What Happened to Zen Pictures?
Is there something wrong with Zen Pictures? Have they lost a little off their fastball? Have they forgotten how to make great superheroine videos? Or is Zen still among best superheroine video production companies in the world? It’s a question we have been pondering lately, and we would like to hear your thoughts about it.
Personally, I (Sidekick) do believe they’ve lost a tiny bit of their edge, but I think something else has changed and they are no longer the unchallenged number one in the genre anymore. And it wasn’t that long ago that the thought of Zen being anything less than the best was inconceivable to me. And I tried to think of some good reasons as to why I’ve come to this opinion.
Maybe it was the language barrier. Of course, that never bothered my before. So I decided to purchase a recent Zen film, and I picked one from my favorite ongoing Zen Series, Ninja Special Agent Justy Wind. I bought it, downloaded it, watched it, and did not like it at all. I was actually shocked at how negative my reaction was to the film. So, I started to think of why my opinion of Zen may have soured a bit and something occurred to me.
I realized Zen was no longer special. Why? Because other producers have greatly closed the quality gap between themselves and Zen, or in some cases, eclipsed it entirely. And they have done it on budgets much smaller than I assume Zen has at their disposal. Can you imagine what Alex Bettinger, NGC, CTLE, Rye, Cult Retro, and a bunch of others that we cover could do with a Zen-level budget? A lot better than Zen did with the movie I just downloaded, I imagine.
Now, I’m not basing this opinion on one Zen film that I thought was sub-par. I’ve seen several of the recent releases and although some were good, I never felt that they stood above anything I’ve seen lately from the producers mentioned above. I also realized the Zen formula that I once loved is getting stale. For those not familiar with the Zen formula, here it is in four easy steps.
1. Heroine shows up and dominates.
2. Heroine runs into a big bad and loses horribly.
3. Heroine gets tortured in some way but escapes.
4. Heroine wins in the end.
Seriously, this is what happens in 99% of their films, and I used to love it. But other producers have been so effective at telling stories and switching narratives up that the Zen approach has become worn and predictable to me. I still see the gorgeous cast members. I still see the great locations and the high level fight choreography. But that special feeling I had when I started watching Zen films a few years back is gone.
[Note; I’m using the term “Zen Pictures” to discuss both Zen Pictures and the explicit-content version, Giga Freeks, as I feel most of this applies to both studios.]
For the most part, I agree with my esteemed colleague that there are two main factors at play here: 1) There has been a slight decrease in the quality of Zen Pictures’ work, and 2) There has been a huge increase in the quality of many non-Japaneses producers’ work (several of which Sidekick mentioned above). I still give an edge to Zen in the production values department, but it’s becoming a very thin margin. And I agree that watching a Zen film doesn’t have quite the same special feeling anymore.
For one thing, everyone and his grandmother seems to be producing superheroine videos nowadays, so the feeling of anticipating a new video doesn’t really exist quite as much anymore. There seem to be several new productions each week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fantastic in its own way), but as a result, every production feels a little less special.
Where I respectfully disagree with Sidekick is in his analysis of the “Zen formula” as being problematic. In my opinion, the formula described above (while certainly accurate) could actually just be called the “superheroine peril formula,” as I feel it applies to the entire genre and not just to Zen Pictures. Personally, I love this formula, and could easily watch 500 productions that utilize that exact same story structure (in fact, I have done that). I tend to find “variety” in superheroine peril storytelling to be fairly boring, but of course that’s just my opinion.
To me, Zen perfected this formula a long time ago and produced dozens, of not hundreds, of videos all following this exact plot structure (with variations each time, of course), and almost all videos were very entertaining and worthwhile. The decline seemed to have begun fairly recently, and I believe it may have something to do with Zen losing a key member of its production team, hopefully on a temporary basis. Kanzo Matsuura is the director whose work I admire the most out of all of Zen’s creative team. His videos include several of my favorites, like the Sailor Ninja series, Adventures of Amazoness, Ninja Warriors Kagerion, and many others.
Matsuura seems to have returned to the company with the recent release in the Heroine In Danger Omnibus series. I’m hoping things have been patched up, contracts re-negotiated, apologies made, or whatever the case may be, and that Matsuura is back in place as Zen’s best director. I’m willing to bet that with Matsuura at the helm, we can expect the quality to start inching its way back up. Time will tell.
Of course, even with Matsuura back in the director’s chair, several other factors may determine the future of Zen Pictures. While I don’t personally believe the company needs to make any drastic changes to its story structures, it does seem that Zen has failed to keep up with the pace of several US/UK studios in terms of increasing production quality. They seem to be using the same sets, same supporting actors, and same equipment from several years ago. There are undoubtedly economic considerations at play, but how about shooting on a Red camera, or shooting in 4K, or building a new set, or upping the visual effects to a new level? If this doesn’t happen, Zen may still be around a while, but it will no longer stand atop the superheroine peril heap (in terms of production quality, anyway).
Those are my thoughts about Zen Pictures. They’re still my favorite producers, and with their best director back (hopefully to stay), I expect Zen to rise back to the top of the heap. What do you think?