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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 this 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.

Plot: philandering private eye must diffuse hostage situation. Hilarity ensues!

We’re not a fan of Jackie Chan. While arguably one of the enduring and popular martial artists in the western hemisphere, we find his shtick tiring and annoying in equal measure. As a general rule we take great pains to avoid his work, but for every rule there are exceptions. City Hunter is that one exception. Why? His female co-stars for the most part. Not only is City Hunter blessed with two of the biggest stars of that decade and the one before: Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching (邱淑貞) and Joey Wong Cho-Yin (王祖賢), and it makes ample use of their considerable talents, comedic and otherwise. City Hunter was adapted from the Tsukasa Hôjô manga of the same name and is remembered for its brief detour into videogame adaptation territory. It never was a full-blown Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991) adaptation the way the lamentable American Street Fighter (1994) (with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kylie Minogue, and Ming-Na Wen) supposedly was. For better or worse the world got two Jing Wong productions of wildly divergent quality as a direct result. City Hunter is probably the most 90s movie Chan and director Wong ever lend their name to.

The story, as documented by chroniclers of the day, is that director/producer Jing Wong was aware of the success of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991) in arcades worldwide. City Hunter, at least during the earliest days of production, was going to be a manga adaptation exclusively. A fierce bidding war for the Street Fighter copyrights ensued wherein Chan would emerge as victorious. Wong had long expressed his desire to adapt the game for the big screen and Chan refused to grant him the license. It was 1993 (a marquee year for arcade beat ‘em ups) and Wong obviously wanted to capitalize on that with a Street Figher movie. Chan not wanting the relinquish the licensing, understandably, led to friction and the two frequently engaged in on-set shouting matches midway through production. In a bitter dispute Jackie Chan would denounce City Hunter and personally attack Jing Wong in the specialized press. Wong for his part used whatever pre-production material he had on hand for the improvised sci-fi comedy Future Cops (1993) and took a very thinly-veiled sweep at his former associate and star in the form of High Risk (1995), a Die Hard (1988) imitation very much like City Hunter. As these things go, City Hunter itself was plagiarized for the amiable Madam City Hunter (1993) (with little miss dynamite, Cynthia Khan) as it was a clear derivate of both that and Yes, Madam! (1985) (with Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock) and Super Lady Cop (1993) that came replete with a Taiwan-exclusive “Khan as Chun-Li” in a comedic Street Fighter setpiece. Those hoping to see Joey Wong Cho-Yin or Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching donning Chun-Li's famous blue qipao will leave sorely disappointed. Chingmy won’t even be shaking her cute little rump.

When his partner Hideyuki Makimura (Michael Wong Man-Tak) is shot and killed in the line of duty hard-drinking womanizing private eye Ryu Saeba (Jackie Chan) vows to look after (and not seduce) his niece. Years pass and Kaori Makimura (Joey Wong Cho-Yin) now works as his secretary and assistant. Kaori is deeply infatuated with the carefree, funloving Ryu who, of course, is completely oblivious to the fact. One day Ryu is hired by publishing tycoon Koji Imamura (Hagiwara Kenzo) to locate his runaway daughter (and heiress to the business empire) Shizuko (Gotoh Kumiko). Saeba has no interest in the case and politely declines because he hasn’t had breakfast. When he’s handed her picture he’s immediately smitten and readily accepts the job offer. By sheer dumb luck Ryu runs into Shizuko in Hong Kong and after a brief skateboard chase through the city Ryu and Kaori see her board the Fuji Mara luxury cruise liner. Once onboard Kaori is endlessly frustrated that Ryu shows far more interest in romantically pursuing Shizuko instead of safely returning her to her father. Also on board are Hong Kong Police Force officer Saeko Nogami (Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching) who together with her man-crazy bosomy friend (Carol Wan Chui-Pan) is on an undercover operation. When Shizuko accidently overhears that a cadre of terrorists led by Col. Donald "Big Mac" MacDonald (Richard Norton) and his dragon Kim (Gary Daniels) plan to overtake the cruise and rob its wealthy passengers there’s suddenly a price on her head. Ryu, Kaori, and Saeko must spring into action and work together to save the young heiress from harm and diffuse a most dangerous and explosive situation.

And talk of an ensemble cast! The sheer amount of star-power is a wee bit overwhelming here. Headlining is, of course, Jackie Chan, one of the few martial artists since Bruce Lee to cross over into the Western hemisphere, and the less said about his English-language oeuvre the better. The tagline, "he's out of town, out of time, and out of his depth!" rings especially true for Chan. Chow Yun-Fat, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, Anthony Wong, Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, and Jet Li all can pull off the womanizing, sleazy private eye. Not so with the dopey Chan whose entire public persona is built around his signature jovial, amiable doofus shtick. The second biggest name is probably perennial LWO favorite Joey Wong Cho-Yin (王祖賢), the classic beauty with the puppy eyes and our original HK crush. By that point Joey had appeared in God of Gamblers (1989) and had finished her A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) trilogy with Tsui Hark. Miss Wong had been branching out into HK action and comedy after being typecast as a spectral maiden for far too long. City Hunter gave her the chance to showcase her range. Then there’s Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching (邱淑貞); Wong’s fabled mistress, his muse, and our second crush. Chingmy had starred in Wong's The Crazy Companies (1988), Lee Rock (1991), Casino Tycoon (1992), and Royal Tramp (1992) flagship series as well as his Naked Killer (1992). She had played everything from the silky seductress and the comedic ditz to the gun-wielding action babe. In the years that followed she would star in the Raped by an Angel (1993-1999) sub-series, Future Cops (1993), the wuxia spoof Legend of the Liquid Sword (1993), the failed franchise launcher Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), as well as God of Gamblers Return (1994), the action-comedy High Risk (1995), the dopey rom-com I'm Your Birthday Cake (1995) and on a more in serious note in Stanley Kwan’s Teddy Award-winning drama Hold You Tight (1997).

