A very daring and underrated (mostly) direct-to-video Japanese action-crime series often labeled as erotic-only cinema.
Previously done as a Manga comic and rumored to be a knock-off of La Femne Nikita, these Japanese films are related in premise only with a different actress playing the undercover yet deadly street cop-turned-assassin named Rei. In some installments, she is portrayed as a rape victim and someone freed from prison to work as a covert agent while in other depictions she’s even a hard-boiled, borderline psycho out for blood! They were successful enough to go from theatrical installments to direct-to-video and then theatrical again(!) but never showed any sign of slowing down.
ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS (1974)
Plot: In this Toei Studio (Godzilla, Power Rangers and Female Convict 701 series), we follow Agent Zero, formerly disgraced and imprisoned cop Rai (played by Miki Sugimoto), who is assigned by a secret agency that trained her to rescue a politician’s daughter from some gangs
Review: I was long overdue with not seeing this reportedly fun yet obviously violent series and yet already I was off to a bad start as this film just was so dragged out and despite some inspired darkly lit photography and music score, this thing barely had any bang for it’s buck not to mention most of the mayhem was between the various criminals and the most you’re going to remember about this snoozefest is the gratuitous rape scene (aren’t they always?). My gawd this stank to high Heaven! Just an absolute, unpleasant yawn with uninspired filmmakers who don’t seem to know what the point of the film was, let alone able to give any characterization or action to anyone who actually wanted to see this.
ZERO WOMAN: FINAL MISSION (1995)
Plot: Sexy agent Rei (Naoka Iiijima) is on a hit-and-run investigation only to discover there’s greater corruption than previously apparent.
Review: Now, we’re talking! This was another fun thriller (with the typical action, crime and erotic moments of course) showing that sometimes even the most gifted officer can get their actual world mixed up with the world that they’re infiltrating when undercover. The film wasn’t deep but it was adequately filmed, scored and edited and before you knew it, time had flown like no tomorrow and I wanted more! It also didn’t feel over-the-top or excessive with either it’s violence and sleaze but it was still not holding back and delivering the goods all at the same time (no pun!).
It really was well thought out and calculated while not necessarily impressive or groundbreaking, it was a good genre picture.
ZERO WOMAN (AKA ZERO WOMAN II) (1995)
Plot: A secretly psychotic Tokyo policewoman Rei (Natsuki Ozawa) after she goes after a bunch of thieves who have stolen from a well-fear mobster. She will have to go undercover and infiltrate various criminal factions to get to the bottom of this crime ring and then some!
Review: Here we are to the second ’90s installment and the third film in total. This one had far more eroticism going for it let alone brutal takedowns but while it got straight to the goods, the overall flow of the film kept varying and the various characters kept appearing and disappearing only to appear again (chaotic filming schedules, anyone?). Nonetheless, if you can forgive the awkwardly confusing opening heist that sets up the whole film and suspend belief that a short, skinny woman (shut up, you PC people, this is not a fat-shaming diss!) could take down a whole gang while handling this much rough sex and constant fighting, then go for it. Either way, it’s definitely got barely a script, let alone a plot. If anything, it’s more of an idea and the rest is just going from one shocking bit of content to the next but the edits do prove awkward half the time despite some occasionally stunning stand-alone shots that are definitely meant to be artistic but hardly worthy of being in this low-brow of a film. Nonetheless, out of all the sleazy ones, this is definitely the best of the eroticism on display (pun intended!) in these movies.
ZERO WOMAN III: ASSASSIN LOVERS (1996)
Plot: Special Tokyo Police Agent Rei (Kumiko Tukeda) is tasked by her bosses to assassinate the various criminal dons while encountering one of the crime faction’s hitmen assigned to killer her. He is however reluctant and they both find that they must question their respective affiliations.
