Trigger Warning: The fighting in Lion-Girl is often accompanied by stylized lighting that strobes. As such, photosensitive viewers should take caution before watching. It’s not frequent enough to be problematic, but present enough that it could disturb sensitive viewers.
These days, it often feels rare to come across a film that’s not based on a comic book. There’re the obvious releases like the upcoming MCU film The Marvels and the recent DC film Blue Beetle, but then there’re films like Korean action thriller The Killer (2022) and American action thriller The Killer (2023) that bear no hallmarks of a comic tale despite both being adaptations of very different but similarly titled graphic novels. The latest project from writer/director Kurando Mitsutake (Maniac Driver), Lion-Girl, is not (as far as my research can tell) a direct adaptation of a comic, but it is the brain-child of Japanese comic creator Go Nagai (Harenchi Gakuen; Gakuen Taikutsu Otoko) and possesses all the distinctive markings of a fantastical, almost other-worldly comic tale: world-leveling threats, mustache-twirling villains, on-the-nose socio-political satire, and a hero struggling to do the right thing against oppressive odds. After a successful screening during Fantastic Film Festival Australia, Mitsutake’s Lion-Girl is set to spring into action at home, bringing all the violence, nudity, and wildly fantastical action along with it (plus a hefty dose of bonus materials).
In the year 2045, Earth is struck by a series of meteors that destroy most of the planet and its population. Those that survive must contend with the meteorite pieces which are deadly for most humans if they come into contact with them, but some people instead transform into lifeforce-sucking monsters dubbed Anoroc. In even rarer situations, a hybrid is formed, dubbed Man-Anoroc, wherein they have all the strengths and abilities without the hunger. Protecting the people of Neo-Nippon is one such individual, a hero of the streets and defender of the weak against the lethal shogun and his military force, a hero known as Lion-Girl.
In doing research for this home release review, Lion-Girl is based upon the ideas of Go Nagai, but is entirely the creation of Mitustake as no prior released manga seems to exist. In this way, Lion-Girl utilizes the sexual exploitation aspects that Go Nagai’s works feature, while leaning into the hyper-violent aspects that Mitsutake’s other projects utilize. These two concepts are not incongruent, with cinema featuring many releases in which sex and violence go hand-in-hand. The interesting thing about Lion-Girl is that the camerawork is not persistently ogling the naked female form each time one appears. Rather, the nudity is treated more often as an aspect of the rules of the world with a certain amount of physical shame removed entirely. Thus, in the opening sequence in which the audience sees several individuals completely nude (a mix of male and female-presenting characters) approach the similarly nude title character, the approaching figures are show in wide shot so that we can take them in as they are, while Tori Griffith’s Lion-Girl is only show from the waist up. Danglers and non-danglers alike are displayed, not to titillate, but to potentially disturb (us, not Lion-Girl) as they comment not at all on their physical state and, instead, get into position to attack. Being naked isn’t treated as vulnerability, in this sequence, implying that there’s no shame in the physical form. It’s not until later in the film in which Mitsutake visually implies nakedness as both vulnerability and smallness, but it’s not sexual in that instance, either. As if to support this, post-opening and initial action sequence, Lion-Girl undergoes a revitalizing treatment from her uncle, Ken Shishikura (Damian Toofeek Raven), which requires her to be naked in a tube. Neither individual expresses any issue with physical intimacy, treating it as everyday as anything else. With the details of Lion-Girl’s upbringing coming to light, the audience understands why these two might feel zero shame or discomfort in this, just as a parent with a child would feel the same. Therefore, throughout the film, whenever a character is nude, particularly Griffith, one rarely feels a sense that the camera is leering, thereby making the experience less exploitive than is expected. However, that doesn’t mean the film as a whole isn’t absent these moments, both with Griffith and with others, wherein the camera takes its time to pan across a figure, capture a character in a specific angle, or otherwise record the physical form in a manner or situation in which the capturing of the naked form is less artful or narrative specific and more about sexualizing the moment. Does a character really need to have an attack called “Breast Flame” that requires an Anoroc to rip their bra off before shooting out fireballs? Not any more than a character needs a body-winding eye blast called “Methuselah Beam,” frankly, but both are good fun within the context of how this world views the physical form and the ways in which it can sexually excitement *and* cause gross bodily harm. In this vein, the copious nudity seems more like something the cast agreed upon and are therefore in on, rather than being taken advantage of.
