That was surprisingly good. Okay, no, delete that. Surprisingly non-crap? No, even that's giving it too much credit, but this is still better than you'd expect of live-action Kekko Kamen.
A bit of background. There have been ten live-action Kekko Kamen movies to date and this was the first of them. Kekko Kamen is a Go Nagai parody of Japan's first superhero, Gekko Kamen, which is usually translated as Moonlight Mask. If you've ever read a Go Nagai manga, you'll know that he can be filthy and puerile, but that he's also capable of ferocious originality and going further than you could imagine from anyone else. This is often for reasons of taste. He's invented entire genres in his time, but his original Kekko Kamen is a pervy gag strip that's not even aiming at artistic merit. It contains nudity, but it's not about hardcore sex or anything like that. It's not hentai.
The difficult thing with Kekko Kamen is tone. Is it comedy, parody, softcore porn or a proper superhero series? You certainly won't get any guidance from the manga. The anime is hilarious and a bit brilliant in its deliberately stupid excess, but unfortunately the live-action versions just tend to come across as a bit sad. They're a bit camp and cheap, not going far enough with either the nudity or Go Nagai's trademark bad taste to become noteworthy either as straight exploitation or as a parody of it. When they work, to the extent that they do ever work, it tends to be with silliness that's almost Python-esque. They can be funny, but that's about it.
That basically holds true for this first Kekko Kamen movie, but what's unusual about it is that compared with later instalments in the series, it's a straight adaptation. It's weird and stupid, yes, but that's inherent in the material. It doesn't seem to be trying as hard as you'd expect to be a comedy, while the actors appear to be trying to act rather than audition for children's television.
I'll talk about the latter first. Obviously these aren't the best actors you'll ever see and furthermore we're still talking about a series in which the main villain (Satan's Toenail) is dressed up as a medieval jester with facepaint like Batman's Joker. The teachers are having to go right over the top, with Ben-Kyoushi in particular doing some desperately weird things in his classroom scene. He shudders, shouts and gets extreme close-ups of his unpleasantly bad skin. However rather than entirely being a bad actor hamming it up, to some extent he does manage to come across as unbalanced and really quite twisted. In fact by Kekko Kamen standards the evil teachers are almost low-key, being merely mad but ordinary men rather than outright monsters and freaks.
The above doesn't apply to Satan's Toenail, by the way, but I think that kind of performance was always going to be inevitable as soon as you've put on that outfit and make-up.
Then you've got the film's presentation of its subject matter. Kekko Kamen doesn't enter like a stripper, but merely pops up and delivers her little speech like a Sailor Moon who happens to be nude. Instead the director just gives us plenty of close-ups of her most important points. Her fights are also comparatively understated, with a surprising amount of blood instead. Most of them aren't fights at all, in fact, although there's an action scene at the end with black-clad bodyguards and a killer with a samurai sword.
Then you've got the freakish opening of the film. Cowled and chained monk-like figures with candles are going up an endless staircase in a thunderstorm. Eventually they reach the top and gather around what's either a huge glowing meteorite or an alien artefact. Inside is Satan's Toenail. It's the staff meeting. Obviously this is a cheap gag, but it's also quite a lot of atmosphere for a Kekko Kamen film and it's quite a memorable introduction to Sparta Academy and its teaching staff. Their job is terror. Satan's Toenail demands the torturing of students almost to the point of death. Naturally you can't take it seriously for a moment, but you can take it slightly more seriously than you can the later instalments in the series. The film isn't assuming that you've ever seen Kekko Kamen before and so is taking the time to establish everything from first principles. This I liked.
There's still plenty of silliness, though. The teachers are still ridiculous. The public punishment announcer is wearing a spangly bow tie you could use as a hang-glider. The cat that they're briefly going to dissect in biology class is wearing a pair of fake breasts.
The nudity is, of course, the whole point. It's all rather mild and inoffensive, but in one respect it's going a bit further than I'd expected. Startlingly for this series, Kekko Kamen's crotch isn't always being hidden by red cloth and/or a glowing light effect, although she does get in a couple of her trademark "the sun shines out of my... um, yes" scissor-kick attacks. They simply give up on trying to hide her front bottom in the climactic fight scene. There's also a certain amount of student nudity, with clothes being cut off in biology and a locker room scene even before we get to the actual nipples in judo.
There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about who acted in this film, mind you. The imdb doesn't have a clue, although maybe they know something we don't since the end credits include obvious pseudonyms, e.g. Paul Maki, Pretty Nagashima (a man). However the former at least was definitely the stage name of a real performer, born Hanzawa Kazumichi, who was born into a Hokkaido Buddhist temple family and had studied for several years to become a monk, but packed that in and after trying dozens of jobs eventually became a comedian. Sadly he committed suicide in 2005, aged 63. However none of that information is particularly relevant to this film, since no one's going to be watching it for its performances.
Overall, I quite liked this. From any objective point of view it's pretty bad, but it's at the upper end of live-action Kekko Kamen adaptations. The formula isn't stale yet. They're taking it more seriously than I'd expected and the whole thing has a kind of freshness, helped a lot by the short running time. It's only 54 minutes long, whereas the other movies come nearer to being full-length features. They've got the music, which is the most important thing even if it's not yet quite the right arrangement, and there's even a traditional superhero dilemma when Satan's Toenail orders Kekko Kamen to take off her mask. There's also a moment of male nudity, which surprised me.
Mind you, my definition of "taking it more seriously" includes whip-wielding girls wearing only underwear and Nazi peaked caps.