Cutie Honey is, essentially, a cartoon performed by actors and set, for the most part, in real locations. Admittedly, Anno does make some attempt to develop his characters, to show Honey's tragic past (that has left her both unique and isolated), Natsuko's lonely existence (in an apartment filled with rows of dead flowers, empty sake bottles, and identical suits of clothing), and Seiji's unrequited love for Natsuko. Most of the scenes showing the characters' inner lives or sad histories are not, however, developed any further than might Bugs Bunny's troubles as a kitten in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Consequently, even the potentially depressing revelations of how these persons are alone, have suffered the loss of loved ones, or have endured some other misfortune do not unduly darken the film. Similarly, although there are several action sequences, these arouse no real sense of danger, since the protagonists here, like those in a cartoon, seem to be impervious to harm. Though the film is not really a comedy, it is always lighthearted and goofy.
Moreover, visually, Cutie Honey is often a hoot. There are points at which it contains nothing but pedestrian images, but there are also numerous occasions when the director sprinkles his work with colorful, outlandish details. At times, such as when he shows events from Honey's past, Anno cuts away from his actors to short animated segments done in the style of earlier animated versions of Cutie Honey. Many of the fight sequences mingle live action with animation. In these, Honey's image is often manipulated so that it looks as though cut-outs of the girl are engaging in various impossibly acrobatic stunts (generally while surrounded by bright lights and a vividly blue background). This is not the end of the list of the movie's odd images, however. When Honey Kisaragi, the goofy but ordinary girl, transforms into Cutie Honey, the super-heroine, the director switches to computer generated figures and backdrops that move the events being depicted outside of this ordinary world into a bright and colorful land of magic wherein the protagonist's daily clothes dissolve and are replaced, amid shifting lights, with one of her crime fighting outfits. Over and over again, the viewer is presented with such deliciously bright and often wonderfully cartoonish images.
Happily, many of Cutie Honey's other elements add to the film's goofy, exaggerated feel. Sister Jill's top four lackeys all dress in outlandish costumes, and the villainess herself has half transformed her body into a tree so that she can feed on the lives of the young women she had abducted and who are now imprisoned beneath her. These five are not the only silly villains, however. Sister Jill is always attended by a peculiar, androgynous emcee with greased hair and a long, pointed handlebar mustache, and the lower ranking members of Panther Claw all wear black suits and black masks, which are either topped with a black leather hat or by a pair of cat ears. Fortunately, a couple of the protagonists can be just as fun to look at. Natsuko, with her harsh wardrobe of dark suits and her severe black glasses, is often shown in distorted close-ups that give her a silly intensity (although she is actually a rather attractive woman). Honey herself is, however, the most fun character to watch. Not only is her tight, pink super-heroine costume charmingly cheesy, but her other costumes are often nearly as good. At different times, the scatterbrained protagonist finds herself dressed in a red leather motorcycle outfit, in an imitation of Natsuko's standard garb (which, apparently, fools everyone who sees her, even though the two women look nothing alike), in her blue office uniform, in a man's suit and a fake mustache (which, again, apparently fools everyone who sees her, even though she is clearly not a man), in a trash bag wrapped around her torso (when she is unable to find anything to wear and has to run to the local continence store), and, very often, in her underwear. The woman is like a living cartoon character.
Even the movie's action sequences and special effects are outrageously weird and cartoonishly fun. In one sequence, one of Sister Jill's subordinates, who dresses in a leather bondage outfit, grabs Honey's boss, apparently flays the woman, dresses herself in the skin, and chases Honey and Natsuko out of a toilet stall and down a series of corridors by bending her arms and legs backwards and scampering along the ceiling like some human shaped gecko. When this fiend finally corners her prey in an elevator, she yanks off the skin she had been wearing, tosses it onto the floor, unzips some pockets on her catsuit, and thrusts a number of additional arms out of these so that she can better attack the heroine. Later, after a giant golden screw has emerged from the earth and lifted Tokyo Tower into the sky upon its apex, the heroine, having gone to this vast structure (that looks like a surreal version of a Burmese pagoda), she does battle with the remaining two of Sister Jill's lieutenants. First, upon a pink bridge extending from the golden cone to the top of a nearby tower, she faces a cackling demoness who is dressed in a parody of traditional Japanese attire, and who just happens to be able to crack open her mouth impossibly wide and spew out bursts of energy that punch holes through rows of skyscrapers. Honey does defeat her enemy, of course, but then she has to get past the last of Sister Jill's lackeys, whose face and clothing are white on one side and black on the other. Before she can fight him, however, she does have to watch the man and his cat-masked minions perform a musical number. Frankly, Cutie Honey is pretty bizarre. It is also frequently pretty entertaining.
As much as I liked the movie (and I obviously did), I must admit that there are a few things about it that I did not enjoy. The middle of the narrative is a little slow - although I would not go so far as to say that it is boring - and the ending is a little anti-climactic. Then there is the sad song Anno tosses in at one point and plays to images of Honey moping about and wandering through one place or another with downcast eyes or a glum expression. The sequence is clichéd and a little irritating. The director would have been wiser to have left it out. These problems, though real, are not, however, so bad as to ruin the film. They do prevent it from being the absolutely gleeful romp it could have been, but they do not prevent it from being a pleasure to watch.
In fact, Cutie Honey is a generally delightful movie. The director did occasionally stumble when making it, but, on the whole, he has succeeded in creating a sense of buoyant excitement.
Review by Keith Allen
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