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Plot: diamond is stolen from high-profile target. LETHAL Ladies are on the case.

Andy Sidaris closed the book on the original LETHAL Ladies franchise with Fit to Kill, the conclusion of the three-part Kane storyline and the last of the 5-picture deal that Sidaris brokered after the home video success of Picasso Trigger (1988). Not all episodes were created equal, and some were just plain better than others. The LETHAL Ladies movies never aspired to anything more than fun-loving spy/action romps set in and around Hawaii with a rotating bevy of bosomy belles in candy-colored bikinis and where explosions, shootouts, and an abundance of oversized breasts stood in for trivial things such as inter-episode continuity, ongoing plot, and character development. For a while the series had been losing steam but good old Andy had found a new muse in the interim. The last original LETHAL Ladies chapter Fit to Kill is a glorious throwback to the halcyon days of Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) and Savage Beach (1989).

The franchise always largely served as an excuse to flaunt big guns (both literal and figurative), oversized explosions, and the thinnest veneer of a spy-action plot. Nobody loved beautiful women more than the late Andy Sidaris and what better way to get into their good graces than to promise them stardom? In their six years with the series Dona Speir, Roberta Vasquez, and Cynthia Brimhall all had become, to lesser or greater extent, superstars in their own little corner of cult cinema. After Hope Marie Carlton bade the series farewell after Savage Beach (1989) it effectively made Dona Speir the de facto series mascot. Years of headlining the LETHAL Ladies had taken their toll on Speir and she was ready to move on. Fit to Kill was the last featuring Speir, Vasquez, and Brimhall and (obviously) new blood and bodies were needed. Sidaris the elder was, for all intents and purposes, ready to retire the series and what was more fit to kill the franchise than the “Andy’s greatest hits” that was Fit to Kill? In the two years that followed Andy’s son Christian Drew took up the mantle and produced the two expanded universe episodes Enemy Gold (1993) and The Dallas Connection (1994) with his Skyhawks Films. Sidaris the younger may not have gloriously risen to the occassion, but he managed to extend the series’ lifespan beyond what was reasonably expected of it. Both Sidaris universes merged in Day of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1998).

To keep its operatives sharp The Agency is organizing war games. After the obligatory swim in the resident pool Donna Hamilton (Dona Speir) and Nicole Justin (Roberta Vasquez) engage Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane, as Michael Shane) and Bruce Christian (Bruce Penhall) in a round of paintball and target practice. Meanwhile at Aladdin Resort & Casino, Martin Kane (Geoffrey Moore, as RJ Moore) is hatching a convoluted plan to bring down federal agent Hamilton, lure his former criminal associate Po (Craig Ng, as Craig Ryan Ng) into the open, and take possession of the vaunted Alexa diamond. At no point does Silk (Carolyn Liu), an Agency informant, find it necessary to relay any of this information. Having failed to produce the Klystron Relay nuclear trigger as ordered, Kane has now fallen out of Po’s and his client’s favor making him fair game for not respecting the criminal code. Po has dispatched statuesque leather-clad hitwoman Blu Steele (Julie Strain) to collect the outstanding debt and the prize on his head.

Back at the The Agency headquarters Lucas (Tony Peck) briefs the agents of their latest objective: the infiltration of a high-society black-tie event wherein philanthropist and entrepreneur Chang (Aki Aleong) will cordially donate the Russian imperial diamond stolen from the Leningrad museum during World War II to a Russian diplomat as an act of restoration. The Agency will monitor the diamond, handle security, and oversee the exchange. It sounds like a simple enough operation. Edy (Cynthia Brimhall) and Lucas commence the necessary preparations, while Donna and Bruce reconoiter the event perimeter for any possible breaches. Nicole busies herself with screening all of the invitees and personnel. Rookie agent Ava (Ava Cadell) will act as a delegate to meet Russian diplomat Mikael Petrov (Rodrigo Obregón, as Rodrigo Obregon) and his aide Gregor (Mark Barriere). Shane Abilene will stay behind at the offices of K SXY radio and familiarize new Agency trainee Sandy (Sandra Wild) with all the necessary procedures, in theory and in practice, before her first field operation. In the confusion at the black-tie party Kane’s tracking necklace is stolen (among other riches) leading Nicole and Bruce on a hurried retrieval mission while being chased by bumbling assassins Evil (Chu Chu Malave) and Kinevil (Richard Cansino). When the true culprit finally reveals himself Donna, Kane, and a few bystanders are abducted. An explosive, bullet-ridden clash between the various factions seems imminent. As the smoke clears and the chaos subsides Donna Hamilton solemny philosophizes that her “work here is done.” Prophetic words, indeed.

