his job to have as much twisted pleasure with his captives as he can. This involves a lot of twisted B&D scenes which I won’t outline here, and some automated binding machine. When Renfield starts humping the leg of a deformed statue, while one of his devices goes to work on Zero Woman, the film presents one of the great WTF moments. If it wasn’t for the presence of Zero Woman, I would almost suggest this scene belongs in another film.
The Zero Woman films that have been given an American release are not shown in order – not that I think that really matters. However, when watching this film, I was wondering if I had missed an episode which explains the change in the Zero Woman universe. In this film, Rei actually seems like a normal cop, and is seen and known by the other members of the police force. They may not know exactly what she does, but they know about her, which seems at odds with the films I have seen, where she operates as somewhat of an outsider.
Furthermore, if you’ll pardon this minor spoiler, it turns out that her boss, the head of Section Zero is in cahoots with the bad guys. The part that irks me is not that he turned bad, that’s a good old tried and true story device for a film like this, but that he sends off a couple of goons to finish her off. As her boss, and the controller of Section Zero, he should be totally aware of what she is capable of doing. He should send an army after her. Maybe he has not only turned bad, but turned stupid also.
This sloppy story continuity within the series, coupled with the fact that it appears that no actress has played Zero Woman twice (I may be wrong there – it’s hard to find information on some of the later films which haven’t received an international release), means that these movies are stand alone features and not really a cohesive series. There is no real intention to build on or extend the mythos of the character. These films seem to exist solely as a bit of cheap titillation with an overdose of boob, bums and blood.
Realistically Zero Woman films are exploitation pictures of the cheapest and nastiest kind. Zero Woman: Final Mission is the type of film that you really need to take a shower after watching. Not a cold shower, but a hot one, with plenty of soap, because after watching this, you are going to feel quite ‘dirty’.
Country: Japan Director: Yukio Noda Starring: Miki Sugimoto, Eiji Go, Tetsuro Tanba, Hideo Murota, Ichiro Aki Music: Daisuke Okamoto AKA: The Tigers From Osaka
The first thing you should know about this film is that it is violent and repugnant. But to me, there are two types of exploitation pictures. One that serves up its violence and leering sex in cheap and unsatisfying manner. These movies are made simply to make money and pander to an audience. Generally these films disappear of the face of the earth pretty quickly. Then there are the ones that are trying to push boundaries, or present taboo subjects in a stylish manner. These are few and far between. Japan’s cycle of Pinku Eiga or Pinky Violence films seem to straddle these two styles. The films can be incredibly stylish with some truly amazing visuals, but there is an unhealthy dose of muck-raking sleaze too.
Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs is certainly stylish. Some of the mayhem, death and destruction on display almost have a poetic touch to them – that is if you can appreciate the poetic qualities of a naked woman just being stabbed to death and falling into a bathtub, with the ensuing blood cloud encircling her body until only her face and the tips of her breasts break the surface of the blood red water. Yep, it is violent and creepy, but visually it has a certain sense of style and power.
The film opens in a nightclub, and a woman (Miki Sugimoto) in a red outfit is dancing. A foreign businessman, who has been watching appreciatively offers to buy her a drink. In fact he buys her several, because he wants to get her drunk. And it appears like he has succeeded. He takes the young woman back to his apartment. She appears to have passed out from all the alcohol. He places her on the bed, and then takes off all her clothing. Next he retrieves a suitcase, and opens it. Inside is a selection of sex toys, whips and lengths of rope. While he is selecting his implement of pleasure, the girl wakes up and bounds into action. First she checks his pockets and retrieves a passport. It says the gentleman’s name is Richard Saxon, he is from the country of Almania (obviously fictitious), and he works at the embassy.
When he returns, whip in hand, she confronts him with an envelope full of photographs. These are other girls with whom he has carried out his perverted schemes with. In two instances, the girls involved died. Saxon charges at her and attacks with the whip. She produces a set of red-handcuffs – her signature weapon – which will be used throughout the film. She throws the cuffs through the air, with one bracelet locking around a support beam and the other clasping around his neck. Gasping for breath, he reaches for a gun, but she retrieves a bright red pistol first and shoots. The bullet catches him in the groin, and a bloody geyser erupts from the towel wrapped around his waist. He then falls back into a bath-tub dead.
This mysterious woman, who is not named in the film – later on when asked, she calls herself ‘Zero’ and hence the moniker ‘Zero Woman’ is a police officer. And her murder of the diplomat from Almania is too much for the Japanese police force. Her superiors are outraged, and she finds herself arrested and sent to prison on a count of Murder. You can imagine what happens to a cop in prison. She is beaten an brutalized.
