Zipang [Jipangu] (1990)

Honorable Mention

As I’ve noted before, the Heisei era at Toho, starting with the release of Godzilla 1985, was a rather strange time for Toho’s Tokusatsu films, one where it felt as if they were desperately trying to figure out what they were doing.  After all, they started the era with the return of the Big Green Guy — and a big scale Space Opera complete with zero-G sex, Sayanora Jupiter.  Along the way, they gave us a strange cross between a classic Japanese legend and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Cyberpunk giant robot movie, a Harryhausen-ish epic fantasy film, a made for video robot serial killer film, and even a weird disaster film which sounds suspiciously like the British film Invasion, or perhaps Steven King’s Under the Dome.

And, a year after Godzilla belatedly returned for his second Heisei era film (the one where he fights a giant…rose), they made this interesting Chanbara film which is part swashbuckling adventure, part roguish comedy, part fantasy, part martial arts epic — and there’s even a hint of science fiction in the mix.


His name means “Hell” and he is the most daring and resourceful bandit of them all!  He and his gang roam about seizing whatever treasure they want, thanks to his incredible collection of nine, ridiculously specialized swords — and his gang’s remarkable weapons and skills.

But to the ecstatic joy of hundreds of bounty hunters, the government has just placed a huge bounty on his head.

One of them, the beautiful female bounty hunter, Yuri the pistol, declares she will be the one to claim it.  After all, she always gets her man.  Only, when her attempt to kill him fails, Jigoku is so impressed he immediately declares his love for her!

Following an epic battle with the bounty hunters, whose numbers include the blind masseuse Zatoichi (who opens his eyes for a quick peek as his fight goes badly); one-armed, one-eyed samurai Tange Sazen; and even a French swordsman who is apparently meant to be Cyrano de Bergerac, Jigoku goes in search of a legendary treasure and recovers a giant golden sword.

Mind you, he’s too busy fighting the army of Ninja the emperor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, sent after him to notice that he’s released a mysterious warrior from his grave.

All this wild nonsense ultimately ends up in Zipang, the mythical land of gold that the Emperor hopes to conquer, and where Jigoku has to face off against the golden king to save Yuri.

Look, it’s hard to convey just how wild, weird and silly this film is.  It’s probably as close to a Hong Kong action film as the Japanese film industry ever came and yet it is an unmistakably Japanese film.  It parodies and homages all sorts of films, but does so with a brief wink and never lets the non-stop action flag for a moment.  It has a bold color scheme, some absolutely incredible fight scenes, and a lot of extravagant special effects which are as impressive as anything Toho did during the Heisei era.

I’d be tempted to describe this film as “Sword Punk,” as Jigoku’s gang uses a lot of goofy gimmicks, like mortars and kites big enough for them to fly on, which are more or less period plausible.  Perhaps the best of these is his odd collection of swords, which he calls for by number as he fights, as his gang tosses them to him one by one.  They range from the absurd, like one which is actually two separate knives hidden in a single sheath, another which fires its blade out of its handle, or the boomerang scimitar which pins one adversary to the ground.  Others include a sword which converts to a pike by sticking its handle into a sheath, a long flexible sword like that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (only a decade earlier), and a very long cavalry sword that is his number one.

The Ninja are given more fantastic weapons, like a pair of high tech binoculars which take pictures, a prosthetic mechanical claw with multiple configurations, and a drone shuriken which their leader uses to send messages back to the Emperor.

However, there is also that trip to Zipang, which is more fantasy than anything else, although it is never clear whether they have entered another dimension, or are up in the clouds or perhaps have even travelled back in the past (as we are eventually told that Zipang is Japan!).

There they encounter monsters and superpowered fighters and, while we are told they are gods, they basically seem to be immortal and powerful material beings, who can be killed.

All this is beautifully staged and shot, with great design and some absolutely incredible moments like the huge, armored power suit the king wears into battle: it is massive and very tall — yet it seems to have been shot live, a feat right up there with the best suitmation work Toho did in their Kaiju Eiga.

Or perhaps better, as it has to convincingly fight a guy with a sword — who isn’t being slowed down with hundreds of pounds of latex suit.

Jipang is funny and absurd, without being a comedy, or descending into mere parody.  Instead, it is a fast moving adventure story where the exaggerated Samurai hijinks still seem mostly grounded — even if they are often used in fantasy settings or against god-like warriors and horrible monsters.

I suspect this wonderful balance of all these different elements had a lot to do with the director, Kaizô Hayashi, who created the beautiful and surreal faux-silent detective thriller (and homage to Japan’s silent film era) To Sleep so as to Dream.  It seems a shame that Zipang isn’t better known here in the U.S.

But then, that seems to be the fate of many excellent Toho films…

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Which this time shows us how hard it is to be sure it’s dead…

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