A changing of the guards was on the horizon and with the late great Julie Strain the series was given a second lease on life. Strain was a Penthouse Pet (June, 1991), Pet of the Year (1993), muse of Spanish fantasy illustrator Luis Royo, and she who should have been Vampirella. Strain was no stranger to action with roles in Hollywood actioners as Out For Justice (1991) (with Steven Seagal) and Double Impact (1991) (with Jean-Claude Van Damme) next to bit parts in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) and Beverly Hills Cop III (1994). As Speir retired from the series Strain became the new mascot easily eclipsing her equally well-endowed co-stars Shae Marks and Julie K. Smith. The new cast never really gelled and there was no real chemistry between Strain and Marks the way there was between either Speir-Carlton or Speir-Vasquez. It was never for a lack of trying on Julie’s part. She took these roles perhaps far more serious than they deserved.

The only real new face (or body, rather) is Sandra Wild. Wild appeared in Playboy several times over the years, most notably in August 1991 as part of the “California Dreamin’” article. In a rare exception to Sidaris casting traditions Sandra apparently never made it to Playmate but appeared in multiple of their home videos. She also starred in the 1990 Michael Bay directed music video for ‘Up All Night’ from Slaughter. Wild amassed a respectable amount of (mostly uncredited) decorative roles in popular television series as Married with Children (1989), Full House (1989), Columbo (1990), Star Trek: The Next Generation (1990), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1994), and Walker, Texas Ranger (1995). Not that that translated into something resembling a real acting career. For better or worse, the casting choices here would be an omen for things to come.

Sidaris, senior and junior alike, were about to learn an important lesson: with great boobs comes great responsibility. While there never was any particular shortage of willing and able Playmates to choose from they would never quite find suitable replacements for both Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton or Roberta Vasquez. Christian Drew tried his darndest to find the right duo (you may interpret that any way you want) but none were really able to recreate the chemistry between the original two platinum blondes. Roberta Vasquez really made the role of Nicole Justin (who always was a thinly-veiled proxy-Taryn) her own and Strain was only second to her in becoming a pillar of the series in her own right. All of which speaks to just how iconic Dona Speir and Hope Marie Carlton were to the series and how dangerously their shadow loomed over whoever was chosen to follow in their collective footprints. For the most part the rule of thumb was that a Playmate’s bust-size was inversely proportional to her line-reading skills (Julie Strain being the exception). The original LETHAL Ladies would be resurrected for two episodes with Day of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1998). No more sequels were produced by either Andy or Christian Drew after 1998. Sidaris the elder himself would pass away in 2007. In the decade-plus since nobody has risen to the task of filling that particular niche. Secretly we’re hoping either Rene Perez or Benjamin Combes will do so, but only time will tell.

Plot: Tokyo is threatened by the Panther Claw. Can Cutie Honey save the day?

The Far East has a long and storied history for being a haven for some of the strangest, wackiest cinematic outings of the past several decades. Whether they are the fantasy wuxia / martial arts romps from Hong Kong, the Philippines and its one-man industry Cirio H. Santiago, or the Thai jungle action flicks from Chalong Pakdeevijit. Japan has long delved into its classic literature and more recent manga and anime catalogue for features. While these adaptations were less commonplace in the sixties to eighties, they became the bread-and-butter for Japanese cinema from the nineties onward. Manga come in every possible form and variety and there’s no subject that the comics leave untouched. Whether they cater to a specific interest or aim themselves at a certain demographic the only unifying factor is that they are drawn entertainment. If proven successfull enough a manga might be turned into a television series or full length feature. One of these popular manga was Cutey Honey from 1972 that was translated to screen simply as Cutie Honey (キューティーハニー), a decidedly more sanitized iteration of the character.

