Geisha Assassin (Japan, 2008)
… Or, the Hong Kong action film that is dressed up as a female-led chanbara revenge thriller. Geisha Assassin is unfairly tarred with the same brush as recent low budget J-horrors, mainly because of its distribution in the UK and USA, and because of director Go Ohara’s affiliations with filmmakers such as Tak Sakaguchi. The retitling in the USA, to Geisha vs Ninja, also does not help the film to be considered as anything other than the lowest exploitation fare. While it is definitely exploitative, there is a lot to admire beyond the heroine’s early bout with a group of ninjas.
The plot immediately brings to mind parallels of the golden age of Hong Kong action. We quickly find out that a woman has disguised herself as a geisha to get close to the man who killed her father. He was a master samurai, and also trained his daughter – but the villain has an extensive group of cutthroats that now work for him. These range from samurai sword-wielding henchmen and black-clad ninjas, to devious poisoners and demonic apparitions. The regular bouts with these affiliates of the villain highlight a video-game aesthetic within the film, as the heroine has to adapt her skills to each foe that stands in her way. She also has to quickly transform her geisha dress into a more flexible outfit, which is shown in a wonderfully cheesy montage sequence.
It is not just the range of villains, the aesthetic touches, or the fast pace that make the film work. Minami Tsukui is a great action lead, and she handles herself incredibly well in the action sequences (as well as the dramatic scenes). A particular highlight is her bare-handed brawl with a towering and ferocious monk. The initial attempt to get close to her nemesis ends quickly, but the encounter with the monk soon follows, and it makes you realise that our heroine is only getting warmed up. It is a shame that Tsukui can now only be seen on Japanese television (most recently in episodes of Kamen Rider Gaim). She uses her skillset fantastically in the action sequences, and she would be sure to light up any future chanbara or martial arts film.
There are some negatives. This is Ohara’s directorial debut, after being involved mainly in stunt direction. As a result, the plot is thin, and the low-budget feel never fully leaves the screen. For instance, the final twist from the villain, concerning why he killed the heroine’s father, is circumstantial and only makes the final fight longer than it has to be. Nonetheless, the negatives of the film also highlight its positives. This film is purely and simply about its action sequences, because that is where Tsukui’s and Ohara’s talents lie. If you want some depth to your characters, or the overall narrative, then you will need to look elsewhere.
Geisha Assassin followed the short-lived Azumi franchise (2003/2005), and came out in the same year as the flawed but visually pleasing Ichi (2008). In essence, Geisha Assassin gave film fans what these other two titles did not – a film about nothing more than a female heroine kicking ass. Azumi and Ichi were too focused on the effects of violence and the morality of their characters. These are fine subjects to explore in cinema, but they do not necessarily belong in action-heavy genres, such as chanbara. It may be nowhere near the quality of the samurai classics from the 1960s and 1970s, but not many films like Geisha Assassin have come along since.