Over at GigaOm there’s a piece that outlines three simple rules for making a hit video-game movie. Have it resemble an existing movie genre; put a hot chick in the lead; and keep the budget reasonable. Onéchambara sticks religiously to that tripitaka. It didn’t cost a lot, it ties into the whole post-apoc zombie-hunt genre (yes, it’s a genre unto itself now, deal with it), and it sports a bikini-clad, katana-swinging Eri Otoguro in the title role. Bullseye.
And yet, somehow, Onéchambara doesn’t quite have the same insane electricity as all the original and even lower-budget cult-midnight properties spewing out of Japan’s slit-open cinematic underbelly right now. After Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police and Oh! My Zombie Mermaid and all the rest of them, Onéchambara almost feels like it’s playing it safe. That could be due to any number of things. The fact that it’s a video game adaptation, for one: maybe they ran the risk of fan wrath if they didn’t include this or that element in it, and they had to shortchange real creativity for being faithful to the source.
“Babe in bikini faces off against zombies with samurai sword”:
how is that not an instant formula for roaring success?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it for what it was. It’s fun, all right. It gives us girl-vs.-zombie action galore, gives us a girl-vs.-girl ending that goes over the top enough times to be satisfyingly outré (even if the rest of the movie really isn’t), and has sense enough to not run more than ninety minutes. I just wished it had been … well, loopier. Once the bar has been raised for how unhinged this kind of thing can get, it’s hard to set it back to its default position.
The story: A virus has been unleashed that has killed most of the world’s population and turned many of the rest into zombies who no longer remember the correct use of soap or deodorant. Bands of marauding survivors kill zombies for sport and attack each other for what few supplies remain. Among the survivors is the Onéchambara Girl herself, Aya, tearing through legions of zombies with one flick of her supernaturally-charged sword. She’s on a mission to find a girl named Saki — her sister, now in the keep of the sinister Dr. Sugita, he who is responsible for turning the planet into Standing Room Only Of The Living Dead.
Plot machinations include sidekicks on missions of their own, and a heroine
with a case of killer sibling rivalry (as in, the sibling's a killer).
Aya’s got a sidekick, the oafish Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki), who for all his size and muscle is amazingly inept at fighting. She also picks up a female co-conspirator, the shotgun-slinging Reiko (Manami Hashimoto), and together the three of them kick a whole mess of zombie butt. Interleaved with the gun-, sword-, knife- and fist-fu are a couple of subplots that provide the movie’s pretense of character development, such as how Aya and Saki’s mutual hurts go back into a childhood betrayal that scarred them both. That said, I see this being sold to SyFy a lot faster than Lifetime or Oxygen.
The movie’s fun enough to watch on a basic action-picture level, but even there I found myself nitpicking. Eri’s sword calisthenics (courtesy of Geisha Vs. Ninjas’s Gô Ohara) are unfairly obscured by digital effects, like the lightning arc of white fire that blazes out whenever she tears through a zombie horde. Aya herself, though, is a living embodiment of the Bulletproof Nudity Rule: the less you wear, the harder you are to hit. (One would think she wears that bikini as a way to move all the more freely, but those high-heeled cowboy boots kind of put the lie to that theory.) And once again I observed an unintentional side effect of Japan’s bubble economy: it’s provided no end of abandoned factories and industrial buildings for filmmakers looking for appropriately grimy action-movie backdrops.
Another thing that sets Japanese n-sploitation project apart from their Western counterparts: the amount of pathos in the story. You gotta have heart, even if it’s ripped out and eaten (and not just by zombies). The Aya/Saki conflict I mentioned above is pretty forgettable stuff, but I liked a bit towards the middle of the movie where Reiko comes across a girl who may be preparing to succumb to the zombie virus and tries to care for her in an abandoned hospital a la Silent Hill. It’s atmospheric (both the hospital and a creepy earlier set-piece with the girl), and there’s even a moment of real sadness when Reiko has to act once and for all. Said subplot also ties into a similar one where Katsuji finds his zombified sister — which is also sort of touching, but so is my butt and the seat cushion.
So, okay. I’ll be as fair as I can. Is Onéchanbara destined to live forever? No. Is it fun? Sure. Does it cover the bases? That it does. Is there a sequel on the way? … Need you even ask?
Afterword: How I love a good untranslatable pun. Oné-chan in Japanese is a term of endearment for one’s sister, and chanbara means cinematic swordplay. Thus, a portmanteau: Onéchanbara. I leave it as an exercise to the reader whether Sister Swordslinger has a more fitting Asian Trash Cinema aroma about it than Zombie Bikini Squad.