Girl’s Blood (2014) by Koichi Sakamoto

An all-female martial arts troupe is thrown into disarray with the arrival of a new member. “Girl’s Blood” are a group of women who battle it out in front of exuberant spectators in a cross between the fighting style of MMA (bouts taking place in an octagon with few apparent rules) and the extravagant costumes and characters of pro-wrestling (including a dominatrix, a nurse, and a police woman). One of their top fighters, Satsuki (Yuria Haga), is troubled when new member Chinatsu (Asami Tada) joins their group. Not only does Chinatsu not pull her punches in the arena, she also threatens to expose Satsuki’s hidden sexuality. The two soon begin a romantic affair; one that is jeapordized with the reappearance of Chinatsu’s husband who runs a rival martial arts group.

Based on the novel “Aka x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba, “Girl’s Blood” is an erotic action film, with a heady blend of fight scenes and gratuitous sex and nudity. Despite its low-brow exploitation trappings the film tells a surprisingly romantic story, with Satsuki and Chinatsu’s relationship providing a strong central plot around which the more extreme elements revolve. A majority of the film’s lengthy run time (a little over 2 hours) is taken up either with fighting or the women undressing, showering, or making love. The fight choreography is strong and entertaining, with the over the top theatrics of the in-ring tussles, or the street-fights that propel the plot forward. While the sex in the equation may be gratutious it doesn’t feel particularly egregious, with the lesbian romance at least lending a degree of respectability. One sour note is the sexual assault and rape that takes place later in the film, that feels unecessarily violent and out of place. The cast all do a good job with the action and bring their distinct, if rather unbelievable, characters to life. Yuna Haga’s Satuski hides her vulnerability behind a facade of gruff aggression; while Asami Tada’s Chinatsu goes through a series of transformations that see her both despised and pitied. The supporting cast, particularly Ayami Misaki as Miko and Rina Koike as Mayu, are also engaging with small side-plots that tie into the larger themes. Oddly, all the players in “Girl’s Blood” are introduced with anime-style openings, but aside from these four the others remain as stereotypical background. It would have been great to see a series with each of these getting a chance to shine.

At the heart of “Girl’s Blood” is a story about female empowerment, acceptance of sexuality, and overcoming trauma. We learn at the beginning of the film that Satsuki is estranged from her parents, a situation that seems to be commonplace amongst several of the characters. Miko was also thrown out of home while Mayu ran away. These women’s relationships with their mothers are strained at best, utterly shattered at worst. It is an interesting element to their characters with their profession as fighters, and their unique characters, a physical representation of their different yet comparable struggles. It is this lack of maternal affection that seems to shape and drive them and provides the film with it’s most interesting thematic through-line. The latter half plot involving a fight between “Girl’s Blood” and the rival “Ando Ichimon” club is almost nonsensical; as are numerous minor details such as the oddly varied crowd at the women’s events and whether they are intended to be martial artists or pro-wrestlers (two distinct professions). However, many of the more ridiculous elements can be forgiven with the entertaining performances and heartfelt message about overcoming your past and following your heart.

Karate Girl (2011) by Yoshikatsu Kimura

10 years after her father was killed and her sister kidnapped, Ayaka Kurenai (Rina Takeda), descendent of the legendary Kurenai Karate-ka Shoujiro, is drawn back into a conflict with the man who killer her father (Tatsuya Naka) in attempt to steal the family’s prized black belt. Ayaka, under a changed name, is working at a movie theatre, when her incredible karate skills in taking down a thief bring her to the attention of Muto (Kazutoshi Yokoyama), who soon realises that she survived an attack on their dojo 10 years prior. Muto has been training her younger sister Natsuki (Hina Tobimatsu), also under an alias, to his own leathal style of karate. Ayaka has no choice but to take him on, along with his henchman Keith (Richard Heselton), rescue her sister, and resist attempts to take the black belt from her.

