Good grief. That was actually good. Not just "successful at its repetitive, puerile goal of being camp sleaze", but a reasonably decent film with character development, meaningful fights and genuinely nasty baddies. Sparta Academy's teachers have always tortured their students, but it's never looked this grim before. The school torture chamber looks as if it belongs to a serial killer. The teachers beat their students regularly in front of everyone, while other students walk to class as if nothing's happening and even say "good morning" in passing.
Unfortunately I have no indication that this unprecedented seriousness led to box office success, though. It's still Kekko Kamen. She's still a Go Nagai superhero who fights naked except for boots, bunny ears and a face mask. This is not a franchise for mainstream audiences. What's more, this is the eleventh live-action Kekko Kamen film after ten daft, silly and mostly empty exercises in making money out of nonsense. It's possible that this more serious approach was actually a turn-off for almost everyone who actually watched this, since screen adaptations of Kekko Kamen have traditionally been a sleaze comedy with no discernable attempt at seriousness. The first time you watch it, it's hysterically funny for about twenty minutes. After that, though, the live-action films get old.
The 1991-1993 trilogy is quite fun, I think, and it even occasionally shakes up the formula. The four 2004 films are forgettable. The three 2007 films are heading more towards pornography, with famous porn stars in the cast. This film, though, isn't a comedy at all and indeed doesn't even use the famous theme tune. I love that song. It's hilarious... which is, of course, the reason it's been avoided here.
We begin with a big teacher dragging Takahashi into the torture chamber. He opens his coat and lets her choose what he'll use on her. She gets a leather mask on her eyes and a chain gag forcing her mouth open so that he can pour things in there. Kekko Kamen eventually appears to take him down, but that was pretty nasty.
The low production values actually help the atmosphere, paradoxically. It's obviously just a grotty little room with a collection of hammers and stuff. It's bare and ugly. When people do things like this in real life, it's probably in rooms like that.
Anyway, the film continues. Sparta Academy keeps up its traditions, i.e. hospitalising students. (I saw no evidence that anyone actually got sent for hospital care, but there's one beating in particular that continues non-stop for the best part of a minute.) One scene has a teacher telling everyone to stand on their desks in class, show their underwear and get punished if they're not wearing the right chastity belt. None of this is being played for laughs. The headmaster even approves of teachers inflicting violence on each other in front of him. Takahashi develops certain feelings, goes looking for Kekko Kamen's secret identity and finds a teacher who seems nicer than the others. There's discussion of this and of whether or not it's right to tell the truth even if it puts you at risk. "I trust him."
The film's even doing interesting things with Kekko Kamen herself. She's not invulnerable! She can take a beating in fights and even come off worst overall. She's not just a Magic Superhero Plot Device. The film tackles the question of whether or not she's a pervert, which seems to be something she takes very personally. She's also capable of being violent on ordinary students she doesn't like. In short, she gets put through the wringer and becomes genuinely heroic, despite the inherent silliness of the concept. It's a cool moment when the music starts for her final appearance.
Irrelevant aside: apparently there was a "Kekko Kamen P" manga series in 2003-2004, in which our heroine spawns imitators. These include Kekko Kamen Peach, Kekko Kamen Lemon and Kekko Kamen Melon... oh, and a male one. He's called Kekko Kamen Banana.
I liked it. I think it's a decent film. The franchise has made an unexpected detour into "passable and competent", although that might not sound like much to anyone who hadn't seen the other films in the series. It's still Kekko Kamen, of course, but for once it's managing to tell a straightforwardly functional story while still embracing the franchise for what it is. The school's still run by Satan's Toenail and he's still wearing his usual mask, although for once not the jester's outfit. The film even finds a psychologically meaningful use for Kekko Kamen's crotch attack! (That's not what it sounds like, by the way. She's not attacking your groin, but instead attacking with her own. She's weaponising her own nudity.) She inspires others. It wouldn't be absurd to claim that, despite everything, the film's aiming for a feminist message. That said, though, I don't know how long you'd be able to keep up this more serious approach. This film never got a sequel, unlike the first three series. It's the nearest you'll get to a good live-action Kekko Kamen film, but wikipedia rather plaintively calls it a "fourth series" with one film in it. How many ways are there of telling the Kekko Kamen story with a straight face? Until now I'd have said "none", but this film proved me wrong.