Death Shadows (1986)
Directed by Hideo Gosha

Death Shadows
Starring Mariko Ishihara (Ocho/Osaki), Masanori Sera (Genshiro), Mari Natsuki (Oren), Takuzo Kawatani (Yasuke), Takeo Chii (Denzo), Tsunehiko Watase (Utsumi), Naoto Takenaka (Boss Hell), Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata (Sentaro)
Screenplay by Motomu Furuta
Music by Masaru Sato

Shochiku, 115 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

After working primarily in contemporary yakuza films through the 1970s and '80s, Hideo Gosha returned to jidai-geki for one final fling in the hugely stylish and entertaining Death Shadows. Like his Kumokiri Nizaemon and Hunter in the Dark, this is another yakuza story set in the samurai era. But Death Shadows deviates from Gosha's typical realism for a sprawlingly experimental tone and presentation. The look of the film is surreal and theatrical, with exteriors shot on soundstages and colorfully eye-popping art direction. Some critics dismiss it as being campy and cheesy, but I think there's more substance here than meets the eye. The impressionistic weirdness makes Death Shadows impossible to place in time – this movie looks like it could have been shot in 1968, 1978 or 2008. Nothing about it screams mid-'80s.

For such a unconventional film, it starts off with a fairly straightforward crime-movie premise. Three condemned criminals are spared from execution by the mysterious magistrate Utsumi on the condition that they become agents of his shadow police force. The shadow police are allowed to have no personal lives and no contact with the outside world, devoted to their duties of secret assassinations and conspiratorial dealings. Utsumi even slices the three men's vocal cords so they will be mute servants.

One of the shadow police, a former official named Yasuke, falls in love with a young woman named Osaki after he saves her from prostitution. Despite the rules against it, Yasuke settles down with Osaki and they have a daughter. Eventually Magistrate Utsumi tears Yasuke apart from his family.

Cut to many years later. While raiding a gang of criminals, Yasuke finds himself attacked by a masked woman who turns out to be his grown-up daughter Ocho. She informs Yasuke that she intends to kill him for abandoning his family, but the discovery of her relationship to a shadow cop makes Ocho's fellow gangsters suspect she's a spy. After Yasuke sacrifices himself to save his daughter, Ocho is arrested and set for execution. Utsumi offers her the chance to take her father's place as in the shadow police. And then the real story gets underway with Ocho's mission to collect evidence against a corrupt official.

If the basic premise sounds familiar, maybe it's because Death Shadows served as an inspiration for Luc Besson's Le Femme Nikita and a whole sub-genre of "criminal forced to become covert government agent" movies. But the execution is entirely unlike what you'll find in any of those mainstream action flicks.

Aside from the slick Technicolor visuals, you've got the issue of Ocho choice of weapons. In addition to knives and swords, she prefers to fight using a twirling ribbon like you see in rhythmic gymnastics. The opening titles feature Ocho dancing hypnotically with her twirling ribbon in the manner of a James Bond title sequence. Then it turns out the ribbon isn't just for show -- it's lethal. Ocho uses it to lull her enemies into distraction, then whips it around their necks to strangle or hang them, similar to flying guillotine weapons from kung-fu movies. Far-fetched, of course, but this is not a movie about willing suspension of disbelief. It's pure theater.

Any crime movie is only as good as its villains, and Death Shadows delivers a throng of fascinating bad guys. First there's Genshiro, the official who's been using a forged inspection exemption license to front an illegal smuggling operation. Genshiro turns out to have some redeeming qualities to make him a sympathetic victim of circumstance. Ocho's mission is to retrieve the forged license, which has gone missing like the million-ryo pot in the Tange Sazen stories. It ends up in the hands of a deranged police officer known appropriately as Boss Hell. He's a wild-eyed maniac worthy of the young Toshiro Mifune who literally chews the scenery – he has a compulsion to stick inanimate objects in his mouth like a dog. When he fights, Boss Hell whoops and yelps like a cross between Bruce Lee and Curly from the Three Stooges.

Ocho's main adversaries are her former yakuza allies, the gang boss Denzo and his nefarious mistress Oren, who has eyes on taking charge of the gang operations herself. Oren is deliciously evil, a snake with a beautiful painted face. In one of the movie's key eccentricities, snippets of Ocho's ribbon dance recur as act breaks, alternated with clips of a more lascivious dance by Oren. It gives you an idea of what a 007 movie would be like if the dancing girls from the credits kept appearing throughout the story to give us regular breaks in the actions. Only instead of anonymous models, the Death Shadows dancers are the two main stars of the movie.

The Jidai-Geki Knights