Review: The third ’90s film and fourth film in total, this was easily the best portrayal I’d seen of the character by far to date due to how more reserved yet diligent while also having some cool prepping scenes. I liked how there was barely any sleaze, she had a mentor to answer to and the end shoot-out was an epic gory feast for the eyes. Definitely up there with FINAL MISSION as the best way to build up intensity, have well-filmed Neo-Noir type shots and then unleash the mayhem that we all paid to see while also being far more respectable in content and a little more mainstream if still not far from being low-brow. The Western type music in this was also a treat for the ears.
ZERO WOMAN: THE ACCUSED (1996)
Plot: Rei (Mai Tachihara) works for the Tokyo P.D.’s Zero Division agency and befriends a promiscuous gay bar patron who she later suspects is going out on vigilante killing sprees on others who have wronged him in the past. Will Rei hunt down her former friend or will she reconsider what he’s doing outside the law and help him out?
Review: Don’t be fooled by the IMDb profile as this wasn’t the first entry to be DTV technically as plenty of other sites claim that the whole ’90s catalogue was VHS/DVD only in release. This is easily the most Neo-Noir out of all the films and while it focuses more on her seducing the guys, it’s somewhat artistic to prevent it from feeling all softcore/hard R porno level (most of the time at least) and to add that up, there’s more guessing involved with who she will take down next in the whole crime ring instead of the usual “one gal versus one main guy” formula that most of these films have utilized. Nonetheless, her so-called pal that these plot summaries sum up is honestly more of a subplot as opposed to the main described plot (but since it’s the only real summary, I copied it anyway). A rather dark ending for this film and very well-lit and captured overall but not a must-see unless you’re a genre completist. Mai’s portrayal of Rei was also easily my third most favorite take on the character as a whole due to her little subtle nuances and other body language (now, that’s not a pun!) that she was able to add, which really helped me feel what torturous world and feelings she has about everything chaotic that’s collapsing all around her.
ZERO WOMAN: THE HUNTED (1997)
Plot: Rei (Mikiyo Ono) is now marked for death by the Zero Dept.’s deadliest rival as the hunter becomes the hunted!
Review: How many times haven’t we already heard that catchphrase with a deadly persona outnumbered and on the run. While she’s not a fugitive, she is now just making the city her own playing ground so does the movie deliver on that promise? For the most part, I’d reckon so and Ono’s take on the role is definitely my second favorite version of the persona and while this looked the most shot on videotape to date (there were parts of the last four that occasionally descended into that but this one was fairly obvious unfortunately), it still opens up with a bang and stylish opening credits that you already end up wanting to invest time in this chaos. The rock and electronic-filled music score is also rather welcome and could easily rival a gritty theme for a North American release.
And despite the occasional overdone sped-up editing and overuse of the already seen transitions, this title never wastes any time, gets creative with the kills, keeps ratcheting up the suspense inbetween each takedown and never drags, I have to applaud it for getting to the good stuff while still maintaining a heart. Hell, I even felt like the character Rei in this did have a heart unlike the cold-blooded feel that you would expect from any heavily trained assassin, especially some of the other versions. The flashback scene introducing her origin was also explosive (yet surprising) and had beautiful color hues. I guess when you restrict yourself to fewer locations and have one main mood that you want to get across, you allow yourself far more creativity and it definitely showed here, especially when the main enemy assassin bursts into Rei’s residence and has trouble finding out exactly where he is after she ambushes him initially. All in all, easily one of the best DTV films of the year 1997! And as for the sleaze, I’ve never seen this much tit squeezing in a mainstream DTV Japanese film in my life (and it progressed the story believe it or not as she’s using her looks to kill after an initial “happy ending”). And despite the creepy moments, the film appears to have, much like the character, an actual soul and wants to show you the creepy stuff to show you how she’ll likely commit her next set of revenge. And by hinting instead of going for cheap emotion and thrills, that gets a salute from me as we need some exploitation made with heart instead of the usual gratuitous material that feels not the best made. Last of all, this is worth seeing also for it’s rather tricky sniping sequence which is a must-see for all sniper movie fanatics because BOOM HEADSHOT!.