Cutey Honey was dreamt up by Gô Nagai, a pioneer of ecchi and hentai manga in the late 1960s. Nagai was influenced by the work of Osamu Tezuka and after graduating from high school he worked as an assistant for Shôtarô Ishinomori. Nagai’s first brush with controversy happened in 1968 when his comic Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless High School) not only became a huge success and revolutioned the manga but instigated a round of book burning by the domestic conservative Parent/Teacher Associations. Gô Nagai quickly made a name for himself with his deranged, slightly perverse, humorous and sex-oriented parodies of popular sentai properties of the day. Among Nagai’s most enduring creations are not only Cutey Honey but also Legendary Panty Mask and Kekkō Kamen. At the very least Nagai was an equal opportunity offender as he came up with absurd characters like Testicle Boy. In 1972 Gô Nagai envisioned Cutey Honey as a parody to the super sentai shows Ultraman (1966 and 1972) from Tsuburaya Productions, Kamen Raidâ (1971) from Ishinomori Productions and Toei Company and Warrior of Love Rainbowman (1972) from Toho Company Ltd.. Cutey Honey was a manga series for the shōnen (teenage boys) that appeared in Weekly Shōnen Champion's 41st issue of 1973 where it ran until April 1974. When it was adapted into a TV series it was originally aimed at the shōjo (teenage girls) market, free of excessive violence and nudity, and more of a ploy to sell a line of changing Barbie dolls. However, the anime landed at the shōnen timeslot forcing Nagai and his producers to change it accordingly. The series was cancelled over its racy content but somehow ended up attracting a good portion of teenage girl fans. Compared to Nagai’s more outrageous creations Cutey Honey beams with indefatigable optimism and joie de vivre.

The first Cutey Honey anime series aired in 1973 and has since been recognized as an early form of and the foremost precursor to the mahō shōjo (魔法少女) subgenre. Since her conception in the early seventies Cutey Honey has been adapted for the big – and small screen several times in the form of animated series, a live action series and several big screen adaptations. Suffice to say, while Legendary Panty Mask and Kekkô Kamen were brought to big screen too, Cutey Honey is by far Nagai’s most enduring and recognizable creation. There would be no Sailor Moon (1991-1997) without Cutey Honey. Cutey Honey is fantasy fuel taken to ridiculous extremes (without the overt sleaze of, say, Kekkō Kamen) and she has been an inspiration to cosplayers and otaku since 1972. Her sheer insanity makes the Italian fumetti photo comics from the sixties look relatively sane in comparison. Move over Argoman (1967). Step aside Infra-Man (1975). Make way Lady Battle Cop (1990). Here comes Cutie Honey, the hot bod sentai bot in figure-fitting neon pink spandex complete with strategically placed heart-sharped boobwindow for maximum cleavage. The Warrior Of Love who can defeat any enemy with the candy-colored super-powers emanating from her chest and ass – and when those prove not powerful enough she wields a mighty sword to boot! The combined fevered imaginations of Luigi Cozzi and Jing Wong couldn’t possibly conceive something this unabashedly fetishistic and objectifying. It makes Valerie Leon in whatever little she was wearing in Zeta One (1969) and Caroline Munro and her space bikini in StarCrash (1979) look positively measured in comparison. "Crazy” is too mild a term to describe how deliciously over-the-top Cutie Honey truly is.

Honey Kisaragi (Eriko Satô) is a life-like android driven by nano-technology made as a mirror image to her professor father’s long-lost daughter. To hide her nature as a simulacrum Honey has adopted a good-natured, ditzy, giggly teenage girl façade. Now that she has come of age Honey is not exactly what you call upwardly mobile but she somehow has managed to secure work as an office temp at Tachibana Trading Corporation. She’s habitually late, spends her days wondering what it is that everybody does at the office, and kills the hours bringing everybody tea. She contemplates the merits of taking a bubble bath, drinking sparkly wine, and lounging around her apartment in lingerie. One day her uncle Utsugi (Masaki Kyomoto) is kidnapped by Gold Claw (Hairi Katagiri) and Tokyo (and, by extent, the world) is threatened by the dangers of the Panther Claw, a host of interdimensional baddies led by the fiendish Sister Jill (Eisuke Sakai). Honey rushes to the streets (in nothing but her lingerie, because of course) chomping down as much onigiri (rice balls) and green tea as she possibly can. She must load her powers, you know?

Once fully charged Honey activates her Imaginary Induction System, or I-System, by pressing the pink heart-shaped button on her choker and saying “HONEY FLASH!” This transforms her into the neon-pink spandexed Warrior Of Love, a hyperkinetic kawaii superheroine wielding the deepest of cleavage and the sharpest of swords! As the Panther Claw descends upon Tokyo law enforcement desperately tries to contain the situation. When police officer Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa) arrives on the scene with her assistants Todoroki (Ryo Kase) and Goki (Ryo Iwamatsu) she realizes that she got more than she ever bargained for. The strange going-ons attract the attention of photojournalist Seiji Hayami (Jun Murakami). Finding herself chased by both Natsuko Aki and Seiji Hayami, Cutie Honey befriends the former in civilian form and vies for the attentions of the latter. As the villain’s drill-shaped lair emerges from underneath the Tokyo Tower, Cutie Honey engages Black Claw (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), Cobalt Claw (Sie Kohinata) and Scarlet Claw (Mayumi Shintani) in battle. Will Cutie Honey’s unwavering optimism, love, and cleavage be enough to repel the evils of Sister Jill?

