Director: Kurando Mitsutake
Cast: Tori Griffiths, David Sakurai, Katarina Leigh Waters, Derek Mears, Stefanie Estes, Julie Burrise, Erin Marie Hogan, Shelby Lee Parks, Hidetoshi Imura, Kirk Geiger, Akihiro Kitamura, Wes Armstrong, Taishi Tamaki
Running Time: 121 min.
By Paul Bramhall
It’s fair to say that for most of the 2020’s audiences have grown fatigued to the endless superhero fodder that’s dominated cinema screens for the past 15 years, with reboots, sequels, retcons, and just about any other word that connects franchises together being released at a relentless pace. So it may seem like a risky move for director Kurando Mitsutake to make his newest movie exactly that – a superhero movie – but then, Mitsutake can hardly be described as just being any old director.
Since his debut with 2009’s Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf, the California based Mitsutake has consistently proven himself to be the 21st century version of the kind of Japanese filmmaker that existed exclusively in the 1970’s – dabbling in obsolete genres like pinky violence and karate exploitation like they never went out of fashion. Hopefully nobody bothers to tell him that they did, otherwise we wouldn’t have titles like Gun Woman, Karate Kill, or Maniac Driver to enjoy, and the cinematic world would be a duller place for it.
Lion Girl is the latest production to find Mitsutake in the director’s chair, 3 years after his pink eiga Maniac Driver, and it proves to be his most ambitious work to date, for the first time clocking in over the 2-hour mark (even if it is just by 1 minute). For fans of manga there’s a significant draw through the fact that both the design and concept of Lion Girl comes courtesy of legendary manga artist and author Go Nagai, whose list of creations include the likes of Cutie Honey, Devilman, and Mazinger Z – names that are likely familiar even to casual Asian cinema fans. The equivalent of the late Stan Lee providing the proof of concept and design for a Lloyd Kaufman movie, the blending of 2 artistic talents who have such distinctive styles was always going to be an interesting one.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that Lion Girl marks what can essentially be viewed as Mitsutake’s first production where the primary spoken language is English. While his other movies have tended to have a mix of both Japanese and English, this is the first time for the main character to be American. Tori Griffiths is cast in the titular role, a TV movie stalwart who seems to specialise in the disaster genre, playing a recurring character in the Jared Cohn directed Super Volcano, 20.0 Megaquake, and Ice Storm! As Lion Girl she represents humanities last stand against the fearful anoroc’s – humans who’ve gone through a “metamorphosis into meteorite beasts” and drain peoples life force, a result of being exposed to rock cells from a meteor shower that left most of the planet underwater. With Tokyo being one of the few remaining liveable land masses, the remnants of the world’s population headed to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Set in 2045 in the aftermath of a 30-year civil war, a Neo Nippon Shogunate now rules over what’s left of Japan, with Griffiths’ character the heir to a yakuza clan destined to be the “last defender of ninkyo”. Known as a man-anoroc due to being born from an anoroc mother (think Blade in terms of her powers origins), when a powerful member of the Shogunate starts hunting man-anoroc’s to absorb their power for himself, it’s up to Lion Girl to step up and create a “man-anoroc yakuza squad” to fight back.
The results are always interesting when manga-based source material gets the English language live action treatment, with the likes of Ghost in the Shell, Kite, and Fist of the North Star all proving to be divisive with audiences. In terms of tone, if you had to compare to anything, then unsurprisingly Lion Girl would most closely resemble Fist of the North Star. From its pulpy narrative, post-apocalyptic setting, and lo-fi special effects, Mitsutake makes it clear from the first frame that we’re not supposed to be taking things too seriously.
Just in case anyone forgot that his last production was basically a pink eiga by any other name, Lion Girl opens in a public bath which sees a group of anoroc in human form surround Griffiths, who sits with her back to them. Containing both male and female full-frontal nudity, even before the title has appeared onscreen we’ve already seen a healthy dose of skin, topped off with entertainingly practical special effects to show the anoroc transformation to “meteorite beast”.
What follows is 2 hours of jiggly flesh, martial arts posturing, and hilariously foul-mouthed villains that’s probably best described as a mix of Troma meets V-Cinema, with the latter at least being legitimately true due to the involvement of Toei Video. Passing off the dusty surrounds of L.A. for post-apocalyptic Tokyo, Mitsutake creates a surreal landscape that feels at once alien and familiar, while heavily leaning into the female led V-Cinema action flicks that populated the 2000’s. It’s fair to say Griffiths spends almost as much time out of her clothes as she does in them, with her reliance on needing a high body temperature to activate the full back tattoo that grants her powers offering up plenty of opportunities to disrobe. Living in a puritan age of cinema may make such scenes stick out as exploitation even more than they normally would, however here the nudity isn’t portrayed in an overtly sexual way.
In fact when romance comes Griffiths’ way in the form of a lonesome gunslinger, their interactions are handled with an innocent charm thanks to Mitsutake’s script, despite the skin on display. If anything the script is both Lion Girl’s biggest strength as well as biggest weakness. Like most of Mitsutake’s work there’s an underlying social commentary, touching on everything from wearing face masks to Japan’s culture of overworking (the amusing slogan of the ShogunTube news broadcast is “Don’t live long, die while working!”), which here are delivered with a sledgehammer level of unsubtlety. However it’s undeniably intentional in much the same way Paul Verhoeven uses a similar approach, which makes the deadpan delivery hit the intended comedic notes (at one point Griffiths finds peace with herself, reflecting that “No matter where you go, there you are.”), and throughout much of Lion Girl it’s difficult not to smile.
On the flip side though the runtime could have done with a little trimming. A few scenes find themselves drowning in exposition, not least the narration dump that plays after the opening credits to bring us up to speed. Even an extended flashback sequence that sees Griffiths break the fourth wall at 45 minutes to tell us “that’s a story for another time” (hinting at a possible sequel?), implying that the flashback is wrapping up, ends up continuing for considerably longer. Similarly, after being told that Lion Girl has trained in everything from karate to judo to ninjitsu, it’s somewhat of a let-down that beyond the (admittedly striking) poses, there’s a distinct lack of fight action. This is despite the presence of Mitsutake regulars like Danish martial artist David Sakurai (One Ranger, The Doorman) and former WWE wrestler Katarina Leigh Waters (Redcon-1, Killing Joan), who we saw deliver the goods in Karate Kill.
Despite these issues, Lion Girl never takes too long to get back to its role of entertaining, and with powers like “breast flame”, “psycho freeze”, and “fire vomit” it’s not difficult to see why. Throw in a Nick Fury lookalike playing Griffiths’ father (the Samuel L. Jackson version, not David Hasselhoff), and a big hair, black leather clad femme fatale who looks like she literally stepped off the screen from a 90’s V-cinema joint, and anyone who’s a fan of Mitsutake’s work will likely find plenty to enjoy in his latest. If anything, the half female half male man-anoroc is worth sticking around for alone, trust me on that one.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6.5/10