Four Kekko Kamen live-action movies from 2004, all made by the same director and writer and all 70 minutes long. This is actually a long-running franchise, but these are its only instalments to date to have been released in cinemas. The others went straight to video. Here's the complete live-action roster to date (i.e. excluding the anime OVAs), of which I'll be talking about the middle four:
- 1991. Kekko Kamen
- 1992. Kekko Kamen 2: We'll be back...
- 1993. Kekko Kamen 3 (Kekko Kamen in Love)
- 2004. Kekko Kamen
- 2004. Kekko Kamen: The MGF Strikes Back
- 2004. Kekko Kamen Returns
- 2004. Kekko Kamen Surprise
- 2007. Kekko Kamen Royale
- 2007. Kekko Kamen Premium
- 2007. Kekko Kamen Forever
Mangriffon Academy is a many-headed hydra, with schools for newsreaders, celebrities, swimmers and musicians. However the one thing its establishments always have in common is that their students will be young women who can be stripped almost naked and subjected to surreal and disturbing punishments. Who can foil Mangriffon's perverted schemes? Kekko Kamen, the naked superheroine, that's who!
These four 2004 Kekko Kamen movies are strange and unhealthy, and not in a good way. I'm a big fan of the anime, but live-action Go Nagai is far harder to get right. Admittedly it's easy to see why someone thought it was a good idea. A superhero stripper! You'd think it was impossible to screw that up. That's 49% of the world's population guaranteed to watch before you've even started. It's everything the 2004 Cutey Honey movie should have been, right?
It could have been. The problem with these four movies is that they're not clear about what they're doing. You could make all kinds of different Kekko Kamen films, but these don't really succeed on any score. They're not sleazy enough for the dirty mac brigade, but their half-hearted efforts in that direction still leave a lingering bad taste. There's silly comedy aimed at Go Nagai fans, most of which isn't funny. There are stupid tokusatsu monsters because that's what you get in low-budget Japanese superhero movies, but Kekko Kamen is an oddly ineffectual superheroine. She was better in the OVAs. Here she's mostly just beating up teachers who hardly even pose a serious threat to their own students.
I'll start with the most important issue: the nudity. We all know why these movies were made. We certainly see plenty of Kekko Kamen here (although never her crotch, thanks to a CGI flashing light that follows her around), but I have bad news for anyone planning to pick up these films for a little stress relief. They're almost modest. They want to seem perverted while really being family entertainment. Thus we see plenty of schoolgirls in their underwear, but almost no nudity from any of them. There's a smidgin in the first film, but otherwise it's just Kekko Kamen all the way. There aren't even any big breasts, which you'd think was a prerequisite.
There's schoolboy humour, though. Fart jokes! A remote control shaped like a penis! This is vaguely amusing if you can lower your standards, but the real problem is with the sexual torture scenes. It's not real exploitation. Japan can do exploitation and this isn't it. They're hardly even punishments. Mostly it's just childish and a bit dull, but occasionally these films throw up some unpleasant shit reminiscent of the more disturbingly misogynistic memes to be found in Japanese porn. They're not sexual, but distasteful. You'll long for wholesome straightforward nudity. It's a creepy humiliation thing, drawn from some diseased mind that one hopes wouldn't dare do anything to a real woman but still gets turned on by their distress.
The live eels were a surprise, though. Oh, and Kekko Kamen's first entrance in each film is usually bottom-first and takes about a minute. Why? She's not a stripper!
So these films aren't sexy, or even noteworthy once you've watched more than fifteen minutes' worth and got over the marginal shock value. Are they funny, then? At times, yes. It's all very silly, with cheap gags and all the stupid acting for which Japanese film and TV is infamous, but occasionally this works. A few of these actors have mastered the knack of going over the top entertainingly, while I liked the actresses playing Kekko Kamen herself (Shino Saitou in the first two films and Misaki Mori in the second two). No, I don't just mean when they're naked. They have normal scenes too, wearing clothes and everything. Subtlety of performance is hardly called for, but they both enter into the spirit of things and they're always fun and full of energy.
The first film is merely repetitive. The teachers "torture" a girl, Kekko Kamen rescues her and the teachers find someone else. Repeat a few times and you have a film. The first combat scene is funny, with all that gratuitous nudity and silliness, but then next time it's the same thing all over again and the joke's getting old. By the third iteration you're downright bored. Admittedly there are a few high points. The actors playing the creepy teachers are a laugh and I woke up for the ridiculous tokusatsu supervillains at the end, but it says something that the highpoint of the film for me is a three-second cameo for Go Nagai himself (in the moon!) with actual dialogue.
The second film was clearly filmed back-to-back with the first, reusing several actors and a lot of plot. That film was merely a bit boring, but this one annoyed me. There's a subplot with a student and her boyfriend that might make you hurl things at the screen, mostly for the quality of the performances. They're standing in front of the camera, saying the words in the right order... and that's all the credit I'll give them. They're bad even by this franchise's standards, in which even the better performances would be struck from any Western film or television show and might get the perpetrator barred from the acting profession. Meanwhile Kekko Kamen is fond of violent pep talks with lots of slapping along with the heavy-handed moralising and... I can't go on.
Interestingly at the one-hour mark comes something that throws the performances into stark relief. It's a quiz show, which the filmmakers obviously did for real in the studio. Instead of just reciting lines as usual, suddenly the actresses are trying to guess what weird thing they've put their hand into and responding with real reactions. It's great! It's fascinating how much more watchable everyone becomes, to the point where it's the highlight of the series. Seriously, you could use this for teaching purposes at drama school.
The third film is the silliest, with some imaginative visual gags that take the piss out of the film's obvious cheapness. The credits roll over a behind-the-scenes look at the special effects, which includes the swimming scenes. Despite being set in a swimming school, it seems that they couldn't afford water. Other strange visual effects include Frog-sensei and a heartfelt deathbed scene recounted with finger puppets. The film also has a ghost as one of its characters. However we see remarkably little of Kekko Kamen herself and I was seriously disappointed with Kenjiro Ishimaru, who'd been my favourite actor in the first two films but here is obviously bored. (He's the only person to star in all four 2004 Kekko Kamen movies, but by the time we reach the final instalment he's playing more of a Spirit of Mangriffon than an actual character.)
I quite liked the last of the four, though. It's not disturbing and I laughed at its comedy. Admittedly this includes things like penis-shaped hot dogs and a farted performance of Beethoven, but if you'd just sat through the previous three films you'd be willing to laugh at anything too. The students give their usual dire performances, most laughable being a girl they shipped in for the climax just to strip down to her underwear who just stands there as if she's waiting for the porn music to begin, but I liked the energy of the two main leads. As well as Kekko Kamen, we meet a female Go-Ranger agent with a version of the Mission Impossible theme tune. Furthermore the film's set in a music academy with appropriately daft costumes: lederhosen for the schoolgirls and Beethoven or Mozart lookalikes on the teaching staff. It's a bit like an Avengers episode.
Overall, any value judgements assigned to these films will be extremely subjective. Suffice to say that they're all terrible and that choosing a favourite is like trying to say whether you prefer being shot in the hip or the shoulder. They have demented energy and a few inspired moments, but frankly life's too short. I couldn't possibly recommend them. I love the Kekko Kamen OVAs, but they had authentic superhero action and the right length (25 minutes) for the traditional Kekko Kamen plot formula. Nevertheless in fairness the films could have been worse, since they avoid underage nudity by making the students over 18. They also make heavy use of the traditional theme music, which is nice. However whatever you want from a movie, you could undoubtedly watch a lifetime's worth of far better films before reaching these.