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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 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.

Plot: God made him simple. Science made him a god.

The Lawnmower Man is one of those post-The Abyss (1989) special effects extravaganzas that for one reason or another never quite made it to the big time. It was mildly philosophical when it tried and attempted to be cerebral in a time when that quality was very much frowned upon. It very much wanted to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969) for the Computer Age but somehow ended up in Albert Pyun territory instead. As subtle as a sledgehammer and about as nuanced as a bulldozer The Lawnmower Man also is needlessly pretentious, a tad on the long side, and jarringly violent when a measure of restraint would have sufficed. In other words, The Lawnmower Man is a relic from the 90s, that bygone era where genres shifted superficially enough to, in the best of days, pass themselves off as something they were not. In one of the prior decades (especially the sixties, seventies, possiby even the eighties) and in the hands of different director The Lawnmower Man could have been a cautionary tale about the dangers of emerging technology or a body horror about digital godhood. Instead it is a techno-thriller too afraid to commit to itself and often a victim of its more exploitative inclinations.

The career of director Brett Leonard is one of odd twists and turns. He was one of the Klown performers on Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) before directing his own zombie movie The Dead Pit (1989). That directly led into Leonard being hired to direct music videos for MC Twist, erstwhile Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, and Billy Idol. For all intents and purposes The Lawnmower Man was his first big project and supposedly his ticket to the Hollywood big time. The Lawnmower Man was based on an original script called Cyber God co-written by him and producer Gimel Everett. It was originally released as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, but title and a few vague references aside, it practically bears no meaningful semblance to King’s 1975 short story of the same name. King, understandably, was none too pleased having his name associated with the production and succesfully sued to have it removed. After The Lawnmower Man Leonard helmed the thriller Hideaway (1995) (with Aerosmith babe Alicia Silverstone) that saw author Dean R. Koontz sueing to have his name removed. Leonard directed the science-fiction feature Virtuosity (1995) (with Denzel Washington) that had the ill fortune of being overshadowed by a little movie called The Matrix (1999) from the Wachowskis. Leonard then directed the IMAX feature T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (1998) before helming Feed (2005), a thriller in the mold of The Silence Of the Lambs (1991) and, more importantly, Se7en (1995) – but only a decade late. To say that Brett Leonard has had a strange career would be putting it very mildly.

Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a benevolent computer scientist employed at Virtual Space Industries where he has developed a revolutionary VR treatment that allows to open the doors of perception and boost intelligence. His research into psychoactive drugs and virtual reality experiments on simians have produced extraordinary results. He has, much to his chagrin and dismay, been contracted by the military through the highly secretive clandestine group The Shop to weaponize his emerging technology with aims of creating the ultimate highly-efficient, disposable infantry soldier in what has been dubbed Project 5. Angelo’s been so consumed by his work that he barely notices that his estranged girlfriend Caroline (Colleen Coffey) is about to pick up and leave. Project director Sebastian Timms (Mark Bringelson) encourages Angelo not to bite the military-industrialist hand that feeds him. The Director (Dean Norris) reminds Timms of the techology’s strategic importance prompting him to swap Angelo’s new formula with the old Project 5 medication. A decision that will have far-reaching consequences as this leads to the escape of Angelo’s most promising test subject, the chimp Roscoe-111. As the chimp flees into the sleepy adjacent town Larry meets intellectually disabled and put-upon Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) - a warden of the state, and laborer for landscaping company Pastoral Greenery – wasting away neglected in a rundown shed near the church. Jobe has an interest in superhero comics and shows an uncanny affinity for mechanics. Angelo realizes that he has at long last found the suitable human test subject to complete his research.

Jobe is constantly at the receiving end of abuse from his supposed legal guardian Father Francis McKeen (Jeremy Slate) and gas station attendant Jake Simpson (John Laughlin). The only one really looking out for his best interests is Francis’ semi-alcoholic gardener brother Terry (Geoffrey Lewis). He has a friend in teenager Peter Parkette (Austin O’Brien), Angelo’s next-door neighbor who often comes over to his laboratory to play with the VR equipment. Peter’s mother Carla (Rosalee Mayeux) is sweet on him, if only to escape her suburban nightmare with abusive husband Harold (Ray Lykins). Platinum blonde poor white trash beauty queen Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright) has eyes for Jobe, but (so far) he has been oblivious to her advances. Larry’s treatment on Jobe proves succesful seeing him finally stand up to his abusers and win the affections of Marnie – all while his intellligence continues to boom exponentially. Once the resources in his basement laboratory have been exhausted Angelo moves Jobe into VSI’s spinning aerotrim gyroscope where the software is far more advanced and radical. Soon Jobe becomes too powerful of a mental force for even Angelo to contain and The Shop deploys para-military forces to stop him. Attaining superhuman intelligence Jobe rids himself of his frail mortal form by downloading his essence into the VSI mainframe. In cyberspace he declares that every telephone on the planet ringing simultaneously will foretell his ascent into virtual godhood and digital immortality.

