OK, so, Kaizo Hayashi’s 1990 action flick Zipang features an unstoppable samurai, an immortal ancient warrior, a ninja with advanced technology and weapons hidden inside his bones, secret worlds, and all sorts of crazy crap that I don’t have the space to get into here. It’s a bizarre funhouse of a film, and your enjoyment of it will hinge entirely on how much zaniness you can take in one sitting.
So what’s the plot to Zipang? Well, it goes something like this: a group of bounty hunters, including Yuri the Pistol (a female fighter played by Narumi Yasuda and armed with--that’s right--a pistol), set out to capture a ronin named Jigoku (which means “Hell,” I think). Jigoku (Masahiro Takashima) is, of course, a super samurai, who numbers his various swords like they’re golf clubs. He yells out a number to one of his followers who, like a caddy, makes sure he gets the requested tool.
The battle between the bounty hunters and Jigoku is a long one, played with little blood and lots of comedy. In the process of dispatching his foes, Jigoku runs afoul the familiar chambara characters Zatoichi and Tange Sazen--and also a Muskateer, I think (or maybe its Cyrano de Bergerac--Jigoku doesn’t mince words with him). Apparently they’re after the bounty as well. Jigoku defeats them all. He’s just that slick.
Historically, “Zipang” is the name Marco Polo used to identify Japan. Or so I'm told. In the film, however, Zipang is some other dimension. Somehow, Jigoku and his band of merry followers get caught up in the search for Zipang, a mystical and hidden land of gold. To get there, one must wield a golden sword, which Jigoku locates in short order. Unfortunately, there are others searching for the gold, including the ninja Hanzo, and an ancient warrior--an ancient warrior who was killed before the film’s opening credits, only to rise again.
While all of this is going on, Jigoku falls for Yuri the Pistol, who ends up being transported to Zipang, along with Hanzo, both of whom become prisoners of the King of Zipang, who’s kind of a dick. Jigoku sets off to save her. Because he's just that kind of guy.
While Zipang is certainly zany, with its comical characters and its spoofing of the genre, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a comedy. While the fighting is light-hearted, it is still thrilling, action-y stuff. You’re meant to enjoy the fighting in it the same way you’d enjoy a fight in, say, the Zatoichi series. Zipang seems to represent the samurai film laid bare as a genre, with all of the elements used in a self-conscious fashion--as well as some flights of fantasy added. One guy can kill a whole army? Sure! Even if they have rocket launchers? Why not!
Pagan Films, a UK-based distributor, has produced a fairly bare-bones DVD for Zipang, but if you want to see the film, it’s all there is, so there’s no point complaining. The film probably wouldn’t work if it weren’t for Hayashi’s eye for style. He switches from a monochromatic opening to a film filled with vibrant colour, and later has no problems about playing around with the film to add to the unreal quality of the story. The film is visually quite interesting, despite a few cheap looking costumers (Hanzo’s ninja outfit looks like it’s made out of garbage bags) and some rather static matte-painted backgrounds. On the whole, though, it’s the look of the film that really draws you to it.