Samurai Princess is the latest pustule of throbbing madness to pop off the same Japanese cinematic assembly lines as Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police, RoboGeisha, et whacked-out cetera. For less money than what most movies spend on promotional gewgaws, you get a torrent of gory, high-energy weirdness and hilarity. Gory is a mild word: the movie’s obsession with body parts and guts is so heedless of good taste, so patently absurd, it’s not just grindhouse cinema, it’s grindcore cinema.
Princess is set in one of those dirt-cheap versions of the future, where the world has been reduced to rusted industrial machinery and empty office buildings. Black market surgeons make big bank by building illegal mecha, but they don’t visit the scrap metal dealers for spare parts: their machines are cobbled together from the bodies of the freshly deceased. One such surgeon offers a second life to a girl who’s the sole survivor when an entire outing of friends is massacred by murdering thugs. He doesn’t just rebuild her better/faster/stronger, either; he places the souls of the other eleven dead girls into the same body, too. (Brings new meaning to the term “coffin hotel”.)
You need not have watched any of the other movies I enumerated earlier to assume that the newly-rebuilt Samurai Princess seeks out revenge against both her killers and their boss. Her weapons include a lightning kick that puts Chun Li’s to shame, and a truly bizarre trick where she uses her detachable breasts as a kind of boomerang/wrecking ball. She also has no patience for interrogations: when faced with one of her killers, she pops off the top of his head and runs his brains through her fingers to find out where Mr. Big is. That’s almost predictable compared to the scene where some poor bystander gets his skeleton punched clean out of his body. I assume that’s backhanded homage to the splatter-comedy Riki-Oh. Then again, maybe the homage is in the form of a weapon wielded by another character—a sickle on the end of a length of intestine.
And then there’s Mr. Big himself, also a mecha-master, who spends most of his onscreen time giggling diabolically with his girlfriend while using chainsaw-prosthetic peg leg to chop victims into shabu-shabu. That leg’s a wicked piece of work: it not only serves as a limb but has a built-in rocket launcher. Just the thing for firing at someone and pinning them to a wall … and maybe eventually being shot back at him, too. In a movie like this, outfitting someone with a weapon that ridiculous and not having it used against them is in clear violation of the old dramatic law about the presence of a gun on the mantelpiece.
Shoot any movie on the cheap and you have to be clever. Not just in the effects, but everything, and so Princess sports grimy found locations (watch enough movies like this, you’d think Japan is nothing but crumbling factories in forests) and weird rummage-sale set design. The cast all dress in what you’d get if you staged high-speed crash tests with Harajuku street models: half a kimono here, half a denim jacket there, yards of fur and lace, and tons of feathers all around. The two mecha-killing police chicks who go gunning for the Princess’s head strut around like they just got back from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright. Even the Buddhist nun who prays for the salvation of Samurai Princess’s soul gets decked out in a purple robe and albino frightwig.
To be honest, Princess places a fairly distant second after the genre-exploding lunacy of Machine/Police/Geisha; go see those movies first to figure out whether or not this sort of thing is your cup of fuming sulfuric acid. This one drags a bit more than it should, although it partly makes up for that by having no shortage of loopy things to put onscreen (or, failing that, loopy ways to look at them). And it’s a brother to all those other films in that it has unabashed affection for being over-the-top, and has fun with its constraints instead of thrashing around helplessly against them.
The same week I saw Samurai Princess I took a couple of minutes to watch the extended clip being offered on the QuickTime site for Roland Emmerich’s vacuous 2012. Somehow, real imagination dies when you have computers that can spit out photo-realistic images of tidal waves lapping over mountains. Then I went back to Samurai Princess and boggled at the climactic fight where the heroine turns into a cyber-bodhisattva and sprouts a dozen sword-wielding (and oh-so-obviously CGI) arms. I know which one I’d rather watch again.