Don’t you just hate it when you’re about to get married and a serial killer and his evil assistant crashes the party and literally rips out your heart? That’s what happens to our heroine Mina (Yukimo Shaku, “Princess Blade”). After her murder, Mina travels to the Gate of Rage (or Gate of Hatred, depending on your Japanese), where the current Gatekeeper Izuko (Eihi Shiina, “Audition”), a sword-wielding babe in black, informs Mina that she has three options: 1) Accept her death and go to Paradise; 2) Haunt the world of the living as a ghost; or 3) Curse her killer, but go to Hell afterwards.
Obviously door number one is be the prime choice, and door number two is ridiculous. Prize number three, on the other hand, means getting back at your killer, but going to Hell afterwards. Definitely a prize with a lot of drawbacks. Unfortunately for Mina, Paradise is elusive when she discovers that her enraged fianc’ Kanzaki (Shoshuke Tanihara), a cop, has gone on the vengeance trail, determined to murder the bastard responsible for her death. And according to Izuko, anyone who takes a life, even justified, goes to Hell.
As it turns out, the serial killer is handsome billionaire playboy Kudo (Takao Osawa, “Aragami”), and the hot brunette aiding his crime spree is his secretary. Not that this last plot point is a surprise, because it’s revealed early in the film. Kudo has been killing women because he’s pining for his beloved wife, whose body is presently frozen and whose spirit is trapped between life and death. Seeking to bring about a supernatural cataclysm for nefarious purposes, Kudo needs only two more heart to finish a sacrifice. And they’re not just any hearts, either; they have to be the hearts of re-incarnated Gatekeepers, just like Mina.
“Sky High” the movie is a prequel to the Japanese TV show of the same name starring Shaku as the Gatekeeper. Although the 2-hour film was designed to fill in Mina’s origins, she’s little more than a background player until towards the end. Shosuke Tanihara’s Kanzaki, as well, basically spends most of the movie looking doubtful at the supernatural explanations and screaming in righteous indignation. The problem is an unfocused script that tries to cram in too many characters. Most of the characters exist only to provide important plot points at important junctures in the film, and once they’ve done what they were created to do, they end up just loitering in the background.
Although the film credits two directors, Ryuhei Kitamura (“Versus”) and horror filmmaker Norio Tsuruta (“Kakashi”), Kitamura’s style seems to dominate, from the ever-present ethereal glow that gives the movie a supernatural vibe to the techno beats in the soundtrack. And what’s a Kitamura movie without swordplay. By now Kitamura could work stylized sword fighting into a movie about old people at a retirement home. “Sky High”, although sometimes feeling more like a cop thriller, is filled with the type of wild action one is used to in a Kitamura film.
The movie also offers up some fine casting choices when it comes to its kick-butt female characters. The men in the audience will be glad to know that “Sky High” features an impressive list of beautiful women engaging in the movie’s many action sequences. Of note is the actress playing Rei, Kudo’s supposed “secretary”, who is more at home slicing victims with a sword than she is typing memos. Decked out in tight black leather and stiletto heels, Rei is quite the sight, played with stone-cold seriousness and ultra cool efficiency. Hubba hubba indeed.
Fans of Kitamura’s “Versus” will certainly favor “Sky High” over “Azumi” or any of the films he’s done since the zombie opus. But although Kitamura seems to be returning to his “style for style’s sake” roots, the bad habits are still present. The movie is longer than it should be, padded out with ridiculously long fights interspersed with long inconsequential talky moments. The script is also prone to heavy plot contrivances, such as a coroner who knows a photographer who happens to snap a photo of Rei who Kanzaki is looking for; the photographer also happens to know a female shaman who knows everything about Rei and Kudo’s master plan. Contrived? Most definitely.
But for all the movie’s narrative shortcomings, Kitamura more than makes up for them with style. Lots and lots of style. “Sky High” seems to combine the visual content of “Alive” (lots and lots of glowing backdrops) with the swordplay of “Azumi” (lots and lots of female-centric swordplay). It’s a visually appealing film, if ultimately somewhat empty. Still, “Sky High” is the closest thing to “Versus” Kitamura has done in some time. For sheer, superficial entertainment value, it’s a winner.
Ryuhei Kitamura, Norio Tsuruta (director) / Tsutomu Takahashi (comic book)
CAST: Yumiko Shaku …. Mina
Takao Osawa …. Kudo
Shosuke Tanihara …. Kanzaki
Eihi Shiina …. Izuko