The odd thing about Cutey Honey, the unhinged live-action version of the perennially-popular Go Nagai manga, is how strangely flabby and aimless it is. The manga was one of my first forays into Nagai’s wild universe of goofy, stylized violence and leering sexuality, and there were a slew of animated productions (a TV series, an OAV, a second OAV) that followed suit. And now we have a live-action movie, courtesy of Evangelion director Hideaki Anno — a curiously characterless and flat movie for someone normally associated with incisive and idiosyncratic projects. It’s like an episode of Power Rangers stretched out to feature-film length — glossy, flashy, and never more than superficially interesting unless you’re already a hardcore fan. And even if you are, don’t you have something better to do — like open your mail, or get your car washed?
Cutey Honey was one of Nagai’s most successful and instantly-recognizable characters — a lithe and chesty young woman who was actually an android composed of nanomachine-like structures, and fought various kinds of evil with an array of weapons. Her father / creator imbued her with the power to transform herself on the atomic level, so she would often fool her enemies by adopting various guises. (When ADV Films released some of the animated Cutey Honey projects to home video in the USA, they used an absolutely deathless tagline to promote them: “Some people would kill for a perfect body. Honey-chan’s got a dozen of them — AND EVERYONE’S TRYING TO KILL HER!”)
Cutey Honey has made the leap from manga and animation to live-action, but
the results are, for all their visual exuberance, strangely flat and shopworn.
The live-action version takes Honey and pits her against one of her classic enemies: Sister Jill, a monstrous Kali Yuga-like demonic earth mother figure with a host of grotesque sidekicks. Right after Honey kicks the butt of one such colleague, Golden Claw, the cops get curious about her, and an overzealous female policewoman starts digging into this mysterious lady’s life. The joke, if there could be said to be one here, is that Honey masquerades during the day as a ditzy office assistant who gets along better with the cleaning lady than her coworkers. The non-action material is made all the sillier-looking by a good deal of anatomy-exaggerating wide-angle lens-work: Cutey holds out a hand, and it’s twice the size of her head, again and again.
The first fifteen to twenty minutes are more or less spot-on, and are a lot of fun. Then the film enters a long and incredibly uncompelling middle stretch, wherein it makes a mistake I see common to a lot of films like this. It starts taking its stupid story seriously, and assumes that we are going to be automatically interested in attempts to “develop” the characters, when we are only going to find such a thing stodgy and pointless. If you’re going to start a movie off as a visual thrill ride, at least follow through on that promise and don’t get distracted by things that belong in a completely different film — not a “better” one, mind you, just not this one. When the film finally does get back on track for its big climax, it doesn’t feel like anything we haven’t seen a hundred times before on TV — let alone in anime as well as other live-action films.
When Honey-chan's not battling Sister Jill and her minions of evil,
she retreats to the relative anonymity (and incompetence) of office-work.
The best parallel I can draw for Western audiences, both in terms of the feel of and the problems with Honey, would be the two — two — theatrical film versions of Charlie’s Angels. They were so ludicrous and over-the-top that they were impossible to even take seriously as parody, because parody implies that whatever’s being parodied was worth taking seriously in the first place. Cutey Honey was never all that serious to begin with, but I liked the animated versions simply because they respected the material. They used them as a source of inspiration and made good on the original premise, and had some truly inspired moments. The most inspired moment here is when Honey manipulates her body to create a new outfit, a stylish Chinese dress that — in true Harajuku style — still has the pricetags dangling from it. Ho, ho.
The rest of it is material that became scorched earth a decade ago. Any modern-day Japanese effects movie (and most anime, too) isn’t worth its salt unless the Tokyo Tower gets blown up, knocked over, used as a monster’s nesting grounds, etc., at least once during the course of events. That happens here, dutifully enough. There’s also an old friend of ours from so many other fantasy movies: the Fallacy of the Ultimate Weapon. Why does everyone with some variety of superhuman power wait until the absolute last possible second before unleashing their big, sure-to-kill attack? It’s not as if we can see their lifebar, you know.
What starts as visual inventiveness degrades into a formalized routine, which is
deadly to a movie that is going to live or die by its look and feel.
The computer-aided effects vary enormously in quality, and I think that is by design. Sometimes they’re quite realistic, and sometimes they are carefully stylized — at various points we see rushes of still images posed to give the illusion of movement, which is a wonderful bridge between live-action and animation techniques. The big problem with the effects is not realism but intentions and end results: I did laugh, long and hard, the first time Honey got grabbed and slammed around like a ragdoll by Golden Claw, but when they did it again, and again, and again, with only the most minor variations of context or presentation, it stopped becoming visually inventive and simply became a cliché unto itself.
I do have to ask myself, though: Why should I have expected anything more? We are, after all, talking about a live-action version of a goofy, racy manga, so of course it’s going to be silly. Yes, but I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m doing myself a disservice by watching it, and Cutey Honey is the kind of movie you have trouble justifying even as a guilty pleasure. The astounding irony of it all is that the most recent animated Cutey Honey project, which Anno himself also directed and which covers almost exactly the same story, does so with far more passion and verve (and, yes, fun) than this did. This film is, however, only 93 minutes long including credits, and in that respect it is just about perfect.