Embodying Cutie Honey (quite literally, really) in his incarnation is Eriko Satō (佐藤 江梨子). Satō initially rose to fame as a gravure idol under the alias Satoeri and later became a very popular and much in-demand swimsuit model. She appeared semi-nude on and in the June 24, 2003 issue of Frau. That was closely followed by a photo shoot and 15-second television commercial for Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic with J-pop singer Gackt (then again in 2006) and consolidated her success by releasing a popular calendar in 2004. In those times before Haruka Ayase she was the ideal candidate to play Cutie Honey. For those of whom Satō is a bit much there’s model-turned-actress Mikako Ichikawa (市川 実日子). The other cast includes popular urban/r&b singer Kumi Koda and television actress Mihoko Abukawa (appearing both as Tachibana company office workers) as well as Jun Murakami.

Appearing in small cameos are series creator Gô Nagai (a taxi driver whose vehicle Cutie Honey crashes into, conveniently ass first) and director Hideaki Anno (as an office worker). Adapting Cutie Honey for the big screen was animator, director, and actor Hideaki Anno, best known for his anime series Nadia: the Secret Of Blue Water (1990), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) and, more recently, the AYTIWS approved Shin Godzilla (2016) (which also starred Mikako Ichikawa). Who better to helm a tokusatsu sentai spoof than a master of the genre? Calling Anno the Hayao Miyazaki of his corner of anime wouldn’t be too far off. Hideaki’s post-project depressions are the things of legend, yet for some reason it’s difficult to fathom how anybody could be depressed after making Cutie Honey. Withdrawal, perhaps? One of the great feats of the Gô Nagai manga was that it catered to everybody’s tastes. For obvious reasons much of the situational nudity is, understandably, absent here.

And what’s not to love about a superheroine with powers concentrated in her chest and ass? The pastel pink-white-blue production design and monsters are crazier than StarCrash (1979) and Infra-Man (1975) combined and the wardrobe is some of the most deranged this side of Bitto Albertini’s Escape From Galaxy 3 (1981). Cutie Honey is a candy-colored phantasmagoria of various shades of insane, and unabashedly fetishistic in its reliance on cleavage – and pantyshots. Anno relishes putting Eriko Satô in the tiniest of lingerie and takes great pleasure in ogling her from just about every flattering angle and compromising position possible. The score is a schizophrenic mix between 1970s groovy Eurospy funk and J-pop and the special effects work is decidedly old-fashioned and campy. The Panther Claw minions look like the goons from the action-comedy Black Mask (1996). What’s not to like about a super heroine that takes time out of her busy day saving the world to spent a night on the town with her best friend only to end up badly singing karaoke in a drunken stupor? Cutie Honey makes Argoman (1967) and Infra-Man (1975) look like sophisticated works. It’s just as unbelievably shallow and silly as the manga and anime it was inspired by. That Cutie Honey just was a tad inspired by Forrest J. Ackerman’s equally zany Vampirella and its 1996 big screen adaptation (which wasn’t really all that big) should surprise no one.

Cutie Honey is uniquely Japanese in its brazen insanity and singular commitment to lifting the spirit. Only the Japanese are able to dial up the crazy farther than the Italians and Chinese in their heyday. Cutie Honey is crazier than the prime works of both Luigi Cozzi and Jing Wong, combined. It was followed by an anime series called New Cutie Honey (1994) and a few years later Toei Animation continued with Cutie Honey Flash (1997). In the new millennium there was Re: Cutie Honey (2004) and a shortlived live action series called Cutie Honey: the Live (2007) that saw Mikie Hara (原 幹恵) taking up the mantle as Honey Kisaragi on national television. A sequel (or rather more of a soft reboot) would only materialize some twelve years later. Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) went for a more serious direction and a darker, edgier tone that took more after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). The long awaited sequel saw former gravure model Mariya Nishiuchi (西内 まりや) taking on Satô’s role and donning the famous pink bustier (one far more practical and not nearly as tacky/revealing). Two years later a new anime series followed with Cutie Honey Universe (2018). In the years since no new plans for a Cutie Honey sequel (or reboot) were announced. Regardless, there’s a time and place for adorable camp like this and Cutie Honey offers a copious helping of just that.