The Tokusatsu Network Film Club is back from our annual Winter Break to bring you Shin Godzilla‘s Hideaki Anno’s first foray into tokusatsu with, Cutie Honey.
Having initially died in an accident, Honey Kisaragi was brought back to life by her scientist father, Professor Kisaragi. The Professor changed his daughter into a powerful android using a nano tech based AI system. After her father mysteriously dies, her “Uncle” Dr. Utsugi takes it upon himself to look after her and continue the work of Professor Kisaragi.
When the doctor is kidnapped by a terrorist organization called Panther Claw, Honey springs into action using her powers to transform into various guises to infiltrate the gang and take them on, using her most powerful persona, Warrior of Love, Cutie Honey.
After her initial fight with Panther Claw to save her uncle, Honey attracts the attention of Police Inspector Natsuko Aki, herself on the case to bring down Panther Claw. Things are made more strenuous when a mysterious reporter by the name of Seiji Hayami drops into Honey’s life with more information about her past, her powers, and an awful lot about Panther Claw.
Turns out that Panther Claw is run by Sister Jill, a creature of unknown origin. Jill is in need of Honey’s AI system to extend her life. To retrieve it, she dispatches her four generals–Black Claw, Gold Claw, Scarlet Claw, and Cobalt Claw– to kidnap Honey and take her captive so that they may transfer her power to Sister Jill, thus continuing Panther Claw’s goal of world domination.
In 1973, manga legend Go Nagai created Cutie Honey as a short series. Contained to a single volume book. An android super hero who could change her appearance and cloths, in doing so, obtain the skills that came with them. So if Honey became a biker, she had skills on a motorcycle. If she decided to become a samurai, she was pretty good with a sword. In many ways that Nagai’s other creations, namely Mazinger Z, was the precursor to how mech anime is approached today. Honey is consider by many to be the prototype for the “Magical Girl” genre. Series like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura would later cement the transformation traits that Nagai created for Honey. Though, unlike those latter series, Honey contained a lot of Nagai’s humor, which was often aimed a the cast being pervy when Honey would change forms, or even try to catch a glimpse of her taking a bath.
So it made perfect sense that Anno would come in to direct what was considered a modestly budget film based on a cult hit by one of the manga industries’ giants. It was Game recognizing Game. Anno was coming off the height of his acclaim with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Though that series had wrapped nearly a decade before, it had become part of the cultural lexicon in Japan. By the time Anno went to work on Cutie Honey, it was already being optioned for a live action film in the US.
Known mostly for his animation work, Anno wasn’t a stranger to making feature films. He famously started out with his friends created the group, Daicon, who made an assortment of low budget tokusatsu films in the 80’s, including one starring Anno as Ultraman. Even though Honey was his first commercial feature film, it wasn’t his first actual live action film. A few years prior he directed the low budget independent films Love and Pop and Shiki-Jitsu. Honey would be the first time Anno could take a crack at the genre he deeply loved with a budget to play with— and play, he did.
Cutie Honey is as close to a cartoon being brought to life as one can get before you hit what Speed Racer did. Every moment, every shot is framed like a combination of a spectacular anime and a Super Sentai show collided head-on. You can almost see Anno’s smile bleed through the film as it moves along. Opening with Honey (played by model Eriko Sato) running from a bubble bath in a grocery bag to fighting the villainous Gold Claw and her minions in a battle, looks like a Bugs Bunny cartoon came to life.
Anno uses his camera masterfully when crafting moments like the film’s opening. He tries his best to bring the kinetic nature of anime fights to the real world with a mix of stunts, CGI, and camera work. While the whole opening is to set the pace, the rest of the film never reaches the manic levels of its first 15 minutes– and perhaps, it’s for the best. However, don’t take that as Cutie Honey drops off. Instead, Anno sets a decent balance of story and spectacle that pretty much anyone coming in fresh to the material can enjoy.
I will say if you were to watch this film today, it may come off as a little dated. Japanese films are made on very modest budgets that would be considered micro here in the US. So, when you’re watching the CG moments, they may come off a little less than grand. Thankfully, Anno tries his best to keep things as practical as possible, but when you have a character fighting a robot shooting bullets from her mouth on top of a monolith which is all green screen, your ability to buy into whats going on may waiver a bit.
But, if you can watch a film with a bunch of stunt men in spandex fight rubber monsters, you shouldn’t have too much of an issue.
In many ways, Honey was the start of the nostalgia wave in Japan. Much like how the film industry is cranking out remakes and adaptions of everything under the sun from the 80’s and 90’s, Japan was at the forefront of that wave and Honey was the beginning.
And much like in the US, the quality varies wildly. 2004 also saw the release of a more famous character of Go Nagai in Devilman. Let’s just say Cutie Honey is the only film out of those two you should watch. I’ll say that about many of the other manga/anime adaptions post Cutie Honey we’ve gotten as well. Turns out talent is really necessary to create something good out of an adaption of an anime or manga. Anno made that very clear. Sadly, it took the Japanese film industry years to figure that out. But without Anno making Cutie Honey, we would of never have gotten Shin Godzilla.
And that, to me, makes this film that much more special.