Chanbara Beauty Review

Released this week by Manga Entertainment, Kev takes a look at a video game adaptation featuring a half-naked swordsgal who’s out for some zombie breakfast.

The day we see a film about zombie pirates, monkeys and ninjas fighting for some kind of supremacy will be the day when I can confidently say that I’ve seen it all. It’s been done to death by now hasn’t it, and I can’t say that of late there have been any particularly outstanding zombie flicks which have gone to great lengths to serve up anything new for our viewing pleasure; or is it that I expect too much from a film about walking dead people? Regardless, the same can be said of Yohei Fukuda’s Onechanbara, released in Japanese theatres last summer, in turn based upon the low-budget but wildly successful slash ‘em up videogame franchise from D3 publisher’s “Series 2000” line up.

I suppose in that respect we shouldn’t go into Onechanbara with any great expectations. Indeed the story itself is befitting of a brainless videogame in which the sole purpose is to dismember as many zombies as quickly and efficiently as possible. But Onechanbara has a trump card up its sleeve; its heroine is a bikini-clad cow-girl who wields a mean sword! Suddenly the realisation of a film featuring a half naked girl taking on hordes of the dead raises interest, like it couldn’t possibly fail could it?

Only it sort of does.

The year is 20XX for some reason, and the D3 Corporation has been resurrecting the dead. The downside is that the dead have been turning people into zombies, which is bad. Enter Aya (Eri Otoguro) and her companion Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki), who apart from seeking out and destroying zombie baddies, are also searching for a girl by the name of Saki (Chise Nakamura) and Katsuji‘s sister Asami. When a violent encounter sees them cross paths with a lone biker woman named Reiko (Manami Hashimoto) they find themselves forced to team up, armed with the knowledge that Saki is currently in the hands of mad scientist Dr. Sugita (Taro Suwa) who thinks of himself as a god – they all do really – and wishes to infest the earth with stinking zombies so he can feel a little better about himself.

Director Fukuda, who is currently drumming up controversy after his most recent foray into horror exploitation, Grotesque, got itself banned by the BBFC, sets up his tale with initial promise, leading us to expect an ultra silly gore-filled romp. That doesn’t last long however, as for all its apparently silly attributes the feature takes itself so bloody seriously. Unfortunately the already wafer-thin plot rests itself on the shoulders of a select group of individuals who each have a sob-story to tell and essentially mope around for the best part of an hour keeping totally straight faces – and you can be sure that the accompanying exposition is all so convenient and trifling to boot. The question is why does Fukuda go in a completely opposite direction with the material here – depressing rather than outrageously fun? Our scantily dressed zombie slayer might have the figure to entice, but she also has about as much charisma as a nat. To be fair one shouldn’t place too much blame on Eri Otoguro for her stoic, emotionless portrayal, as her character is underwritten and she has a sorry past which doesn’t allow her to open up a great deal. But she is nonetheless an overall deterrent to the film’s enjoyment. There’s no sass, no wild humour or knowing winks to the camera; hell, so much of the film takes place in the dark that we rarely get to enjoy her tight frame kick rotten arse. And this overall feeling is echoed across the entire feature; Fukuda might well draw our attention to other notable females, such as a zombie Go-Go Yubari and a leather-clad biker chick whose shotgun sights you don’t want to get in front of, but he manages the almost impossible task of helming a female-led action feature which doesn’t ooze that much sexiness nor excitement .

There’s still a decent amount of action to be had though, and it’s here where you’ll find most of the unintentional humour. The videogame series happens to be more convincing on the blood-letting front mind you, as Fukuda shows complete disregard for restraint in covering the lens as much as possible with obvious sprays of crimson CG, while the rapid editing techniques undermine the fairly inventive fight choreography of Go Ohara, to which Eri Otoguro seems quite adept at performing. The ingredients are here alright, they’re just not that well prepared, although at least the final 10 minutes serve up a decent portion of girl on girl action, with enough crazy displays of fireworks to entertain as much as it does in leaving us scratching out heads in bewilderment.


For those wondering why I’ve referred to the film as Onechanbara, it’s because it’s the original Japanese title, and one which adopts another play-on-words set up: Chanbara of course being a Jidaigeki sub-genre and Onechan being an affectionate name for elder sister. Manga has chosen to adopt for their release its festival title, while in the U.S. Media Blasters has gone on to create more confusion with its labelling of Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad (in lieu of the videogame‘s western release).

Manga’s 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is a bit of a disappointment. The film, shot digitally, has that naturally low-budget vibe which has then been put through post processing. The result, for what is a feature predominant in night time exterior shots and low-lit interiors, is a bit of a muddy affair with poor definition on account of a slight softness and crushed black levels. The dull contrast doesn’t greatly help, although other tones appear quite adequate in a deliberately washed out state. Predictably the transfer is another NTSC-PAL job, which makes for some terrible ghosting on LCD displays during some of the more frantic fight sequences, while combing also pops up.

Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround are on offer. The latter is fine if not a major step up from the 2.0 track. Action scenes benefit from a little kick, but overall it still leaves the impression that more could have been made of the surround channels. Dialogue is centred at the front and is reasonably fine, coming across as a little subdued on occasion, thus forcing to viewer to tweak volume levels a little.

Optional English subtitles are included and these read fine, with no errors or timing issues.

The disc boasts a 35 minute Making Of feature which offers a typical look behind the scenes. Less technical information and more on the actors carrying out certain scenes and talking about their experiences on set. This includes some predictably awful questioning ranging from “What do you feel about Cosplay?” to “How do you feel about zombies?”, while there’s no shortage of cast members praises one another. The set appears to be fun, though we get no input from crew members, including the director

A trailer is also included.


Girl in bikini + sword + zombies = entertainment. Doesn’t it? I used to think so. Onechanbara puts me in mind of Kenta Fukasaku’s Yo-Yo Girl Cop, in that it really ought to be ridiculously fun without having to put too much effort into it. Instead it wallows in pity, offering plenty by way of depressing characters and dull-lit environments, and little of the stuff we’re actually wishing to see.

Kevin Gilvear

Updated: Sep 12, 2009

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Chanbara Beauty Review | The Digital Fix