Meanwhile, a vicious criminal, Nakahara is released from Kangawara Prison after a stint in the big house. Outside his gang of misfits is waiting for him. The first thing Nakahara and his gang do, is find a young couple in a car. The pull the man out of the vehicle and knock him into tomorrow. Then they drag the girl out and brutally gang-rape her. The boy-friend regains consciousness and rushes to his girlfriends aid, only to be stabbed to death by Nakahara.
The gang bring their rape-victim, who is unconscious, back to their hideout, which happens to be a brothel run by a lady known as ‘Big Sis’. The gang members offer the girl – to be forced into prostitution – to Big Sis as payment for their lodgings. However Big Sis recognizes the girl’s face from a newspaper article. She is Kyoko Zengo, the daughter of a powerful politician. Kyoko is also engaged to be married to the President’s son. The gang change their plans. Instead they are going to demand a ransom of 30,000,000 yen for her return.
Kyoko’s father, played by legendary Tetsuro Tanba (from You Only Live Twice and countless Japanese spy television shows), is informed by the police that most likely he will never see his daughter again. He asks that police do the best that they can, but he insists that the story does not get leaked to the media. The news would destroy the wedding plans in place.
So the operation to retrieve Kyoko must be carried out in secret. Furthermore, they cannot simply capture and arrest the kidnappers – they must kill them and destroy all evidence so that the story does not come out.
The chief of police discreetly goes to the prison, and offers the job to Zero Woman. Zero Woman accepts the job, but she is not quite the person she used to be. Being sold out by her superiors and brutalized in prison has made her cold and detached. She is almost like a robot.
When the money exchange goes wrong, Zero Woman steps in and saves Nakahara from the police. Nakahara is grateful for her intervention and brings her back to the hideout. The other members of the gang are not so trusting however, and decide to test her allegiances – to see if she is a spy. By testing her, I mean they rape and humiliate her. It’s is all pretty repugnant stuff. But Zero Woman doesn’t seem affected by the abuse. As I intimated earlier, all of the brutality that Zero Woman has had to endure has enabled to switch off her emotions. However on a positive note, Zero Woman has managed to get herself inside the gang, where she can slowly pick off each of the gang members and bring Kyoko back to her father safely.
It is a massive understatement to say, that this is not a film for everyone. It is extreme in every way. Sex and violence are paraded unashamedly across the screen. Director Yukio Noda has trod this path before – that being ultra secret departments within the police force who use extreme methods – in films such as the Yakuza Deka pictures with Sonny Chiba. I guess, that it is only logical that he’d want to push the envelope as far as it could go with this type of story, and I would say he has succeeded. Chiba’s films are tough, but don’t hold a candle to the extremes on display here.
As a spy film, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs doesn’t really have too much to offer, and if you’re coming at the film as a spy film fan I’d have to say, give this one a big miss. However, if you are interested in Pinky Violence films, then this film is probably one of the premier examples in what is a pretty messed up film genre, and as perverted as this may sound, I’d have to recommend it very highly. Needless to say, this is not a film for the feint hearted.
Zero Woman would return in the 1990s in a series of shot on hi-def video features, which too are pretty beastly, but do not have the sense of style that this feature exhibits. The films are:
Original Title: Esupai Country: Japan Director: Jun Fukuda Starring: Masao Kusakari, Hiroshi Fujioka, Kaoru Yumi, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Yûzô Kayama Music: Masaaki Hirao
Every now and then I stumble upon a film that is a bit tougher to categorize and describe than most. ESPy is one such film. Firstly it is Japanese, and secondly as the title may suggest, ESPy concerns a team of secret agents who have ESP and other psychic abilities. They are like super spies. They can jam their enemies guns with a thought. They can plant other thoughts in their enemies heads. They can use telekinesis to move objects and they can hypnotize people and make them perform acts against their will. In fact, I guess if they put their mind to it, they could do anything – or at least make you think they can do anything. Which gives this film a very broad canvas on which to work.
As the film opens, the world is a pretty messed up place, and there is trouble in the European country of Baltonia. If Baltonia’s troubles boil over, then it looks like it could bring on the next world war. But there is hope. A United Nations mediation committee is on it’s way to help sort things out. The delegates of this committee are on their way to Geneva on board an express train.
Meanwhile, a a bad-ass named Tatsumi, is driving his Mercedes on a high road that overlooks the railway line. He parks his car and retrieves a sniper’s rifle. The train rushes past, but even though the blinds are drawn, and no targets can be seen, Tatsumi takes aim at a carriage. Tatsumi then uses his psychic powers – portrayed as some sort of x-ray vision to see inside the carriage. Seeing the delegates, he takes aim and fires – shooting each one of them in turn – right between the eyes.
