Chanbara Beauty & Chanbara Beauty: Vortex – A Saga of Sword and Skin

A look at a lovely pair of import DVDs from Japan

onechanbaraCHANBARA BEAUTY (Onechanbara, Japan, 2008) is geek paradise: two gorgeous babes and a fat dude wander around the countryside killing zombies. One is a gorgeous sharpshooter who never misses. The other is a samurai in Western hat and serape – and little else save for a fuzzy bikini; she is the title Chanbara Beauty (the term chanbara in Japanese refers to sword-fighting movies; the term beauty refers very accurately to the lead character).

There’s little story save for a predictable and familiar situation in which two rival sisters seek vengeance and/or reconciliation upon one another. The night-time photography is pretty murky and the budget is miniscule, but the film has some cool fighting and gunplay scenes against hordes of zombies, and the final confrontation between sisters Aya (Eri Otoguro) and Saki (Chise Nakamura) is pretty good. For a low-budget exploiter, the story is effective enough, actually. And of course Aya’s appearance and meager dress is enough to keep most male viewers glued to the screen for a long, long time.

Written and directed by Fukada Yohei and based on a popular video game, CHANBARA BEAUTY avoids the overly campy drivel storyline and acting of Takafumi Nagamine’s KEKKO KAMEN series (2004), which also hangs its effectiveness on its heroine’s lack of clothing, but Aya’s bikiniwear is much more alluring that Kakko’s mask and sash, and CHANBARA BEAUTY’s story and performances much less moronic and camp. It’s kind of a mixture of Leone and Miike and Romero and Tarantino without their budget or wit; it’s an entertaining and likeable samurai-bikini-zombie-killing movie that plays out rather well.

onechanbara-vortex2CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEX (Japan, 2009) – the inevitable direct-to-DVD sequel – still has the primary draws of the former film (lots of zombies and swordplay, samurai babe wearing fuzzy bikini aided by younger samurai babe in school girl outfit) but lacks entirely the luster and interest of the first film.

A serviceable new cast takes over the pivotal roles: model Yuu Tehima assumes the title role of Aya; Kumi Imura takes over as her equally sword-capable sister Saki; Akari Ozara is Reiko, whose shotgun virtuosity isn’t given as much time as in the first time; also, model Kawamura Rika is Himiko, set up as the new villain of the piece.

The film starts out promising enough as Aya and Saki dispense with random bands of zombies in flowery spurts of crimson; but then it dispenses with everything that made the first one intriguing (besides its heroine). The amiable fat guy sidekick is gone. Aya and Saki have no strategy in their fighting of the zombies; they just walk into a gang and start flailing swords and spraying geysers of blood. Reiko is diverted to a subplot with a male swordfighter eventually joining up with Aya for some plutonic zombie killing and to rescue a young girl whose blood has the power to control the zombies or something; she is captured by a Countess Dracula type babe (Kawamura), who initially is a kind of partner to Aya and Saki but then becomes the villain when she reverts to her true age and needs the young girl’s blood to restore her youth.

It all comes to a head in a kind of zombie mosh pit inside a warehouse where Saki and Aya’s new guy friend slice and dice the crowds while Aya and Himiko battle it out in a murky conflict whose pacing is slowed by an overabundance of recurring slo-mo, superimposed blood marks riding up the villain’s skin like a revolving barber pole (signifying her infusion of blood), and other stylistic effects that detract from the action and vitality of the sword fight, rendering the action insignificant and reducing the massed zombies to arm-waving bystanders.

The first CHANBARA BEAUTY was inventive, fun, and fairly alluring, it also maintained a kind of post-apocalyptic situational awareness and a sense of emotional connection between characters, while a serviceable synth/sampled score accentuated its drama. CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VOTEX is claustrophobically restrained to small sets and set-pieces; characters rarely communicate; an over-use of showy stylism is counterproductive to its pacing; a heavy rock/metal droning film score proffers zero dramatic intensity to its lengthy final fight scene, and there is a murky resolution to its very austere storyline.

CHANBARA BEAUTY and CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEXT are currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD; they are available on Region 2 imports from Japan.

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Eri Otoguro as Aya in CHANBARA BEAUTY

CHANBARA BEAUTY (2008). Directed by Yohei Fukuda. Screenplay by Yohei Fukuda, Yasutoshi Murakawa. Cast: Eri Otoguro, Tomohiro Waki, Taro Suwa, Manami Hashimoto, Chise Nakamura, Ai Hazuki.

CHANBARA BEAUTY THE MOVIE: VORTEX (2009). Directed by Shouji Atsushi. Written by Fukushima Yoshiki. Cast: Chika Arakawa, Kumi Imura, Rika Kawamura, Akira Ozawa, Yu Tejima, Hoshina Youhei.

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