Honey Kisaragi lives in Tokyo and occasionally turns up to her job as an office dogsbody. Seeing her co-workers, you can't blame her. However in her spare time, she transforms into evil-conquering superhero Cutey Honey. Can she avoid getting arrested by the irritable Police Inspector Aki Natsuko long enough to defeat Panther Claw and save Tokyo?
There was a Go Nagai live-action explosion in 2004. He'd been nobly spreading violence and smut for nearly forty years, but suddenly in that year we got proper movies for Cutey Honey, Devilman and Kekko Kamen (four of the latter), not to mention a three-part OVA adaptation of the live-action Cutey Honey film. Unfortunately the Japanese film industry is a peculiar business. The Cutey Honey movie is a load of camp nonsense and yet also the best of the bunch. The Kekko Kamen films are cheap, stupid and have a strange half-hearted sleaziness that hurts your brain, while Devilman won the "worst movie of the year" award in Japan's equivalent of the Razzies and got reviews from all sides that could dissolve steel plates and cause cancer in lab rats.
The obvious problem with live-action Cutey Honey is that a slavish adaptation would be adults-only viewing. Of course we'd all love to see a wholehearted big-budget superhero movie that just happened to flash its heroine's tits at every opportunity, but regarding the violence even I'd agree that decapitations and axe murders might not belong in a live-action children's movie. This is especially true when committed by the heroine. This movie's producers had a choice: cheap sleaze or a kiddie film? They went for the latter option, but perhaps surprisingly, I agree with this decision. If you want the former, go watch Kekko Kamen. Besides, in other ways this film is impressively faithful to the original, even if (as with Cutey Honey Flash) they've gone so far as to cut the verse about Honey's bouncy boobs from the theme song. Grrrr.
So we have a Cutey Honey film with no blood and no tits. What else is wrong with it? The action scenes, for a start. It's following in the Japanese tokusatsu tradition of deliberately stupid-looking monsters and cartoonish action. It's wildly entertaining if you've got your head in the right mental place, but to Western audiences raised on Hollywood production values this would be a shock to the system. It's practically Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. However its CGI-boosted imagination is impressive, as the production team let rip with every wild idea that strikes their brains with no regard for realism or production limitations. It's ridiculous, but deliberately so. At one point comedy tumbleweeds roll across a ship. It's a living cartoon. This is the kind of stuff that's completely for you if you're going to look at it and say, "Big Claws and Swords, cool!"
Veterans of such Japanese films will have learned to look past the acting, but astonishingly the performances are this film's best feature. Eriko Sato does lovely work as Cutey Honey. She's rubbish in the Power Rangers scenes, but as Honey Kisaragi she's got a real spark to her. She's having fun with the part instead of just delivering lines. She's convincingly cute, bright and chirpy. She made me laugh! This film has a real knack for light comedy and simple human interaction. The Honey-Natsuko relationship is basically the main reason to watch this film unless you're indulging your inner six-year-old. I also love Sister Jill's evil butler, who's the one thing here that's clearly better than the OVAs. He's oily, creepy and weird and he gets the only effective emotional scene of the film's climax.
The performances aren't all good, though. Poor Hayami Seiji gets saddled with lots of posing and twirling. Theoretically this might have looked cool in the hands of a much more assured and experienced performer, but the actual actor just ends up looking like an idiot. It's doubly frustrating because he has charm. All the cast do. They have screen presence, even if they lack the talent you'd need to pull off the more OTT stuff. I liked precisely one of Seiji's moves, just before the one hour mark.
I like the villains. They're freakish, which is faithful to the original. Black Claw gets a song-and-dance number which had me rolling on the floor and more importantly they can all manage the ridiculously broad acting demanded of them. Strangely however Sister Jill seems to have become Panther Zora. Apart from in the 1990s OVAs, Panther Zora was the big boss in the background and Sister Jill the psychopathic henchman who'd actually go toe-to-toe with Honey. However this Sister Jill never leaves her darkened cavern, being just the boss of some silly monsters. Admittedly they look creepy when lined up to pay obesiance to her, but ironically this makes Sister Jill an insufficiently bad guy. She just stands there looking weird. I wouldn't have objected to her getting a happy ending too.
The whole ending is a mess, though. The director is Anno Hideaki, the perpetrator of that weird depression-fuelled climax to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and you can tell. It's badly paced, it's lazy and it wastes story elements that should have had much more emotional impact. You can see the potential, e.g. the stuff with Honey's father, but it never comes together as it should. For starters someone needs to pin Anno Hideaki to the ground and make him promise never to shoot any more climactic dreamlike montages that leave the audience going "huh?". It's almost abstract. Moreover Sister Jill isn't scary, while Honey is saved not through her own efforts but by Natsuko and The Power Of Love. Good grief. Honey herself gives up, although admittedly 'twas to save Natsuko.
Before all that, however, at least you can't accuse Anno Hideaki of not experimenting. He's playful, doing all kinds of shit in a 1960s Batman kinda way. He gives us imaginative camerawork, extreme camera angles, etc.
There's a clever idea about Honey's energy requirements for transformation, but it worked better in the OVAs and even there got old fast. I'm inclined to think that Honey's shapeshifting abilities are best left unexplored. They work. That's all we need to know. However in fairness that's just one example of this film's surprising thoughtfulness, raising all sorts of moral issues. Cutey Honey Flash got there first with most of them, but even so we have the likes of Honey being warned against the dangers of anger and vengeance. Seiji explains that you can't count on the system, while Natsuko explains that you can only count on the system. She doesn't kill criminals. She arrests them, and she wants to arrest Honey too. Most obviously, love defeats hatred. There's even some surprisingly deep stuff about what it's like to be the robot recreation of a dead girl.
It's certainly faithful to the 1970s Cutey Honey, down to having a "bababababa" female choir on the soundtrack. Honey's transformation is a painstaking reconstruction of the original, with all the correct dialogue and even the right visuals. The nude transformation sequences may not be nude, but they're spectacular and CGI-tastic. The theme song gets played over the action scenes, as is right and proper. They even show us Honey in her underwear in an attempt to make up for the lack of nudity, but it's strangely plain and unflattering stuff. I can't believe Eriko Sato was impressed.
There's even a Go Nagai cameo. He's the guy in the BMW on which Honey lands after being thrown from the twister. For other chances to gaze upon the god of us all, see the first Kekko Kamen movie and, bizarrely, The Toxic Avenger Part II from Troma in 1989.
This film is a mess, but not without points of interest. It's wildly inferior in almost every department to the corresponding Re: Cutey Honey OVAs, but it's full of unexpected moments. Every so often the actors will charm the pants off you. I like its music, using not only the opening and closing themes from the 1970s TV series but even a song in English. Thankfully I do mean English rather than Engrish, so there's no need to scream in pain. There's even some animation, the placing of which is interesting. This film is wildly energetic, surprisingly charming and often insane, although also capable of clumsiness. It even stands up surprisingly well to rewatching, although it's clearly not as good as the 2007 live-action TV series. It's still nonsense, though.