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Babes vs Zombies? Helen McCarthy dons cowboy hat and poncho to check out Yohei Fukuda’s Chanbara (“Swordplay”) Beauty.

Three people meet in a Japan overrun by the hungry dead: a bikini-clad  beauty wielding a samurai sword, her chubby sidekick, and a biker chick with a shotgun. Evil mastermind Dr Sugita has created an army of zombies to win absolute power. Can our reluctant heroes stop him, or will their human weaknesses and lost loved ones add them to the zombie buffet?

Based on a 2004 slash-’em-up game made for the PS2 and ported over to cellphones in 2006, the movie Chanbara Beauty expands the game premise of girls hacking their way through legions of the undead. Slightly. Aside from a sidekick who makes Joxer from Xena: Warrior Princess look like the Mighty Thor, not much has changed: underdressed babes, over-ripe extras, some endearingly pathetic special effects and a script from the school of bare necessities.

Yet, in its own way, the movie honours its roots. The box art alone tells you it has no pretensions to greatness, but it’s as much fun as a chocolate-fuelled, Lambrini-spiked sugar rush.

Sword-swinging, swashbuckling females on heroic missions go far back in Japanese legend. One of the most beloved and influential of modern times is the heroine of Riyoko Ikeda’s manga and anime The Rose of Versailles. Zombie hunter Aya’s swordplay links her to that history, and her rose tattoo, like the rose ring in the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, underlines the link. The traditions of the genre demand overwhelming opposition, lost love, honour, and, most important of all, secrets. Chanbara Beauty has all of the above.

The Japanese title is a triple pun. As well as its reference to the rose, it’s a play on onechan, or big sister, Japanese for any older girl too young to be called auntie, and chanbara, samurai swordplay movies packed with action and drama. Many chanbara movies packaged the struggle against oppressive overlords and would-be dictators in attention-grabbing, gore-laden action – another tradition honoured here.

Some of Fukuda’s framing echoes the chanbara tradition, with classic shots of poised swords and motionless protagonists caught in an eternal moment. His zombies stand in effectively for chanbara peasants, mere spear-carriers for the evil machinations of their masters and the lofty ideals of the samurai. Chanbara makers like Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi probably never envisaged protagonists in blinging bikinis, but changing times are a common chanbara motif.

An explicit homage to a Western source is an optional Japanese movie extra, but Chanbara Beauty picks the best in its nod to Quentin Tarantino’s number one psycho, GoGo Yubari from Kill Bill. Older film fans may note a nod to Raquel Welch’s 1971 cowboy flick Hannie Caulder (or to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name) in star Eri Otoguro’s poncho and cowboy hat. Otoguro looks gorgeous, but acting honours, such as they are, go to deadly mama Manami Hashimoto.  Turn off your critical faculties and enjoy.

Chanbara Beauty is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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