There’s more to Lion-Girl than “titties and willies,” but the execution of it leaves much to be desired should one think on it too long. The exposition is at an all-time high. Sometimes it comes in the form of news reports that cram in Trump Administration jabs related to his MAGA slogan and the refusal for masking as well as the capitalist belief that U.S. citizens should strive to serve businesses by working even during a pandemic, while also setting up the existence of humanoid replicants (think: Blade Runner). Other times, it’s an extensive and exhaustive flashback that raises far more questions about continuity (casting and within a scene) than it should. This doesn’t even include a lengthy feeling narration with manga-like drawings depicting the history of this Earth and the events that transpired. (For a sense of it, look at the trailer.) That the film starts with that aforementioned opening sequence of naked figures before jumping to the extended expository trailer before jumping to a first action sequence with more explanation, to Lion-Girl’s interaction with her uncle, the reliance on telling vs. showing brings down the energy and excitement that the ridiculous characters and circumstances bring about. Let’s be honest, the world is wild and the characters are interesting, especially in concert with the creature designs. There appear to be zero rules holding them back and that’s exciting as a viewer, but when the film is reduced to either ogling the characters or listen to them talk extensively, it gets old quickly.
Whether coming to Lion-Girl fresh or from one of the festival screenings, the bonus features are going to knock your socks off. There’s a brief introduction from Go Nagai, full feature-length commentary track from Mitsutake (where we learn about this being his first studio picture and his excitement of it being a Toei Video production), the trailer, and a two-minute slideshow of film stills and behind-the-scenes moments. This is the semi-expected stuff.
Also included is an extended interview with nearly 30 minutes of discussion between content creator Go Nagai and Mitsutake. Their conversation is charming, funny, and insightful partially because it’s also between a fan with a recognized leader in manga whom he admires. There’s also a nearly-hour long making-of documentary that covers the production process via interviews from the cast and crew intercut with footage from on set. Members of the cast are highlighted with their own character cutout/freeze-frame as they get featured. A film like Lion-Girl doesn’t just happen without a great deal of collaboration between crew and cast and this documentary enables the audience to see it all first-hand. Considering that Lion-Girl was shot in L.A. during the initial COVID-19 lockdown, that they knocked this out without sacrificing quality (for what they’ve going for) is on clear display as we get to see how they made it. It’s rare that bonus features give us details like how the weapons master walks through the cast on their respective props, but we get that here. And in a further demonstration that the film is a work of respectful exploitation, when looking at how a scene is shot that might involve nudity in the final product (like the shower scene split-shot of Uncle Ken and Lion-Girl), the documentary only shows off where we see Ken and not her.
Finally, there’s a 32-minute featurette from the L.A. premiere at the Arena Cinelounge with the cast and crew nearly two years after completion of the shoot who are watching the film for the first time. After a brief introduction from Mitsutake and members of the cast pre-screening, there’s an audience intro from Mitsutake, and then it jumps to post-screening for the Q&A with Mitsutake, Griffith, and Raven. One thing worth pointing out is that Mitsutake comments that his typical run-time is 100 minutes, but due to the exposition required for a first-time superhero story, it ran longer. This at least suggests he’s aware of just how much was utilized.
In his audience intro, director Mitsutake describes the film as being a ‘70s/‘80s exploitation film that doesn’t fit in with today’s “woke” standards, a claim that gets several vocal responses from the crowd. Personally, that the film is sex positive in its depiction of nudity, that the only character who specifically sexualizes anyone is the central bad guy (Derek Mears’s Kaisei Kishi), and that Lion-Girl is a self-empowering tale of womanhood, I’d say the film is entirely woke. It’s also as much of a good time within the framework of what it sets out to accomplish, even if it’s not altogether cohesive in the way that early superhero films tended to be. If there was a second outing requiring less world-building and a clearer narrative, I’d be down for another round. Frankly, between the look and approach of the film, from the exploitive appeal and special effects work, I don’t doubt that Lion-Girl, sequel notwithstanding, will develop the exact fanbase it’s made for. This isn’t a bad thing and is exactly why a physical media release is exciting. Let it find its people. Perhaps it’s you.
Lion-Girl Special Features:
- Introduction by Go Nagai (0:48)
- Directors Commentary (audio option) (2:02:18)
- A conversation with Japanese Manga Legend Go Nagai (28:21)
- The Making of Lion-Girl (59:59)
- Q&A with Key Cast Members at the Hollywood Theatrical Premier of Lion-Girl (31:28)
- Trailer (1:58)
- Slideshow (2:06)
- Five (5) Cleopatra Entertainment Preview Trailers
Available on Blu-ray and DVD November 7th, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.