Zero Woman

“Zero equals nothing. Nothing means you don’t exist”

Based to some degree on a film from 1974 called “Zero Woman – Red Handcuffs”, there have been seven films (as far as I can discern at the time of this writing) produced in the 1990’s that comprise this series. No one really has anything very good to say about them, but at the same time a lot of people have managed to stumble on some of the series and often find themselves seeing more of them for reasons they can’t logically explain. They are kind of like snack food – quick (usually coming in at less than 85 minutes), mildly tasty and forgotten within a fairly short period of time. What they do have though are three very basic components that some of us find hard to resist – beautiful women, guns and cleavage. And in some cases actually guns in the cleavage of beautiful women – it’s like hitting the trifecta of low-grade pulp.

Rei is Zero Woman - she works for a covert branch of the police department – Zero Section – who are brought in when conventional law enforcement isn’t able to bring certain criminals to justice. Zero Section doesn’t have to abide by many rules and their justice can be very swift – often a shot to the head. Rei gets various assignments that always invariably end up in death. Her character (played by a different actress in every film) changes slightly from film to film, but she is generally portrayed as living on the fringe of society – almost a lonely fleeting shadow that doesn’t exist – and she isn't particularly happy with her career choice. But it appears that once in Zero Section the only way out is feet first. Often she almost wishes this would happen as her continuous killing fills her with self-loathing, emptiness and remorse. She is simply a tool of destruction that her male handlers make use of and would easily discard if necessary. There are no office parties, no comraderie – just carrying out her assignments and waiting for the next one.
It is not completely clear in fact that Rei is suppose to be the same character in all these films – in some her name isn’t used – it could be that Rei is simply the name used for all the women in Zero Section. They are interchangeable, fungible and dispensable. One common characteristic though that these actresses all share is sizable upper body assets and nearly every film in the series seems to have a mandated rule that there is one shower/bath scene to display her best attributes – important because cleanliness is next to Godliness – especially in the murky world of Zero Section. All of the 1990 films were straight to video productions with a low budget discipline maintained.
There are other characteristics that tend to be common in most of the films – they usually start off with Rei killing someone, taking a shower to wash off her sin as much as the blood and then having to take on a new assignment. There are generally one to two sex scenes – not always with Zero Woman but sometimes with another female character in the film, she easily falls in love and more often than not this turns out to be a bad thing for the guy and by the end of the film nearly everyone is dead other than Zero Woman. Most important to all these films though is how good Zero Woman looks with a gun and a smudge of blood on her face and that seems to be the main criteria in selecting the actresses – because acting ability certainly doesn’t appear to be it. Nor is action ability – for those brought up on Hong Kong female action films, these are weak reflections of those – made very specifically for a male audience more interested likely in the exploitation elements within than the action scenes.

Here are the Zero Woman films:

1974 - Zero Woman – Red Handcuffs.
Directed by: Yukio Noda
Starring: Miki Sugimoto
Production Company: Toei
Time: 88 minutes

1995 - Zero Woman – Final Mission
Directed by: Koji Ekokido
Starring: Naoko Iijima
Time: 78 minutes

1995 - Zero Woman
Directed by: Daisuke Goto
Starring: Natsuki Ozawa
Time: 82 minutes

1996 - Zero Woman – Assassin Lovers
Directed by: Masahide Kuwabara
Starring: Kumiko Takeda
Time: 90 minutes

1996 - Zero Woman – The Accused
Directed by: Daisuke Goto
Starring: Mai Taichira
Time: 73 minutes

1997 - Zero Woman – The Hunted
Directed by: Norihisa Yoshimura
Starring: Mikiyo Ohno
Time: 80 minutes

1998 - Zero Woman – Dangerous Game
Directed by: Hidekazu Takahara
Starring: Cheiko Shiratori
Time: 81 minutes

1998 - Zero Woman – Returns
Directed by: Yasushi Saisyu
Starring: Saori Ono
Time: 82 minutes

Zero Woman:  Red Handcuffs (1974)

This 1974 film from director Yukio Noda is to a large degree the inspiration of the Zero Woman films of the 1990’s. Instead of being the solitary secret assassin that she becomes in those films, the character in Red Handcuffs is closer to a Dirty Harry type – meting out justice as she sees fit – but the ending of this film leads to the strong possibility that she goes on to become the lone government killer in the later films. Based on a manga from Toru Fujiwara (also responsible for the manga that the Female Convict Scorpion series is based on), this is a rough film to swallow as it gorges itself on violence, rape, nudity and geysers of spurting blood. In an interview with Patrick Macias, Takeshi Miike had this to say of Noda’s films, “When I saw that, I thought, all the cool stuff I wanted to do, this guy has already done it!" I would not go that far, but this film is a visceral razor cut across your face. What saves it from being a mere exercise in exploitation though is it’s gritty street energy, a nihilistic attitude, the stunning implacable impassivity of actress Miki Sugimoto and some kinetic editing and cinematography. For this genre, it is an over the top 70’s classic and heads above any of the 1990 Zero Woman films.