As you have no doubt guessed, Tatsumi is a bad guy, and he works for an evil organization called – wait for it – ‘Anti-ESPY’. Anti-ESPY, who are also psychics, are dedicated to taking over the world and killing all the ordinary people – because they (we) are a sub-species.
Next we meet race-car driver, Miki Jiro, (Masao Kusakari) and he is fangin’ around a test track. As he rounds a bend, he sees three pigeons on the track. Rather than run them down, he turns the wheel sharply and spins out of control. Just as his car is about to hit the barriers, he uses his psychic powers to move the car backward out of harm’s way. But Miki is being watched, and later he is collected by some mysterious people and taken to the W.P.P.O (International Polution Research Centre – it seems to lose something in translational there!). Miki is introduced to Chief Hojo – but doesn’t understand how he can help with pollution. Hojo explains that the pollution thing is just a cover – they are really the International Psychic Power Group and they work for the United Nations (and are known as ESPY). I guess in today’s world, suggesting that an anti-pollution organization is just a front for an intelligence organization would be seen as ‘bad show’. Imagine if Greenpeace weren’t actually concerned with environmental issues and were really a front for a group of super-psychics!
Anyway, Miki is recruited to ESPY, and his first mission is to assist in the protection of the Baltonian Prime Minister. After the assassination of the U.N. Delegates, the Baltonian Prime Minister has agreed to meet with the US President in Japan to sort out a peace plan. It is assumed – correctly I might add – that Anti-ESPY will make an attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
Miki is introduced to the rest of the ESPY team – but the two agents he will work closely with are Tamura (Hiroshi Fujioka) and Maria (Kaoru Yumi). These agents have a psychic bond with each other and can read each other thoughts and can sense when each other are in danger.
ESPy is a strange little sci-fi espionage thriller. What makes it interesting is, that for just a second it veers towards being an exploitation picture. There is a sequence where Maria is captured and Tamura, using his psychic ability, tracks her to the villains lair, which happens to be a strip club. Tamura takes a seat, and immediately iron cuffs ensnare his wrists and ankles. He is trapped in his seat. Then the next performer comes on stage. It is Maria, and psychically, the villain is forcing her to perform a routine. Maria begins to dance and gyrate to the music. Tamura is frustrated because he is trapped and cannot stop her. Then a dark skinned minion walks on stage – just to provide a bit of inter-racial tension (you’ve got to remember this was made in the ’70s – and the sequence was clearly designed to provoke such a reaction). Maria continues to dance, and he rips off her top exposing her breasts. Now by today’s standards, this scene is quite tame, but in the film it is clearly used as a bit of exploitative titillation. The scene is even replayed in flashback later in the film, just so the viewer can relive it.
The thing is, later Maria considers quitting ESPy, because she feels that she has degraded herself. Now I realise Japanese culture places a greater emphasis on saving face, than western culture, so Maria’s embarrassment may culturally be appropriate – particularly for a film made in 1974 (then again, with all the Pinky Violence films being made at this time, it may be a mute point). But the thing that fascinates me, and where this film could have really stood out from the crowd, is if it had delved more into the psycho-sexual arena. And just so you don’t think I’m being a randy old pervert once again, if you compared the film to Brian DePalma’s Carrie, released two years later – which lives in the hormone fuelled world of teenagers – then ESPy which is happy to flash some breast, doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, and is afraid to delve into the psychology of the average person. Even the new Harry Potter film – Deathly Hallows, in its treatment of Ron’s jealousy – suspecting that Harry and Hermione are having a sexual relationship behind his back (aided by some magical manipulation by the Dark Lord) – shows it has a more sophisticated grasp of the human psyche than ESPy.
But maybe I am expecting too much from the film. It is directed by Jun Fukuda, who directed a goodly number of Godzilla films in the 1960s and early ’70s. Most likely Fukuda’s talents lie elsewhere, and it must be said that the sequences of destruction are particularly well handled, such as the destruction of the villains lair, and the ‘earthquake’ sequence at the peace conference. Fukuda obviously knows how to shoot models to good effect.
Overall, the film see-saws between plodding exposition scenes and wild crazy action scenes. But despite this un-eveness, I still found it to be an interesting film, with a few good ideas lurking underneath, but not really given their full reign. But for those who like their spy films, sprinkled with a healthy dose of science fiction, then ESPy is an interesting diversion, and certainly very different to the majority of spy films being made in the early ’70s. You may find it worth a look.