HM here… Zen Pictures has just updated its web site with a brand new design, which is doubly convenient because Sidekick has written an in-depth site review in which he examines everything from the costumes to shooting locations to peril to “bang for your Yen.” Check out Sidekick’s site review (and my additional comments) and then head over to Zen Pictures to check out the new redesign.
Sidekick: For the uninitiated, Zen Pictures is a Japanese production company that puts out a few dozen films every year. The films they produce are high end, big budget (comparatively) action/peril films whose production values surpass even the best efforts of the top British and American producers in the same genre. Let’s take a deeper look at the Zen Pictures / Akiba Heroine web site.
1. The Girls - When watching Zen Pictures, one begins to wonder whether there any unattractive women in Japan. They just run out one beautiful actress after another. A few girls of note that I like and that have been cast in different roles are Sayoko Ohashi, Haruka Nagase, and Arisa Taki. All are exceptionally gorgeous. All are incredibly talented.
2. The Wardrobes - Top notch in every way possible. I can’t imagine a costume fetish that hasn’t been serviced at some point over the years. If you have never been to the site’s main page, I encourage you to visit Zen Pictures. They have virtual DVD covers with images from their latest releases. As I write this, the images on the main page feature a mix of the following costumes: spandex, leather, form fitting cat suits, bikinis, Power Ranger type uniforms, Sailor Moon type outfits, mini skirts, and a well put together version of a Supergirl costume. That’s all from just nine images.
3. Peril – My Zen library consists of about a dozen titles, and every single one is filled with peril. A lot of peril. A ridiculous amount of peril. Like the costumes, if there is a specific heroine in peril situation that you particularly enjoy, it’s a good bet Zen Pictures has done some form of it at one point or another.
4. Fight choreography – It’s almost always very good. Often, it’s the best the industry has to offer. With the exception of a recent release entitled Battle of Dead, I haven’t seen what I would consider below average fight choreography in any of the films I have purchased.
5. Locations – They do a fantastic job. They have well-designed interior locations and for a nice change of pace, they do a great deal of shooting outdoors.
6. Writing/Acting – Tough one to rate for two reasons: One, I don’t speak Japanese, and I’m guessing most of HM’s readers don’t either. Two, when they subtitle a film the translations are sometimes a bit nonsensical or a bunch of run on sentences. Here are some sample translations from a movie I recently downloaded.
“What’s wrong? Are you Japanese ninja chicken”?
“Attack me like a maniac. Or it’s out of the question.”
“I thought Japanese would be good losers.”
You get the picture. On the bright side, the vast majority of the actresses sell the peril well, which is obviously important to many viewers.
7. Storylines – Once again, the language barrier causes problems with properly evaluating this category. However, it seems clear that almost every Zen film follows the same four-act structure. First, the heroine shows up and dominates the bad guys. Second, a particularly powerful bad guy beats down the heroine. Third, the heroine is tortured/placed in a great amount of peril. Fourth, the heroine overcomes incredible odds and wins the day.
8. Bang for your Yen – Zen Pictures probably offers one of the best values in the genre. Every Zen film is generally 50 minutes to over an hour in length. You also get to download a behind-the-scenes video on top of the film. American buyers are subject to the current exchange rates and can generally expect a final bill of anywhere from $25 to $30 dollars for a newer release. That’s only slightly more than many producers charge for films that are half as long. One more note: when I buy a Zen film, my credit card charges me a foreign transaction fee. It’s usually a little under a dollar.
9. Rating – Most of the films are generally PG-13 in content. Some films are rated “OVER 15,” which is the Zen Pictures version of Rated R.
10. Sister site – For those looking for something a little more over-th- top, you may want to check out Giga Freeks. I have never purchased any of their films, but from what I understand they are basically Zen Pictures with hardcore sexual peril added. Please note that the films on this site sometimes run for almost two hours and can cost as much as $75.00.
