An unpopular instalment, because it doesn't have action scenes. Personally I thought it was the best so far of the 1990s films and the first that wasn't a waste of time.
To recap, Rei (i.e. Japanese for "zero") is the code name of female agents of the Tokyo police's Zero Department. (The film's Japanese title is "The Woman With No Name.") Their job: assassination. The latest Rei is Mai Tachihara and as usual she starts the film by killing a man or two.
However it's not an assassination movie. Instead it's about prostitution and the grey areas of sexuality. Tachihara's job is shooting people, but at one point she denies that she's a killer and her boss promptly beats her up with his stick. It's a bizarre thing to say, but you can see her point. She has no discernable affection for Department Zero. Her boss will force her to move from one apartment to another on a whim and is so disinterested in her that he won't bother looking up from his book even when holding a conversation.
Tachihara's empathies lie elsewhere. In her spare time, she hangs around in late-night bars where men pick up prostitutes. She has aggressive sex that she initiates, then walks away from. At one point she meets a policeman who loved her before she faked her death and went underground into Department Zero, but she practically sneers at him and performs a perfunctory sex act before dumping him. He seems like a nice guy. Nothing wrong with him, but Tachihara's clearly into something less wholesome. The kinds of interaction she seeks out include:
(a) She makes contact with a semi-prostitute who knows her latest target. They go back to the other girl's apartment together and before long Tachihara has guessed her backstory and motivations just by looking at her. "Just like me," says Tachihara. Obviously she's undercover at this point, but even so there's clearly some empathy there. Later the two women go to bed together, which is admittedly just for somewhere to sleep but suggests undertones. Tachihara eventually leaves this girl and tracks down her target, only to consider ignoring her orders and letting him escape for the girl's sake.
(b) An androgynous rent boy who picks up men for sex and is sufficiently ambiguous as to confuse the audience. He's also a transvestite who at one point gets beaten and gang-raped. Tachihara just sits there and watches this (eh?), but then afterwards invites him home and makes him a permanent houseguest. He's a dangerously disturbed individual. You'll see. Incidentally, if at any point you're wondering whether or not this guy is male, remember that we've seen him in his pants.
(c) A middle-aged man in a bar who says things like "I like guys who seem like fake women" and "I want you to watch me doing it." That was one of the film's warmer and more human scenes.
The film's even blurring sexual boundaries deliberately. Tachihara gets naked an awful lot, but the camera seems oddly uninterested in this and instead gives us a better view of, say, Transvestite Boy in that pants scene. (Both characters spend a fair of time without trousers.) In only one scene does the camera take a good, long look at Tachihara's boobs and that's: (a) nearly an hour into the film, and (b) an intimate conversation between these two damaged people, both naked in the bathroom. What's more, that's without mentioning the transvestism, the sex/death cocktail and the fact that Tachihara waits for one of her targets in the men's toilets.
This isn't an exciting film. There's only one gun-toting killer here and that's Tachihara. No one else is a serious threat. However there are plenty of gun battles in this series and they don't tend to make for interesting movies. What we have here is superior, despite popular fanboy opinion.
The actors are okay. No one stands out, but they're all tolerable enough. Unfortunately we've lost Tokuma Nishioka for an inferior replacement in what's clearly the same role. I presume that's a character from the manga. Meanwhile the director (Daisuke Goto) had also made Zero Woman 2
, but I didn't hold that against him.
The icing on the cake though was the inappropriate music. "Be My Laaaady" crops up a number of times, sung by chipmunks. The closing credits think it's spelled "Be My Lody". That was kind of mesmerising, but it's followed by "do-do doo do, do doo laa la laaa" in the bar and an electric guitar rock piece we hear a couple of times. "Be My Lody" in particular is such a surreal choice that it's kind of brilliant. I sat through all the closing credits, just listening to it.
In my opinion, the film works. I liked it. It's widely thought to be slow and dull, but there's lots of thematic meat and it's short enough that I was startled when the credits abruptly rolled. Crucially, Tachihara's conflicted loyalties successfully drive a twisted film, whereas Takeda's similar angst in Zero Woman 3: Assassin Lovers
made her look like an idiot. Tachihara's Rei doesn't have anyone trying to kill her, so the the character has more room to maneuver when it comes to disobedience and not doing her job. She has little loyalty to her superiors. She makes abnormal sexual choices. She likes her twilight world, or at least she's prone to getting emotionally attached to its denizens.
This 1990s straight-to-video series is picking up. It started poorly, but here it's almost intriguing.