Rei is a cop and has set herself up as bait for a German tourist who takes women back to his room and sadistically brutalizes them till they are dead. Two of Rei’s accessories are a small red gun that she keeps hidden in the heel of her boot and a pair of red handcuffs that she can use like a lasso or even a near flying guillotine. In this instance, she uses both – the handcuffs to disable him and the gun to kill him with a shot to his groin that explodes in a swizzle of blood. Her supervisors are not pleased with her overstepping police protocol and throw her in jail – where a gang of female inmates attacks her as the theme song plays over the opening credits. From the get go, you know you are in for an uncomfortable but stylized experience. The cops are only too happy to allow Rei to rot in jail, but suddenly her services and skills are needed.
Five cretinous men rape a woman and kill her boyfriend, but not satisfied with this they kidnap her in order to turn her over to a brothel mamasan (Yoko Mihara). The mamasan recognizes the woman as the daughter of a very influential and wealthy politician and so they decide to ask for a ransom.  The politician (Tetsuro Tamba) uses his influence to hush up the whole matter as he wants no scandal hurting his career and basically orders the police to cover it up by killing all the bad guys involved – no arrests, no trials. They have no choice but to turn to Rei who has few qualms about an assignment such as this. She helps one of the gang escape from the ransom drop-off and uses this to infiltrate the gang – but not before they first gang rape her – and she is only able to prove her toughness later by killing the mamasan when she comes to take her turn with Rei – a classic shot is of the woman falling back into the water filled bathtub and blood spreading slowly like a Japanese water color.
Now she begins to use her smarts and sex appeal to sow discord among the men and make them turn against each other. Of course why she simply doesn’t use her hidden gun to kill them all is a bit of a mystery – instead she often stands passively by as the woman is raped and drugged and other innocents are killed. It ends in great style like a Western showdown in a small dusty deserted group of buildings that once were used as brothels for the nearby U.S military base. In fact, Noda often takes a few slaps at the presence of the U.S. – at one time having the men urinate on a US Army sign. This is an entirely corrupt world though – not just the U.S. but the the cops and the politicians are dirty too and Rei is used to take care of their dirty laundry.  The cops are almost as cruel as the crooks and at one point capture one of them and methodically torture him with a blowtorch and then a water nozzle down his throat. Miki Sugimoto had a career primarily in exploitation and “pinku” films – some titles being Hot Springs Kiss Geisha, Shoguns General’s 21 Dolls, Modern Porno Tale - Inherited Sex Mania, Sukeban Guerilla and Violent Lynch Classroom. She isn’t very expressive but she is enormously attractive with her dark intense eyes and red lipsticked lower lip set in a perpetual pout.

My rating for this film: 7.5

Zero Woman: Final Mission (1995)

The first film in the 1990’s series is one of the best of them – well-photographed, good use of color, interesting plot, good soundtrack and a solid quota of kink and sleaze. In this first episode Rei (Naoko Iijima) is seemingly a low-level police woman/office lady who works at police headquarters. Only her supervisor knows that she is in truth a deadly assassin when called upon. In the opening scene she walks into a bar as if she is modeling for Victoria Secret and pulls a gun out of her deep cleavage and blows away a few miscreants. When she gets home she parks her gun right next to her Barbie doll. In this one Rei actually seems connected to the normal world and it is her friendship with a fellow cop (who is unaware of Rei’s real status) that brings her into danger.

The lovely Miss Yumi is the daughter of a wealthy magnate and she has a public image of being a good Samaritan and benefactor to a school for orphan children. Her private life is another matter as she likes seducing young men who are beholden to her – nothing wrong with that I suppose – but then she begins to insist on a little rough S&M role-playing – often in the back seat of her convertible. When one of these young men resists and walks away, she is insulted and runs him down while still naked in the car. Rei, her friend and his girlfriend are witnesses to this act, but are unable to stop or identify the woman. Dad wants to keep it that way and so he sends professional killers to clean up these little loose ends – fortunately like many of us Rei keeps a gun next to her when she showers but her friend is not so lucky. Rei decides to go after the bad guys on her own and is captured and then strung up and tortured by a dwarf dressed in a blazer and shorts who looks a lot like North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il!
There is a decent amount of action in the film – though like all the films the action is never particularly well-choreographed or physical – it is mere spectator sport for seeing these women work their way out of danger with the use of a gun. Actress Naoka is mildly sympathetic and doey attractive, but not particularly dynamic or memorable in this. She was born in 1968 and has been in a few other films (“Funky Monkey Teacher”, “Messenger”) and some Japanese TV series. She was married to a member of the popular musical group, Tube, though they are now divorced and is a singer in her own right. One rather amazing factoid about the film is that the composer is Shigeru Umebayashi who went on to do music for “In the Mood for Love”, “House of Flying Daggers” and "2046" – and there is a little musical riff that instantly reminded me of something from “In the Mood for Love”.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Zero Woman (1995)