In 1992 Pierce Brosnan was a hungry young Irish actor looking for his big break. He had headlined the British television series Remington Steele (1982-1987) and was in no uncertain terms destined for made-for-TV movie and low budget action/thriller purgatory if it weren’t for The Lawnmower Man. From there Brosnan went on to star in Chris Columbus’ multiple Academy Award-winning dramedy Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) with Robin Williams that helped raise his international profile considerably. Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) put him on the path to play secret agent James Bond in GoldenEye (1995), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999), and Die Another Day (2002) – or what has retroactively been considered Bond’s darkest, most destitute, and creatively bankrupt period of the modern era. After Brosnan’s tenure as the debonair and womanizing MI6 agent the Bond series went on hiatus and was reimagined with the 2006 remake of Casino Royale (1967) and with Daniel Craig in tow.

The Lawnmower Man was the screen debut for Austin O’Brien who went on to do a little movie called Last Action Hero (1993) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, probably the most intelligent and meta/self-reflexive action movie deconstruction. In the following years O’Brien would go to star in high profile productions as My Girl 2 (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995) from director Ron Howard. The odd woman out is Jenny Wright who famously played an American groupie in the rock opera Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) and from there landed parts in Near Dark (1987), Young Guns II (1988), and I, Madman (1989). Here she looks like a cheap stand-in for Patricia Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, or Amanda Peet. Dean Norris played a bit part in the big budget James Cameron action blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) the year before. Jeff Fahey’s career cannot be put in proper words. Suffice to say he’s been active on the small – and the big screen. In The Lawnmower Man he shines as a budget-friendly Billy Zane and emanates the same untethered madness.

It’s all too often and easily forgotten that once upon a time not so long ago CGI wasn’t so humdrum, ubiquitous, and nefariously omnipresent as it is today. The Lawnmower Man had state-of-the-art computer generated imagery in 1992 and, at least for a while, acted as the standard to which everything else was measured. It's almost impossible to fathom today but in the early 1990s computer games and movies looked distinctly different. Games had cinematic cutscenes and movies used computer graphics, but each was a different niche. For a time at least The Lawnmower Man was the gold standard in CGI. The company behind the CGI was Angel Studios, which would rebrand itself as Rockstar San Diego and become the powerhouse developer behind the Midnight Club and Red Dead Redemption games. Like Brainscan (1994) it’s very much a product of a time wherein technophobia and paranoia ran rampant. The Net (1995) (with Sandra Bullock), Johnny Mnemonic (1995) (with Keanu Reeves), and Strange Days (1995) (with Ralph Fiennes) all explored the possibilities and pitfalls of computer technology, the internet, and virtual reality. No matter how pioneering The Lawnmower Man was careless, if not outright irresponsible, in its caricatural depiction and treatment of domestic violence, mental illness, and abuse by community gatekeepers. It also had no qualms in parading Jenny Wright around in a very small nightie (this being PG-13 nonsense there’s not a naked boob anywhere) and almost all her lines are thinly-veiled sexual innuendo almost exclusively. There’s a decent movie somewhere in The Lawnmower Man, and the director’s cut gets the closest to that.

Somewhere between Altered States (1980) and Village Of the Damned (1960) and roughly following the contours of Daniel Keyes’ 1958 short story Flowers For Algernon The Lawnmower Man waxes faux-philosophically about the human condition while having the unfortunate tendency of biting off more than it can chew. Or at least the most widely available theatrical version suffers from this more than anything. Jobe’s growth is not gradual as in the director’s cut and it paints Angelo as a hard-drinking opportunist nakedly exploiting Jobe to further his own selfish interests. Brosnan is forced to read lines bordering on Ed Wood territory and Jenny Wright is hopelessly paraded around in either skimpy clothes or trashy lingerie. In between there are either sudden bursts of extreme violence, unexpected profanity, or tacky softcore sex. The Lawnmower Man is excruciatingly, profoundly, painfully 90s in its inanity. Had this come with a Simon Boswell or Brad Fiedel score it would have been perfect. This is a techno-thriller that never explains its technology, a body horror that never commits to either the body or the horror, and a character study without a viewpoint character. Possessing neither the foresight to predict the societal impact of the technology it plays with nor the will to explore the human implications thereof The Lawnmower Man is too by-the-numbers in every sense. It is everything and nothing, all at once. Something of a minor hit at the box office the inevitable sequel followed 4 years later ensuring that nobody would be crazy enough to revive the franchise for an encore…