HM again. First, I want to thank Sidekick for that review. Second, I’d like to add a couple of remarks since Zen Pictures is absolutely, without a doubt, my favorite production company in this genre. I agree wholeheartedly with Sidekick that just about every aspect of Zen Pictures product is just top-notch. Zen has the best costumes, the most attractive actresses (in my opinion), the best editing, the best lighting, the best set design, the best acting, etc. Just about everything about their videos is top-of-the-line, and they produce high quality videos with remarkable consistency.
The most frequent complaint I hear about Zen Pictures is that the language barrier makes it difficult to understand what the hell is going on and therefore makes it impossible to get full enjoyment out of their films. This is, of course, completely a matter of opinion and preference, so if the Japanese dialogue is too much to overcome, that’s perfectly understandable. However, I couldn’t disagree more with this issue, and I’ll try to explain why.
For one thing, I can understand the dialogue perfectly in about 99% of American-produced videos, and I have to say that much of the time, I wish I couldn’t understand it. (Okay, that’s a joke… sort of.) I don’t feel that dialogue is all that important in these videos and feel that the story should almost always be told visually and without a reliance on expository dialogue, which can be really boring after a couple of minutes. This is something Zen Pictures does really well.
While it’s certainly true that scenes sometimes consist of two or more characters speaking in Japanese to one another for several minutes at a time, there is usually a fairly easily identifiable visual goal the heroine is trying to accomplish. In some cases, the bad guys have a hostage the heroine needs to rescue. Other times, the bad guys are just really mean to innocent people, and the heroine tries to destroy them. Even if I don’t understand the details, I can follow along well enough to get the gist of it: the bad guys are bad, the heroine is good, they fight, she loses, they torture her, she comes back and wins in the end. It doesn’t really matter to me whether her goal is to rescue the daughter of Japan’s Prime Minister, recover the “Lost Relic of Apollo,” obtain the “Staff of Ra,” or anything else. I personally find that the absence of a clearly-defined goal explained through dialogue and made so specific and understandable actually makes the videos more enjoyable to me. However, that’s only my opinion, and I can understand why others would disagree.
Another aspect I enjoy in Zen Pictures videos is the tone. The stories are, for the most part, meant to be taken seriously and are usually not “campy.” There’s really no “winking at the camera” here and pretending it’s all a joke. As ridiculous and absurd as the subject matter is (and it really, truly is among the most absurd stuff you’ll ever see), it’s almost always treated as serious fantasy, and to me, this helps to place the viewer into the story world. This is not an easy task, especially when you’re watching, say, a giant robot placing a trash can over a scantily clad heroine’s head and whacking it repeatedly with a giant mallet. (This really happened.)
Aside from that, I find the models and actresses to be among the hottest in the genre, and sometimes capable of giving the best performances. Actresses like Saki Yamaguchi, Sayoko Ohashi, Ayumi Onodera, Kanami Okamoto and others offer a mix of attractiveness and acting ability that is tough to match. This probably has a lot to do with Zen’s obviously huge budgets (compared to most U.S. and U.K. productions). They can simply offer more money and can go after really top notch models and actresses who have often times received training in acting and/or martial arts. (I say this with all due respect to American and British performers who do a really great job as well.)
I could go on and on—about Zen’s awesome set design, filmmaking skills, production values, etc.—but I think Sidekick has covered several important aspects of Zen Pictures, and I hope this explains the appeal from the perspective of a self-identified hard-core fan. I’d love to know what you think of Zen Pictures, so as always, feel free to leave comments below.
[ Note: I do plan to review Giga-Freeks, the sexually explicit version of Zen Pictures, in the near future*, and I would like to note that although the content at Giga is more overtly sexual (to say the least), the same high level of production quality remains. There are a few differences (notably, the actresses may not be quite as attractive in Giga videos, as some commenters have observed in other threads), but that's a discussion for the future Giga-Freeks site review.]
*Giga-Freeks site review posted here!