Though this one is often assumed to be the first in the series due to its lack of a sub-name, it is in fact the second in the series – though in some ways this one sets the Zero Woman personality for the films that follow. The production values and style are not up to the first film, but it has much more action, more characters and perhaps the best looking of the actresses to portray Rei, the beautiful Natsuki Ozawa (only Cheiko Shiratori compares). While the first Zero Woman was somewhat modest in displaying her nudity, Natsuki embraces it fully! Born in 1976, Natsuki had a short career as a pop singer/actress before shocking people by making some hard-core films with titles like “Reverse Soap Heaven”, “Lewd Model” and “Sexy Butt”! She also appeared in the zombie flick, “Junk”.

It begins again with a spurt of bloodshed. Rei has been assigned to steal some bearer bonds away from a criminal gang, but a trio of punks beats her to it by carving the holder's arm off. She is still able to send one bad guy away with a final question to him “Do you believe in heaven?” Later she ponders to herself, “I once heard that blood tastes like pomegranate. That’s not true, blood tastes more bitter and warmer” – she should know. Now both she and the gang are after the three punks and Rei is teamed up with another cop who seems to clearly have his own agenda. But she sleeps with him first of course – in fact about twenty-minutes after she meets him – and about 30-minutes after a butcher attempts to rape her next to his raw meat. Sleeping with Zero Woman though is almost tantamount to signing your own death warrant.
A lead takes them to a female fortuneteller and it turns out to have been her brother who was one of the thieves. A number of turns and betrayals later, the fortuneteller has been kidnapped by the gang and she is being strung up in your typical B movie warehouse – Rei and the kung fu kicking brother (Caine Kosugi – son of Sho) take them on. In one nice moment, Rei kills one henchman and then calmly eats his pizza as bad guys creep up on her. The final fifteen minutes is all show down and nice use is made of some color schemes to give it a slash of style. In this film Zero Woman takes on many of the basic characteristics that are to serve her throughout the series – a loner, an agent of death and a sexual need to feed her emotional emptiness as the killing begins to take its toll on her.

My rating for this film: 6.0

Assassin Lovers (1996)

Rei (Kumiko Takeda – looking to me like a cross between Susan Sarandon and Rosamund Kwan) is finding the killing more and more difficult to stomach. She swerves to block a car and gets out of her vehicle in her long black leather boots and shoots one guy in the head and the other man in the face even with his hands up in a gesture of surrender. But she can’t finish off one of the wounded men and her Zero handler (Tokuma Nishioka portrays this character in the first three films) accuses her of showing pity – a trait a Zero Woman can never have. She says she has had enough of this life and throws her gun at him and walks away – but of course she is dragged back in to this killing game.

She finds a man that fits her like a glove. Unfortunately, he has been sent to kill her but he too may be in need of career counseling. In a bar she is throwing darts and he has her in his gun sights when he notices a lone tear running down her cheek and he hesitates wanting to know what is causing this. They end up in bed all too aware that they could kill each other at any moment, which only excites them all the more. Katsumura (Keiji Matsuda) works for the gang that she has been assigned to eliminate – “exterminate to the root” are her instructions – and sooner or later he knows he will have to face her but he can’t bring himself to kill her – not even when she walks into a bar and fires randomly in a bid to commit suicide assassin style. Instead he wounds her and then takes her back to mend her. She needs to get better quickly because she still has four names on the list that she has to find and kill. In a less than discreet manner, she tapes up pictures of the people she has to kill on her living room wall and then puts a big red "X" through the ones she has expunged.
The film utilizes blood a lot more readily in this episode – with the syrup gushing out of head wounds on a few occasions like a burst pipe. It forgoes a shower scene for a stay in a sweaty sauna as she waits for a target to show up. There is also a modicum of background to the Zero Woman – a rarity – but she has nightmares about when her father murdered her mother – killing as she says “must be in my breeding”. There are also the requisite sex scenes – one an S&M sessions that looked quite silly between the gang boss and his Mistress. The film in general feels much more generic than the first two in the series and doesn’t try too hard to add any stylistic urges. Actress Kumiko is generously endowed, as are all the Zero Woman and has an interesting slightly world-weary face. She can also be found in the film “Close Your Eyes and Hold Me” and has appeared in over 30 films or TV shows. Born in 1968 she has moved to San Diego and you can apparently contact her through her site that has her profile and some pictures of her.

My rating for this film: 5.5

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