Carol Wan Chui-Pan (溫翠蘋) and Gotoh Kumiko (後藤久美子) were the prerequisite beauty queens, the former losing her title due to an alleged breast enlargement and the latter retiring in 1995 after just 10 movies. Richard Norton was/is a legend and he starred in everything from Force: Five (1981), Gymkata (1985), American Ninja (1985) and Future Hunters (1988) to China O'Brien (1990) and Lady Dragon (1992). He had worked with Wong before on the amiable Magic Crystal (1986) and had starred in a bunch of Michael Dudikoff action romps, one of which co-stars the always enjoyable Catherine Bell, as well as the Lithuanian Gladiator (2000) knock-off Amazons and Gladiators (2001). Gary Daniels was another Westerner who somehow ended up in Hong Kong. There he shared the screen with Moon Lee in Mission of Justice (1992) and worked with Albert Pyun for his exhausted and exhausting Heatseeker (1995). Rounding out the all-star line-up is Cantopop superstar Leon Lai Ming, who was one of part of the Four Heavenly Kings (along with Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Andy Lau Tak-Wah, and Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing). Unfortunately Jing Wong never came around to making his own Cynthia Khan (楊麗青), Sibelle Hu Hui-Chung (胡慧中), or Moon Lee Choi-Fung (李賽鳳) Girls with Guns actioner. That probably would’ve been grand.

This being a Jing Wong romp there’s something for everybody. First and foremost this is a pretty straightforward adaptation of the manga. Then there’s a skateboard chase clearly inspired by the Hill Valley chase in Back to the Future (1985), at least two gambling scenes that could have been from either God of Gamblers (1989) or Casino Tycoon (1992), Colonel MacDonald wields the same gun as RoboCop (1987), there’s even a Bollywood song-and-dance interlude (it never quite reaches Bollywood heights of color and sound, but damn it tries), an extended homage to Bruce Lee and his Game Of Death (1978) involving Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a aerial dolphin ride modeled after the mobile statues in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). More importantly, City Hunter is famous for four things: three major setpieces and Wong’s bovine tendency to showcase each and every female cast member near-constantly in either swimwear, lingerie, or very revealing high-fashion. Joey Wong Cho-Yin and Gotoh Kumiko suffer the least in that regard, but Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and in particular Carol Wan Chui-Pan (especially her legendary bosom, which might or might not, have led to her termination from a HK beauty pageant) are on display prominently. As late as 2015 he did the same with former Miss Hong Kong 2009 contestant Candy Yuen Ka-Man in his somewhat controversial The Gigolo (2015). As for the setpieces, there’s the Street Fighter cosplay fight with Daniels turning into Ken and Chan dressing up as E. Honda, Guile, and Dhalsim before settling on Chun-Li and doing the signature move/pose of each. Second, there’s the circus act routine wherein Chan acrobatically swings Yau around as she shoots goons left, right, and center – and finally there’s the admittedly funny boss fight between Chan and Norton that sees him incorporating dance routines from Madonna and Michael Jackson into the choreography. It’s not nearly as crazy Rothrock v Norton in Magic Crystal (1986) – but, honestly, what is?

Then there are fast food-related gags were Chan, not having had breakfast and appropriately starving by that point, runs into Carol Wan Chui-Pan at the pool and stares at her lustingly. First at her breasts which he sees as hamburgers, her legs which he thinks are chickenlegs, and finally her arms as chicken wings. Is it puerile? Yeah. Is it bovine? No doubt. It’s disrespectful at best, objectifying at worst, and completely unnecessary to boot. Wong never was below milking his women for all they were worth. Naked Killer (1992) was a valentine to Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and this one’s all about Carol Wan Chui-Pan and Gotoh Kumiko. If you’re wondering where this sudden obsession with junk food comes from a look at the history of American fast food in China and its place in wider Sino culture at large is necessary. Fast food, and hamburgers in particular, was a fairly new phenomenon in Sino culture. Kentucky Fried Chicken was a true pioneer in that regard and was able to penetrate China’s world-famous hermetic culture by opening a Sino franchise as early as 1987. McDonald’s was brand new only having landed in Beijing a year earlier, in 1992. It certainly speaks to its appeal when Super Lady Cop (1993) was able to get away with imitating both the junk food gag and the Street Fighter shtick wholesale. There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fast food joke in Naked Killer (1992) but it never landed.

City Hunter is a lot of things. For one, the pace is resolutely breakneck and no gag is dwelled upon more than a few seconds. The action setpieces are explosive and while there may not have been as much heroic bloodshed and bullet ballet shoot-outs as we would have liked, the ones involving Chingmy Yau compensate for a lot. Jackie Chan is his usual self, although here his hyper-kinetic slapstick routines and rubber-faced mugging antics are kept to a bare minimum. It raises the question of what Jing Wong’s Street Fighter would have looked like (Chingmy Yau certainly looked the part in Chun-Li’s blue qipao, as did Cynthia Khan in the expected imitation) or what Hong Kong or Japan would have done with the property. One thing remains undisputed, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Street Fighter (1994) was terrible by any metric – both as an action movie but especially as an adaptation. In City Hunter the Street Fighter imagery was but a random gag among many and Jing Wong would give Die Hard (1988) a Hong Kong make-over in the form of High Risk (1995) just two years later. Which is a real roundabout way of asking: would anybody still be talking about City Hunter today if it weren’t for the all-star Chinese-Japanese cast and the crass fast food jokes?