When we first see our heroine (played by an irrepressibly cute Eriko Sato) she's taking a bubble bath and pontificating on how wonderful they are. Then her phone rings. It's her uncle. All of a sudden Honey hears sounds of violence (oh no!). Something bad is happening to her uncle (shock!). Realizing that Something Must Be Done, Honey immediately leaps out of the bath and shouts Honey Flash!
Nothing. It seems the I-System that gives her android body special powers (long story) is low on energy. As if that wasn't enough, she doesn't have any clean clothes to wear. Immediate solution: grab her underwear and a plastic trash bag and make do with that. Cut to Honey running down the street in her improvised outfit (she runs rather nicely, by the way). Dashing into a convenience store she loads up on soda and onigiri. Nice and full now she tries again. Honey Flash! This time she is immediately transformed into a fully outfitted biker chick, complete with high-speed racing motorcycle, and she's off to rescue her uncle.
And that opening scene is a pretty fair summation of "Cutie Honey": Hideaki Anno's 2004 live-action adaptation of one of manga artist Go Nagai's most well-known characters. The film is an example of tokusatsu, which is to say: live-action movies or television usually involving superheroes or monsters, or both. If you've seen a Godzilla film, or sat through an episode of "Whup-Ass Kids Wearing Multi-Colored Costumes and Flying in Spaceships", then you've experienced tokusatsu. About the closest American analogue to this sort of thing would be the 1966 "Batman" movie (with the 1995 "Tank Girl" film in second place). It's theoretically possible to make a serious and dark-toned tokusatsu film, but admittedly such efforts are few and far between. Nine times out of ten you'll get more dramatic content in a "Huckleberry Hound" cartoon than in your average tokusatsu.
As an example, in an early scene we have Honey encountering Gold Claw: an agent of the Panther Claw organization. Gold Claw not only dresses like a headliner in a Seventies glam-rock concert, but his minions are all dressed in matching dark suits, hats and carry gold Lugers. They are also graduates of the Imperial Stormtrooper School of Marksmanship (which means they couldn't hit a target if it cuddled against them during a romantic moment). This is fortunate for Honey as it gives her a chance to waste about ten seconds transforming into her Warrior of Love outfit, and then she has to go into the whole nine yards worth of introduction explaining who she is (accompanied by some fast-paced animation and a theme song which expounds upon the virtues of her small bottom). Add surprised close-ups and exaggerated movements by the Bad Guys and mix well. No, "Cutie Honey" obviously isn't in the same category as Christopher Nolan's Batman films.
So why watch it?
Well pumpkins, it sort of goes like this. Sometimes you need steak and vegetables . . . and sometimes you need popcorn.
And "Cutie Honey" is occasionally very nice popcorn. Director Hideaki Anno is certainly no stranger to action filming. Among other things he is the creator of the existential anime series "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (a title anime fans conjure with). He has also worked on animation for features such as "Macross", "Urusei Yatsura", "Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind" and "Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise" (if these titles mean nothing to you then don't worry. Just trust me when I tell you Hideaki Anno's got Serious Cred among anime fans). If you want a good look at him, he makes a cameo scene in "Cutie Honey" as an office worker (the one with the beard) who berates Honey for showing up late.
It also helps that, whereas the story and action is usually pure slapstick, the actors take their roles very seriously. I had mentioned Eriko Sato (perhaps the best person to run in a movie since Adrienne Barbeau in the 1982 "Swamp Thing"). A former fashion model turned actress, Sato plays the title character like a bubbly signal flare . . . everyone's kid sister who just happens to have super powers. Despite the experience and the history that the character is supposed to possess, Sato plays her as if she's still trying to find her way around the world. An innocent who can shrug off cannon fire.
Award winning actor Jun Murakami plays Seiji Hayami: one of those investigative reporters who seems to show up at the right place at the right time. He also knows quite a bit for just an ordinary reporter (cue suspicious music) and spends a lot of time in the movie convincing the audience that there's more to him than meets the eye. Think of Han Solo with a press pass and you have an idea of Murakami's character.
To me, however, the true treat of "Cutie Honey" is Mikako Ichikawa as police inspector Natsuko Aki (or "Nat-chan" by Hayami, who's obviously in Serious Smit with her). Another model turned actress, Ichikawa was voted Best New Talent at the 2003 Yokohama Film Festival, and her work in "Cutie Honey" easily demonstrates how she rated the distinction. Inspector Aki is one of those no-nonsense professional women (always wearing business suits and a frown), and is also one of those women who look achingly cute in glasses. She spends the film not only trying to solve the Panther Claw situation, but also fighting off Hayami's advances and trying to deny the growing friendship she has for Honey. For a police officer she also spends a lot of time stealing scenes. In one instance her superiors feel she's ruined the investigation and reassign her to a lesser job. Aki's reponse is to slam one leg down hard on the table between herself and the superiors (accompanied by a look which tells the men they've just crossed that Thin Line). She also hands over her gun, with the barrel pointed conspicuously in their direction. Dirty Harry in horn-rims.
In another scene Aki and Honey are in Hayami's hotel suite (Honey arriving just in time to prevent Aki from succumbing to an increasingly fond embrace from Hayami). Matters soon progress to the three of them boozing it up (!), and the audience is treated to Our Heroes engaged in a bout of drunken karaoke (this and a somewhat similar scene in "Lost in Translation" mark the only two examples of karaoke your Uncle Mikey will smilingly tolerate . . . otherwise I agree with whoever said karaoke was Japan's revenge for Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
Oh, and then there're the villains. I had mentioned Gold Claw (played by Hairi Katagiri). There's also Cobalt Claw (Sie Kohinata), Scarlet Claw (Mayumi Shintani, possessing a rather disturbing laugh) and Black Claw (Mitsuhiro Oikawa, whose character obviously escaped from the same concert as Gold Claw). They work for the androgynous Sister Jill (Eisuke Sakai): a creature seemingly in a perpetual state of near paralysis, and whose diet consist of young girls. Her headquarters is Jill Tower: a converted Tokyo Tower (and here I must express sympathy for Tokyo Tower. For decades it has been a magnet for monsters, aliens and any other bit of weirdness that's descended upon that city. Maybe now that the Tokyo Skytree is finished it'll take some of the heat).
But back to the villains. Usually they're nothing more than the Three Stooges with superior firepower. But Anno's direction (aided on the screenplay by Rumi Takahashi) does lend itself to some interesting moments. In one scene Cobalt Claw attacks Honey and Aki at the office building where Honey works in her not-so-secret identity. The images of this creature scuttling along across the ceiling call up echoes of H.R. Giger's creations for the "Alien" movies. And in the climactic battle between Honey and first Black Claw, then Sister Jill, allow for Anno's special effects crew to take the kid gloves off (and for everyone else to leave the funny stuff at home).
Overall "Cutie Honey" isn't meant to be taken seriously. But it's there when something different from total darkness is called for. Rather like training a peacock to deliver incendiary bombs. It's obviously not going to be memorialized for cultural significance (or even qualify for Miss Congeniality), but the film does possess a redeeming quality that quite a number of contemporary productions have opted to put aside. It has the ability to be Fun.