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Chanbara Beauty
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by Jay Seaver

"Hot girls vs. the living dead."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I've spoken to people who claim that the story is the most important part of a video game, which strikes me as silly, mainly because it makes them less like games. When you play basketball, are you acting out a plot? Besides, the storyline that is considered a strength within a game is often exposed as pretty weak when transplanted to a medium like film.

To be fair, it's not as if the action movies always offer that much more. In both, we're often brought up to speed fairly quickly: The world in general and Japan in particular have been overrun with zombies. One of the survivors is Aya (Eri Otoguro), the last member of a secret ninja clan, who is on a quest to find Dr. Sugita (Taro Suwa); Sugita is the cause of zombie plague and has Aya's teenaged sister Saki (Chise Nakamura) as an ally. Aya has a chubby sidekick, Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki), who is also looking for his little sister Asami; they meets up with Reiko (Manami Hashimoto), who is looking for her daughter.

For either a videogame or a b-movie, that's probably just enough plot to glue together a few zombie attacks and lead up to a "boss" stage where Aya finally confronts her sister and Sugita. The thing is, in a really good video game or action movie, the action scenes would be much more exciting because you're either the player controlling the main character or watching folks who are really good at action go to work. Neither is the case here; the zombie effects and CGI are fairly unimpressive, and Eri Otoguro is not Michelle Yeoh: I'm guessing that looking good in the costume was a much larger factor in her casting than the ability to sell a good fight.

(You've got to kind of laugh at that costume, too. I'm guessing the bikini, feather boa, cowboy hat and high-heeled boots sold a bunch of games - there are half a dozen or so in the Oneechanbara series. I'm just saying that if I were fighting my way across a country where the primary threat was a fast-acting disease spread by bodily fluids, I'd armor up, even if I was such an awesome ninja that I didn't believe any foe could touch me and valued freedom of movement. Especially if the katana was my weapon of choice, since that means I'd be letting the living dead get within a couple meters of me. Reiko's got the right idea, both in terms of using guns and wearing biker's leathers. Sure, they're tight and designed to show off cleavage, but compared to Aya...)

(Oh, and Saki is wearing her school uniform, just in case you were worried that any sort of sexy outfit was overlooked. Not complaining, just stating a fact.)

Aya winds up being even more of a blank slate than the typical video game character. Eri Otoguro is athletic enough, but she's stuck with the sort of grim warrior character that goes out of her way not to speak because that seems to be the only way the filmmakers can think of to make sure the audience realizes she's tough. Chise Nakamura is much the same, although she gets to sneer when she has a line. It seems like a case of the filmmakers focusing on the wrong characters, as Hashimoto and Waki make Reiko and Katsuji entertaining and likable folks, unlikely heroes with personality. Taro Suwa is a generically defined megalomaniac mad scientist, but he at least sinks his teeth into the role and chews.

Writer/director Yohei Fukuda and co-writer Yasutoshi Murakawa seem to be working with a low budget, but they also seem to get a little complacent at times. Oneechanbara is a popular series of games in Japan, so there may be some justification in playing to that audience, not getting too deep into the plot because most of the people attending know the score. Fukuda is also credited as the cinematographer, and manages a few fun shots of Aya using video game powers, but can't really work much in the way of miracles to make it feel like a full-fledged movie, rather than a collection of fights and cut scenes.

It probably doesn't help that it's almost impossible to avoid comparisons to the "Resident Evil" movies, which feature a pretty decent lead actress and a Hollywood budget. I suppose "Chanbara" will do for fans of either series of movies/games who need more of the same, but it's not much on its own merits.

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originally posted: 08/23/08 09:11:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yohei Fukuda

Written by
  Yohei Fukuda
  Yasutoshi Murakawa

  Eri Otoguro
  Chise Nakamura
  Manami Hashimoto
  Taro Suwa

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