Zipang (Japan 1990)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 2/14/04
Director: Kaizo Hayashi
Cast: Masahiro Takashima, Narumi Yasuda

Nothing can quite prepare you for this bizarre visual feast. A famous criminal named Jigoku (dashing Masahiro Takashima from the "Godzilla" series and "Gunhed" (1989) ) has a huge bounty on his head, and the ever-so-lovely Yuri The Pistol (impossibly charming Narumi Yasuda) is determined to cash in on him. Jigoku is a tough customer, though, and literally slices and dices over a hundred foes in the first twenty minutes of the film, including parodies of Zatoichi and the One Armed Swordsman, and a European fencer of some kind (I'm sure there's a historical or pop culture hook for him, but I'm not clever enough to pick it out). When Jigoku lays eyes on Yuri, he instantly falls in love with her, much to Yuri's chagrin. Meanwhile, the real plot of the film is taking place, which revolves around the mythical "city of gold" (Zipang), which Marco Polo apparently wrote about in his journals (presumably to appease his European sponsors). In the film, Zipang really does exist, and is ruled by a mean and nasty king. Through various circumstances, our heroes all get whisked away to Zipang and save the day through love and courage.

What really strikes you about this film early on is how bizarre and offbeat it is. It's actually a dry-witted parody of chambara and ninja films, and once you figure that out, the rest of the ride becomes smoother. Nowhere is this more evident than in all of the crazy ninja shit that goes on. No matter how many wacky ninja films you've seen, this one will certainly make you take notice. In addition to the standard running, jumping, flipping, flying, tunneling, and disappearing, the leader of the ninja (Hanzo) utilizes a ninja camera, a ninja slide projector, a delivery shuriken, a hair whip, a ninja rocket launcher, a detachable hand that serves as a grappling hook, and a giant 24-inch shuriken (which oddly enough, never gets used). He can also suck the bones out of his hand, and has an emergency knife concealed in his rib cage! (what the hell?!?) Naturally, this is all handled with deadpan seriousness, as only the Japanese can do.

Overall, the film is well made and looks really good. The sets and costume design are colorful and over-the-top, and the music is upbeat and enjoyable. The action scenes are plentiful and faster paced than most Japanese productions, but still not quite as frantic and kinetic as similar Hong Kong fare. The fight choreography is good, but the one complaint I have is with the complete lack of blood. Given the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film, it seems like the perfect candidate for absurd amounts of blood squirting, spurting, and splashing all over the place. Even just a little bit would help, since the completely bloodless battles really challenge the suspension of disbelief. I mean, come on, dozens of people are getting sliced and stabbed by swords in this film - there should be some physical evidence of that, right? I suppose it's a cultural, artistic, and ratings issue. Remember when gunshot wounds used to be bloodless and invisible? Still, it bugs me. If you can get over that, "Zipang" is a fun and goofy ride with a really, really, cute and feisty heroine. Enough said.