Geisha Assassin

Geisha Assassin


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Ohara Go's directorial debut begins with a factoid that encapsulates the ineptitude of the film to follow.

According to a scholarly-seeming piece of introductory text, although the term "geisha" has come to be used exclusively of female entertainers, "from the Age of Civil Wars to the Edo period" it was used to describe artists of any sex – and not just the artists in the pleasure quarters who sang and danced for men who were waiting to see courtesans, but also medicinal and even martial artists, so that "eminent swordsmen like Miyamoto Musashi, therefore, were also geisha."

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Leaving aside the question of whether this is really true (it is not), it turns out to be an utterly pointless piece of information, undermined by the use of the term within the film itself. If the heroine Kotono (newcomer Tsukui Minami) combines the dancing skills and traditional costume of a hostess/entertainer with genuine fighting talent, the term geisha is nonetheless only ever used to refer to her status as a men's entertainer, and is always in contrast with her martial prowess.

"I see you are not just a geisha," says her arch-enemy Katagiri Hyo-e (Kanai Shigeru) when he realises that she can fight as well as sashay. A second adversary is surprised to see that he is supposed to be combating "a mere geisha", while a third advises Kotono to abandon her violent vendetta with the words, "dance - being a geisha isn't bad". Meanwhile, when in a flashback Kotono's father Shuguro (Nomura Masaki) tells her "a daughter of a samurai won't be a geisha", his aim is to persuade her to succeed him as the head of his swordfighting school, and to dissuade her from pursuing a career in the terpsichorean arts. Even the film's two titles, Geisha Assassin and Geisha vs. Ninja, imply an opposition between geisha and martial artists – an opposition that the protagonist just happens, uniquely, to bridge.

Not that Kotono's professed occupation as a geisha – which ought to have been the film's real selling point – is ever treated more than cosmetically. We may see her dance (alone) during the opening credits, and sport an increasingly muddy and threadbare geisha's kimono, but what this girl does most and best is fight fight fight, using sword, hairpin, fists, feet and even, in one scene, a rock. Daddy would no doubt be proud as it is to avenge his death, which she witnessed as a child, that she has launched upon her killing spree.

The ultimate target of her vengeance is his killer, Hyo-e, but first Kotono must prove herself against a series of opponents, each with their own fighting style. So while her very first battle, less seen than heard as sword clashes against sword in the dark, establishes her adventures as falling into the Japanese genre of chanbara (so named in mimesis of the sound of blade on blade), in fact the film also showcases wire-fu, weapons-free pugilism, and even the supernatural. The demons who use their disembodied heads as projectiles count as one of the film's more bizarre highlights.

These episodes of combat unfold like levels in a videogame, with next to no story and only the most perfunctory of dialogue to link them together. Ohara, who has previously worked as action director on Chanbara Beauty (2008) and Death Train (2005), ought to come into his own here – but the film's distractingly cheap look, the total absence of characterisation and some very misguided decisions about the placement of the camera, all conspire to make the fights as drearily unengaging as possible.

Then, way past the point where any viewer could care less, the film's final 20 minutes attempt to shoehorn in the semblance of a plot via some rather forced flashbacks, whose significance is hardly clarified by Hyo-e's meaningless expositional commentary. "I didn't kill your father," Hyo-e insists – but he did. Then he rattles on about Shuguro's legacy being "a double-edged sword". Double-edged, maybe, but – much like the opening ambiguation of the term geisha and the film as a whole – it has no obvious sharpness or point.

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2010
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After a girl witnesses the slaying of her father, she becomes a master of the sword herself in order to avenge his death.
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Director: Gô Ohara

Writer: Isao Kodaka

Starring: Tsukui Minami, Kanai Shigeru, Nagasawa Nao, Okubo Taka, Hakuzen Satoshi, Korimoto Shuji, Sakai Kaori, Nomura Masaki

Year: 2008

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


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