If anything, Asia Pulp Cinema’s “Akihabara Trilogy” has managed to prove what a naïve doofus I am. Thinking these looked like unique little comedies, I watched them, only to discover that they’re pretty much glorified softcore pornos. But does that necessarily make them any less worth watching? Surprisingly, no. Named for a district in Tokyo that caters to all manners of fanboys and fetish-seekers alike, the three pictures in the Akihabara series present their own strange little slants on modern romance that, as awkward as they can get at times, never get boring.
Legend of the Doll
Ryouta (Hideo Tsubota) is a lonely sadsack who spends his days crafting and putting together toy figures. One day, after losing the latest addition to his prized collection in a scuffle, Ryouta stumbles upon a mysterious shop, where he’s presented with what looks like just another figure. But after he’s done with the finishing touches, the doll suddenly transforms into a flesh-and-blood beauty named Airu (Noriko Kijima). While at first he indulges his nerdier side by parading Airu in costume after seductive costume, it soon becomes apparent that there’s a reason this doll sprung to life, which may have something to do with Ryouta’s old girlfriend.
For a good half-hour, it certainly seems that Legend of the Doll is heading down a shamelessly sleazy route I was afraid it’d follow. The story does often reek of being a pretty pathetic attempt at a fish-out-of-water comedy, with about two minutes’ worth of such scenes included before having Airu engage in a little cosplay action. But as the film progresses, Legend of the Doll makes a rather quick and successful recovery in slowly revealing the motivations behind Airu coming to life. I won’t spoil them here, but they do give the flick an unexpectedly sweet edge and even an extra dramatic layer or two. The movie still culminates in an obligatory sex scene, but it’s actually tastefully done and, depending on how well you’ve bought into the thematics that the story attempts to sell you, bears quite a bit of emotional weight.
There’s no denying that Legend of the Doll is a phenomenally silly production that was made for the sole reason of showing off how beautiful star Noriko Kijima is, which it does in spades. But in its own weird ways, this breezy little fantasy becomes quite the charmer.
Cat Girl Kiki
Once an ambitious college student, Takagi (Teruaki Uotani) has since become something of a recluse, preferring to sulk around his apartment rather than venture outside. On a day he actually decides to get some sun, our schlubby hero comes upon an abandoned kitten that he takes home with him. But no sooner has he given the animal shelter than it magically transforms into a beautiful woman with cat ears (Yui Kano). Giving this strange cat girl the moniker “Kiki,” Takagi starts to lighten up and takes on the responsibility of teaching Kiki how to act more like a human. But he still finds himself being tortured by past memories which start to worsen once his ex-girlfriend (Minami Aoyama) re-enters his life.
You know how Legend of the Doll looked as if it would be treading creepy waters, only to be saved by an unexpectedly touching final act? Yeah, Cat Girl Kiki attempts to do the same trick, only to be undone by a premise that’s, quite franky, goofy as shit. The plot follows the same turn of events as Doll (right down to having Kiki inexplicably prance around in French maid and schoolgirl uniforms), and there’s even a similar twist at the end meant to add a whole new layer to the story. But whereas it actually sort of made sense in Doll, Kiki’s twist is so out of left field, all you can do is sit back and wonder what the hell brought it on. The flick isn’t even really successful in the erotic aspect it was probably intended to have, as I don’t think I’d care to meet the guy who’s turned on by the sight of Kano’s Kiki crawling around and meowing like an insane woman.
Cat Girl Kiki isn’t without its funnier moments (including an amusing bit where Kiki misreads an erotic novel), but while its siblings in this trilogy managed to transform iffy stories into rather sweet escapades, Kiki is every bit as awkward to watch as it sounds.
Pretty Maid Café
On a day like any other, nerdy fanboy Shirou (Taketora Morita) takes his buddy Kawaguchi (Takatsuki Jun) to a maid-themed cafe/massage parlor in the Akihabara neighborhood. Kawaguchi is all ready to head for the hills, until he sets his eyes upon Misaki (Kotono), the cafe’s most popular and in-demand maid. Misaki’s adorable looks and friendly attitude hook our schmoe of a hero right off the bat, virtually falling in love at first sight. Gradually, Kawaguchi gathers up enough courage to find out about some of Misaki’s hobbies and ends up getting her to go out fishing with him — even though he hasn’t the slightest clue about how to fish. But Kawaguchi isn’t the only one after the pretty maid’s affections, as a mystery man on a motorcycle stalks the lovely Misaki, determined to claim her for himself at any cost.
Compared to its brothers, Pretty Maid Café is the most normal flick in the trilogy. While Doll and Kiki are steeped within the realm of the supernatural, Pretty Maid Café opts to tell a more straightforward love story, your standard “boy meets girl” fable merely set in a strange environment. It helps that the filmmakers never cop a condescending attitude towards the lead characters. Kawaguchi is just a lonely dude who’s fallen in love at first sight, and Misaki is a bright young soul with dreams of her own, far from the subservient bimbo she might seem like on the surface. Oh, and she’s as cute as a freakin’ button to boot.
Pretty Maid Café spends less time ogling at Misaki (which it still does, considering the fantasy-catering nature of her job) and more on developing a sweet, breezy little romance. The flick’s not without its awkward moments (especially with the character of Shirou, who sends a sort of creepy “obsessiveness is good” message), but it’s got more heart than several Hollywood romcoms can claim to have.