When Loaded Weapon 1 came out, I read a review that criticized the movie on the following grounds: The Lethal Weapon movies are already parodies of themselves, so why make fun of something that's already self-lampooning? You can't kid a kidder. And I agree, not just when it comes to Lethal Weapon but just about the whole over-the-top action genre that everyone from Jackie Chan to Chow Yun-Fat rub shoulders in. Unless there is a larger theme at work (as with a movie like Gojoe or even the John Woo loyalty/violence epics), the violence is largely a joke.
I wonder if many people got the joke with Zipang, which sends up and mocks chanbara and Japanese samurai-movie conventions at the same time it invokes them. This is almost the Airplane! of samurai movies — in fact, if you're not familiar with figures like Zatoichi or the Lone Wolf and Cub, you may want to hold off on this one... or at least come back to it again at some other point in time, when you may get more of the gags. Me, I laughed myself silly with Zipang, since there is a point above and beyond just lampooning samurai movies.
It's been debated just how far Marco Polo went in his travels; one account maintains he never really got to China at all, and simply recycled stories from other people. Among the tall tales he allegedly brought back from the Orient were stories about the "golden kingdom of Zipang," where wild monsters roamed through the streets of cities that were made of gold and gems. Zipang the movie assumes there is a kernel of truth to all of this, and uses it as the springboard for a wild, visually stylish ride that's equal parts Sogo Ishii and Sam Raimi.
Zipang's hero is the swordsman Jigoku and his weird band of motley cronies (an inventor, a midget, a fellow with a missing nose who stammers a lot, etc.) whose job is to stand just outside of camera range and throw Jigoku his favorite weapons, each assigned a number, as he gets into one insane mess after another. The opening ten minutes of the movie is literally nothing but a single giant swordfight with a variety of insane interruptions, and ten billion little in-jokes tucked away in the corners of almost every frame. The scene is funny enough even if know nothing about samurai movies, but if you've seen a few, you'll crack a rib. I loved the bit where he decimates something like sixty bad guys in one unbroken shot, mostly by running up the middle of their ranks.
The course of true love never did run smooth,
especially when you have to fight some underworld king for it.
Jigoku is being pursued by female bounty hunter Yuri the Pistol, so named for the two-shot she sports. She's heard of a massive reward for Jigoku's head, and she's out to claim it. And so is everyone else on the face of the earth, apparently; Yuri wades through all varieties of scum and villany to get to Jigoku's neck, accompanied by her befuddled brother.
The swordsman and his gang are after a buried treasure — a fabulous golden sword that appears to give its wielder terrific power. Not only do they find this artifact (in a clever homage/parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark), but they also learn very quickly that at least one other party is interested in it: the Shogun himself, who's sent a whole legion of ninja after them. The scenes that send up the ninja's secret powers are hilarious — I loved the ninja version of a Minox spy camera, and their idea of "air mail."
The Shogun is obsessed with finding the mysterious golden land of Zipang, allegedly revealed to him through Marco Polo's diaries. As it turns out, the sword allows one passage to Zipang (which apparently co-exists with Japan itself on a different level of time, or something like that). Yuri is sucked into the time vortex, but not before Jigoku takes a shine to her. It's not every day he meets a girl who's his equal. She doesn't think anything of him at first, but oh you kid.
Most of the middle section of the movie is insane chaos, with the head ninja revealing one mind-blowing trick after another, and Jigoku and his buddies trying to gain passage to Zipang. Eventually they do, through a weird aboriginal type who apparently is the original wielder of the magic sword, and they are all soon thrown into a confrontation with the witch-king of Zipang and his mysterious, estranged queen — about which the less said, the better.
Zipang spares no excesses. The camera goes flying through the forest like it's attached to a Roman candle, switches to black-and-white and stop-motion photography just to make things interesting, and the sets are like something out of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain on LSD — gold dust, giant magical caverns of ice, and thrones like something out of an H. R. Giger painting. Everyone's garbed as strikingly as possible (check out Yuri's never-wilting orchids!), and Jigoku even has a jacket with his name on it, for those of you who read kanji.
I'm a sucker for a movie like this. It has everything I love about Asian cinema: wild, theatrical excess, a Byzantine plot, and something striking to look at every ten seconds. It's the absolute flipside of Gojoe, which was as somber and brutal as Zipang is just plain wild fun.