“Karate Girl” is a martial arts film first and foremost, with the story providing only a loose thread to tie together various set-pieces. The plot is simplistic and predictable and there are a few eye-rollingly questionable moments, such as why characters would be wearing karate gi outdoors; or why they suddenly move to the rooftop for the final confrontation. Muto is a cartoon villain, complete with his own underground lair-cum-dojo where he concocts his nefarious schemes. It is highly likely you will know exactly how the story will end after the introductory five minutes, and one of the central twists seems so obvious it is surprising the characters take so long to realise it. However, the negatives out of the way, the actual karate is incredibly well choreographed, fluid and energetic. Director Yoshikatsu Kimura worked as second-unit director with star Rina Takeda on “High-Kick Girl” (2009) and here again we see him making the best of her skills. The direction, utilising a hand-held style and minimal editing makes these scenes enjoyable and you can see the skill of the performers. These scenes are packed with variety, largely involving large scale fights between the protagonists and a host of villains. There are moments where it is clear no attempt is being made by the foils to fight back or evade being struck, but its still a joy to see the high-kicking, wall-jumping, acrobatic style. Takeda and Hina Tobimatsu, who play Ayaka and Natsuki, are incredibly talented, really selling their kata and fights, helped by a large cast of able stunt performers. We see some behind the scenes training over the credits that shows what effort went in to creating some of these moments.

Your enjoyment of this film will depend on how much you enjoy watching karate. The plot is paper-thin, exisiting solely to set up a central conflict between Ayaka and Muto. However, the action scenes are well shot and entertaining enough to make it worth a watch for fans of martial arts films. Similar to “High-Kick Girl”, but with a slightly higher production value. The film makes some attempt at a message, with the contrast between Ayaka’s belief, passed down by her father, that karate is for protection, and the villain’s advocacy of karate being used to kill. But its hard to kid yourself that this film is more than it sets out to be, an enthusiastic, action-packed karate film with two incredible lead performances. In this regard it absolutely succeeds.

Dead Sushi (2012) by Noboru Iguchi

The sushi bites back in this horror comedy from writer-director Noboru Iguchi. Keiko (Rina Takeda) is dismissed from her father’s sushi restaurant after failing to meet his high standards. She finds employment at an inn where she finds it hard to adapt, making few friends beside the janitor Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki). A large group from a pharmaceutical company arrive to stay at the inn, with the hostess Yumi (Asami Sugiura) and her husband (Takashi Nishina) keen to please. Things don’t go to plan however when a homeless man who previously worked at the same pharmaceutical company, Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), is infected with a dangerous virus from some sushi he found in the rubbish. This virus turns the sushi into living, flesh-eating, parasites. The whole inn must fight to save themselves from the monstrous undead sushi that now threatens to destroy them.

“Dead Sushi” is a film that revels in the ridiculous from premise to execution, throwing in anything and everything that might be entertaining: karate (courtesy of the supremely talented Rina Takeda), zombie-esque horror, gory CG-enhanced effects, nudity, fart jokes and slapstick. It is definitely one that requires you leave your brain at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is. Those familiar with Iguchi’s oevre (films such as “The Machine Girl” and “Mutant Girls Squad”) will recognize the blend of splatter horror and black comedy, although here it is played mostly for laughs, toning down some of the more stomach-churning elements of the grotesque horror. There is something almost quaint about the movie, with the central conceit being so laughable that it could easily have worked as a film for a younger audience, with some of the puerile humour and moments such as the singing sushi playing well with all ages. The decapitations, blood-letting and nudity later on almost appear added in to make the film more violent and ‘adult’ (in contrast to most films that desire a broader audience). The cast all give excellent comedic performances, especially Sugiura as Yumi, whose contorted expressions are in keeping with the cartoonish violence. Rina Takeda ais also fantastic, showing off her martial arts and acting skills in the role. The special effects, including work from long-time collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, are fun, though the practical work far outdoes the computer generated moments providing the charming, handmade feel of their early work. The sound design of the film also heightens the enjoyment factor, furthering the sense of a live-action anime with martial arts effects.

