Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs Review
After the success of her stints in Norifumi Suzuki’s “Sukeban” series, not to mention the pairing with Reiko Ike that was merely preparing her for bigger roles, Miki Sugimoto went solo in the first and most memorable of the Zero Woman series 1974. In fact that would be the only Zero Woman film until the mid-90s, where a further seven were churned out for V-cinema until 1999. The latter films all shared one thing in common – the protagonist’s name is Rei and she works for an undercover organisation. This approach isn’t too dissimilar then to that of Takashi Iishi’s during his time writing the Angel Guts series; while they shared the same name each character appeared to be a reinterpretation, almost Bond-like in that their individual personas were defined by the actor portraying them. For Rei’s first outing Furyo Bancho [Juvenile Boss] meister Yukio Noda helms the picture, based on a manga by Toru Fujiwara, also responsible for Female Convict Scorpion, which would later be adapted into a series of movies starring another cult icon, Meiko Kaji.
The film begins with Rei (Miki Sugimoto), go-go dancing in her finest threads as she quickly catches the eye of a dodgy looking foreigner who soon lures her back to his pad for a quick rape session. Unbeknownst to him Rei is an undercover cop, who plays by unorthodox rules; she quickly dispatches of the seedy git by shooting him in the balls and strangling him with her amazing red handcuffs. When backup arrives at the crime scene her superior officer tells her that her actions have gone too far, consequently he takes away her badge and sends her off to prison. Meanwhile, politician Nangumo Zengo (a cold Tetsuru Tanba) receives news that his daughter Kyoko has been kidnapped by a gang of thugs, led by the mentally unstable - and recently released from prison – Nakahara. Fearing that the kidnappers will kill his daughter, even upon payment of the ransom, Nangumo has his men find someone to bring her back safely. They decide to contact Rei and inform her that if she successfully completes the mission they will wipe her records clean and reinstate her as a police officer. With not much choice she agrees and takes on the pseudonym “Zero” as she goes undercover for a clandestine government. Now she must infiltrate Nakahara’s gang and take out its members one by one.
Yukio Noda is a rather straight laced director who sticks to simple rules. While directors such as Yamaguchi and Suzuki were busy capturing a dizzy, psychedelic era, infusing their pictures with artistic flourishes Noda was getting straight into the dirt with hits such as Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs. Therefore you’re not likely to see quite so many innovative techniques being used, though that being said Noda enjoys his free-hand approach, making the most of his action set pieces; there are occasions in which he captures a moment perfectly with a nice off-angle shot, or sets a mood accordingly with a flash of red or blue. Noda’s film features plenty of nudity and violence which take enormous precedence; it is for all intents though an action piece, with one scene after the next delivering blow after blow, chase for chase. Its influences, in particular several car chases, may well ride as much on the back of American cinema in the day, if not for its loyalty toward the exclusive Japanese genre, in which instance plenty of rape and torture ensues – rather gruesomely I might add. But of course this was a time in which Pinky Violence and the like were being used equally to address society; sometimes blatantly, other times in a more subtle manner. And so the west gets a bit of a beating, in particular the US, as does the Japanese police force and government, which display a worrying attitude toward safeguarding itself. However Noda doesn’t preoccupy himself too much with damning details and sticks to a more important series of over the top events.
That doesn’t mean there’s no actual plotting. What there is functions adequately for a cheap slice of exploitation; Noda’s problem is that he’s working with a lethargic script and doesn’t attempt to alter any of it. Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs doesn’t present a story for the ages, that’s no surprise, and neither does it stray from showing us stereotypical, zany henchman. Everything that a fan should expect is most certainly here, and is suitably performed by each of the actors taking part, but there’s a certain lack of passion in areas which should prosper from time to time, which Noda doesn’t seem capable of fixing until the film’s nicely executed denouement, as Rei bids farewell to the now scarred woman she saved.
Cult fave Miki Sugimoto could never be classed as a supreme actor (class singer though); she tended to work best when she was placed alongside more seasoned performers like Reiko Ike, but rarely was given much more to do than take her clothes off and look expressionless, and if she was lucky get a bit of a side story that would test her skills a little. For Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs she most certainly looks the part; donned in a fitting red trenchcoat with matching accessories she seems to be an embellishment of sorts, symbolised as a bringer of death with an unmistakable cold exterior and looks that can truly kill. However Sugimoto never goes beyond this frozen façade, which makes her casting somewhat curious, though not unsurprising. She’s made to go through several scenes of torture with a perpetually vacant look on her face, which on one hand sees her true identity being kept safe, yet on the other presents a contradiction when compared to her earlier, overly ruthless demeanour. Sugimoto, here, is an emotionless rag doll, tossed around by a mean group of fuckers while she rarely bats an eyelid. While Noda undoubtedly tries to capture a cool essence, he loses a bit of humanity in the process. Rei, or Zero, could well be a compelling character if only we’re actually allowed to understand her. Instead Noda doesn’t concern himself with fleshing this woman out; according to him we don’t need to know who she is or where she came from or why she does what she does. And under any other circumstance that might be a whole lot more acceptable.
It’s therefore a little strange when we later see her join a gang where she soon witnesses a slew of murders, which she most definitely is in a position to prevent. She keeps a gun strapped to her leg, which we don’t see until the final reel, and furthermore she gets every single gang member alone at some point, and yet doesn’t take their life in an instant. Her mission is to kill everyone discreetly and then get out safely with the hostage. But Noda has other plans, and his eagerness in building up to a suitably guitar twangin’ final act is increasingly all the more evident, or else what would we have? A normal ending perhaps? Exactly, and that would betray what makes many of these exploitation flicks so shamelessly fun. And indeed Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs is fun, to a great extent. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect is Zero’s customised red handcuffs that have an amazing flying ability that wouldn’t see them out of place in any wuxia flick; a device that makes no sense whatsoever, yet it yields some wonderfully amusing, though violent moments.
New label Discotek Media, who are specializing in bringing us relatively unseen classics made their debut in Oct 2005 with Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, and for a first release it’s a damn fine one too. The first 10,000 feature a collectable slip cover that mimics the amaray case art, which has been designed exclusively by Wes Benscoter, along with a 2-page booklet featuring notes by Thomas Weisser.
Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs was filmed in the ever popular wider scope of 2.35:1 that many directors of the time were embracing for these types of film, which was usually interesting considering that it shouldn’t be such a neccessity. However 2.35:1 proves to serve them very well when capturing these certain moods. Here Discotek preserve the ratio with a very pleasing anamorphic transfer. I’m continually impressed by how great these remastered Toei films look on DVD after so many years, and Discotek certainly match the recent efforts we’ve seen from the likes of Panik House. Things here look very natural, with a healthy coat of grain that does wonders to show off the film’s gritty nature. Contrast and colour levels are well adjusted and there doesn’t appear to be any major artefacts or Edge Enhancement. So, a good start for sure.
Japanese Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 is presented for our one and only choice, and it functions perfectly as it punctuates action and music cues, while keeping dialogue nicely centred and free from distortion.
Optional English subtitles are also included. They offer a fine translation, coming in an accessible yellow font. Yellow doesn’t always prove to be popular with fans, but I can’t say that they’re particularly distracting.
Bonus features consist only of an original theatrical trailer for Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs, as well as a trailer for Discotek’s second acquisition - the live action adaptation of Lupin III.
Despite a few dodgy plot holes and a dehumanized protagonist who really should be a crazy-assed bitch with enough pent up anger to have us backing her all the way, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs is a darn enjoyable, violent romp which deservedly earns its reputation as being a classic in a staple genre. Discotek Media make a fine debut; I just hope they get in a few more like this in future.