ZERO WOMAN: DANGEROUS GAME (1998)
Plot: Rei (Chieko Shiratori) has been assigned to assassinate the number one gangster wanted by Tokyo P.D.’s Zero Dept. but she also has made it a priority to protect said gangster’s mistress from also being assassinated after she agrees to testify against the mob! Will both gals get along? Will they hate each other?? Will they fall in love??? Find out!
Review: So beyond adding a lesbian subplot, this really gets just as artistic as ZERO WOMEN II and THE HUNTED with some of the same gangster talk and bloodshed as in THE ACCUSED. Only, this does it way better as it takes everything that worked well in THE HUNTED and makes the stylish story soak in without becoming self-indulgent or overlong while going from the next betrayal or dramatic reveal. In many ways, I feel like DANGEROUS GAME should’ve been a trilogy with THE HUNTED and RETURNS (more on that below).
ZERO WOMAN RETURNS (1998)
Plot: Rei (Saori Ono) gets assigned to take down a mysterious criminal who’s been suspected of selling drugs and guns previously confiscated by crooked Tokyo policemen. Can she find out more about this man without a past?
Review: In the last of the ’90s releases, much like THE HUNTED and DANGEROUS GAME, it takes everything that works in those remaining ’90s entries and makes the style be the real star and who doesn’t like a Neo-Noir Action Crime picture? I liked it slightly more than DANGEROUS GAME due to the crime bosses being more smooth and more action in the shoot-outs and less bedroom action so to speak but overall like I said prior, these 3 films all flow together rather nicely despite cast changes and aforementioned budget restrictions. They all in many ways would’ve been great to have seen at a drive-in theater, that’s for sure.
ZERO WOMAN 2005 (2004)
Plot: 0 Dept. sends Rei (Maiko Tôno) must figure out a chaotic conspiracy involving both young women being trafficked and a viral outbreak in the making about to be unleashed! She must work with a difficult female scientist while also investigating a portion of her memory which she lost while becoming a deadly assassin. Can she recover her lost thoughts while stopping this disaster in progress?
Review: In the first and second to last of the ’00s releases, this exercise in showcasing a mix of Girls with Gun and Martial Arts type fights proves mostly solid but still comes up a little rushed and trying too hard at times to capitalize with the same ’00s type MTV-like editing. Also, there are a few unneeded slower development scenes that weren’t needed at all as if they were trying to find a whole new audience for this damn series. Overall, it has a fun gimmick: kill the man who knows everything about you or capture him. However, had it taken the time to get all that material out of the way upfront instead of taking its sweet time by saving the best for last, it would’ve definitely been more successful. As it stands now, this has the best martial arts fights of the whole series but it could’ve easily been an installment of any other franchise as a result. It knows what it is to where it’s not a confused cash-in, related-in-name-only sequel but it still isn’t 100% either. In other words, see this and enjoy it once; maybe show it to friend who you know will be a tad more impatient and want more music video styled Action flicks but other than that, it’s a casual party night movie, not something you need to marathon with the other previous entries.
ZERO WOMAN R (2007)
Plot: Rei (Atsuko Miura) goes undercover as a female prisoner and ends up killing three criminal accomplices, one of whom is an undercover officer. She must then face up with a female assassin who is doing business with crooked businessmen and American military to do a smuggling run.
Review: In the final entry to date, which premiered in theaters, this film was produced by an erotic company (AKA a pink studio) so as a result, this ended up being mainly about the sex with sparse violence and barely a memorable plot to speak of. This briefly mentioned material is only here to get from one sex scene to the next. Overall, it’s pretty well-shot and suspenseful but always engaging if repetitive. At least the sexual situations (or shall we say “positions?”) are changed up and it wasn’t anywhere near as schlocky or dull as I had heard it was going to be. However, it barely fits in with the rest of the canon (not that it was ever consistent to begin with) and had it not had the various double crosses, it really wouldn’t had fit in with the rest of the stuff. Either way, it’s not shabby and rather well-done for what it is but something tells me they should try rebooting this in the future with a bigger name badass cast and crew.