An outrageous takedown of several Japanese holy cows, with both sushi, corporate culture and deference for customers in the firing line. The moments when members of the pharmaceutical company are pretending a high level of sophistication and knowledge of sushi, while the hostesses of the inn look on admiringly is one example of the satirical undertones to the wacky plot. To have the sushi turn on the customers, and even one person turn into a killer tuna fish, punctures notions of respect for culture and tradition, laughing at something that is often seen as serious. Keiko’s relationship with her strict, overbearing father, again plays on this idea of youth being liberated from their staid and conservative forebears. The film parodies horror films as it draws out a global cultural obsession with zombies to an absurd point, by having something that is so dead it can’t possibly return to life come back. “Dead Sushi” is a silly diversion, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that does all it can with the idea of sushi as its primary antagonist.

High Kick Girl (2009) by Fuyuhiko Nishi

Karate black belt Rina Takeda stars in her first film, giving her a chance to show off her martial arts prowess. Kei Tsuchiya (Takeda) is a brown belt karate student who desperately wants to obtain a black belt. She starts fights with a number of black belts, trouncing them easily with her superior abilities. Despite this her sensei Matsumura (fellow karate master Tatsuya Naka) will not acquiesce to raise her to a higher level. When her friend Ryosuke (Ryuki Takahashi) is kidnapped by a group of criminal martial artists known as the Destroyers, a group Kei had previously wanted to join, she is drawn into a long-standing grudge between the group and her sensei, who embarrassed their leader by defeating him 15 years before.

“High Kick Girl” is a film in the loosest sense of the word. The story is paper thin and full of holes, exisiting only to give the most tenuous of reasons for these characters to fight one another. There is little in the way of tension or emotional connection to anything going on. The microbudget is evidenced in everything from the title sequences, with fairly rote drone footage of the city, to the small number of locations and limited costumes or set dressing. With the negatives out of the way, there are still things to enjoy in this martial arts flick for fans of karate and top notch fight choreography. Rina Takeda and Ryuki Takahashi are incredibly skilled practitioners of their styles and the film also features a number of other talented performers who put their all into making the fights thrilling and believable. The choreography is incredibly well done and, unlike other action films, the direction allows us to appreciate every movement. Shot simply with handheld cameras that do not cut away, the actors do not pull their punches (or kicks), which leads to some surprising moments that make you wonder what health and safety they had on set. The stunt work, with moments such as Rei being pummeled through a table, make it easy to forgive the lack of plot. The film will often have a slow motion replay of such stunts or particular moments of the fight sequences, which give the whole thing the feel of a clip reel to show off what they can do rather than attempting to build a believable story. Many of these moments are again repeated during the end credits, which seems unnecessary as that is the third or fourth time you will have seen some of them.

The weak plot and characterisations are perhaps forgiveable in a film where the focus will understandably be on the incredible stunts and fight work. However, there should be a few points deducted even taking the film on its own terms. Firstly, the character of Kei becomes sidelined in the second half, as focus shifts to Matsumura. While it is great to see Naka’s fight work, it detracts from the title character and the little plot that has been developed up until then. Secondly, it would have been interesting to see more varied locations and more distinction between the fighting styles, perhaps even some situational advantages. One of the best scenes takes place in a more cluttered room where we do see them interact more with the environment. While we do get nunchucks, knives, staffs and chains, the character of Shurei (played by MMA kickboxer Hisae Watanabe) feels underused. For the casual viewer it may be hard to see any significant difference between all the punching and kicking going on, but no doubt those with some knowledge will find more enjoyment in watching. “High Kick Girl” will appeal to fans of martial arts and fight scenes, with undeniably incredible action sequences helped by genuinely talented fighters, but there is little here in the way of a compelling story or characters.

Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.