“Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad” – A.J. Hakari

You have to admire the zombie’s versatility. Even in the 1930s, before their carnivorous overhaul, the walking dead were placeholders for various societal metaphors. Of course, if you prefer checking your brain at the door, you can have a grand time simply blowing them to smithereens. But if there’s such a thing as being too relaxed, Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad is proof of it. With a title that has a lot to live up to, the film promises the sort of insanity Japan’s made an industry out of but delivers it in such lethargic doses, it’s a chore to find any entertainment outside of its premise.

In the year 20XX (what that translates to beats me), the D3 Corporation has gotten into the mad scientist game with their experiments in reanimating the dead. We all know how these usually turn out, so it’s no surprise that the world is soon overrun by the zombified masses. But out of society’s ashes emerges Aya (Eri Otoguro), a woman of few words who uses her mighty blade to slash her way through the undead. With cowardly comrade Katsuji (Tomohiro Waki), Aya zeroes in on Dr. Sugita (Taro Suwa), the man responsible for the outbreak and abductor of Aya’s sister. Soon joined by pistol-packin’ mama Reiko (Manami Hashimoto), the survivors plot to take down Sugita for good, although doing so will force Aya to confront her troubled past once again.

Onechanbara is based on a series of video games, and in terms of films adapted from this medium, it’s probably the most accurate. Just as Aya patrols numerous landscapes for more zombies to slice up, so goes the virtual gist of the movie’s story. The main draw is that Aya does so clad in nothing but her undies, a feather boa, and a cowboy hat to complete the ensemble. If you’re thinking this is hardly enough to base a whole gaming franchise on, you’d be absolutely right. As gimmicks go, Onechanbara’s is a bizarre one, enough to entice those like myself who purposefully seek out the strange. But it’s a thin hook at best, exploited repeatedly with nothing done to change it up. Once you see Aya go nuts on a zombie horde in the opening scene, you’ve peered as deeply as you can into the film’s bag of tricks.

It also comes to pass that Onechanbara is a low-budget affair that asks its audience to possess an alarming quantity of forgiveness. I can buy the crummy effects, ranging from fountains of phony CG blood to a “tattoo” of Aya’s that spends the film on the verge of peeling off. I can even forgive how Aya is supposed to be so tormented but sees nothing wrong with trotting around like a homicidal Victoria’s Secret model. But what little logic Onechanbara did abide by is given the kiss-off once superhuman powers are introduced. Yes, Aya can cut down dozens of undead in one go and summon anime-style waves of energy, and no, not a lick of it is explained. These traits are here mostly because they’re in the games, but at least a little reasoning wouldn’t have hurt (and neither would have some personality, which all characters but Suwa’s cackling baddie are lacking).

So what separates Onechanbara from, say, Zombieland, which has pretty much the same idea? For one, there’s a greater affinity towards the latter’s characters than what their roles dictate we should feel, but the real dealbreaker is its humor. Onechanbara is plenty corny, but it doesn’t seem to be in on the joke. There are a few fun spots here and there, but for the most part, the film regards its task more as jury duty than as creating the next cult hit.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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