Review: Onechanbara

Onechanbara [aka Chanbara Beauty] (Japan-2008; dir. hei Fukuda)

onechanbara poster

Onechanbara: The Movie is the sort of film that potentially raises many questions, not the least of which is “Why is that cute Japanese chick wearing a bikini, a feather boa and cowboy accessories when she’s wandering a post-apocalyptic world killing infection-spreading zombies?”

However, it’s also the sort of flick that quickly renders such questions irrelevant, because, you know, the answer is obvious. She’s wearing such basically impractical gear because it looks cool and sexy. As we should know if we’re educated cinema aficionados, looking cool and sexy is, in this sort of game-inspired cinematic context, what it’s all about. Posturing.

Onechanbara gets stuck into classic head-busting zombie action from the get-go, then introduces in rapid succession the über-zombie that is bound to be big trouble, the sexy chick from a magical bloodline who slashes the walking dead with her sword’s flaming blade, the attractive, morally compromised, embittered younger sister (wearing her school uniform) and the equally attractive, psychologically damaged woman with ample cleavage, leather trousers and coat. This latter wields a formidable shotgun that blows zombies apart with bloodsplattery aesthetic violence and never runs out of ammunition. Pretty well five minutes in and we’ve got all the essentials — can rest easy in knowing not to expect a Romeroesque metaphor-driven zombie apocalypse here, and so settle back to enjoy the deliberate dissonance created by the contrast between beauty in motion and gore-drenched zombie nastiness.

On the beauty side, the film’s main focus, Eri Otoguro playing Aya the cowgirl, wields her katana and her physical attributes with an air of vague self-consciousness that only occasionally slips into awkwardness. She’s no Aya Ueto (Azumi), Yumiko Shaku (The Princess Blade) or Michelle Yeoh — having been chosen with more regard for cuteness and her ability to wear the gear than acting ability or martial art expertise — but she’s generally fine in a role where the SFX cover a multitude of sins. The rest of the time she does an impersonation of Clint Eastwood (albeit Clint Eastwood wearing a bikini, high-heeled boots and feather boa) — unsmiling and grim, tormented by past tragedies and consumed by a desire for revenge. Naturally, she postures beautifully.

As I said above, posturing is vital. Moments of physical stillness flow into sequences of exaggerated movement. Aya’s blade sweeps through the air leaving a magical fire trail, slices zombie flesh and continues its trajectory as blood splatters the camera lens, then is held suspended in samurai fashion, forming a momentary tableau like a defining frame from a graphic novel. Onechanbara has a live-action manga style to it, though in fact it is based on a series of video games. The video game background should be fairly obvious from the small group of characters, the linear plotline that moves from one fight sequence to another, the journey to the source of the Evil, and the final confrontation with the Big Bad (as Western cousin Buffy the Vampire Slayer would put it). But these characteristics are as common in action films, fantasy books and manga as they are in VGs, so there’s really no point in quibbling over absentee narrative complexities.

Not that I felt inclined to quibble while watching the film. It was fun. It was visually interesting. It had just enough of a dramatic undercurrent to keep the less viscerally stimulated part of my brain distracted while the rest of it hummed along to the visual music of zombies, hot chicks, supernatural swordplay, artistically splattered blood, frequent action, posture-driven angst and low-budget style. I got what I expected — plus, perhaps, a bit more. I was content.

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