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DVD Review: What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

Tigerlily In the mid-sixties Woody Allen became a hot property after scripting the hit comedy What's New, Pussycat? (1965).  Exploitation legends James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff at American International Pictures promptly purchased a Japanese spy movie called Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi ("International Secret Police: Key of Keys") and roped Allen in to re-dub and re-script the picture, transforming it into a zany comedy.  The result was What's Up, Tiger Lily? 

Allen's version recasts star Tatsuya Mihashi as Phil Moskowitz (!), the ace superspy recruited to track down a top secret egg salad recipe.  His employer, the High Macha, ruler of "an exotic country that isn't real but sounds believable", warns him villains are also on its trail.  "They kill, they maim and they call information for numbers they could easily look up in the book."  Aided by sexy sidekicks: Suki Yaki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Teri Yaki (Mie Hama), Phil tangles with no-goods Shepherd Wong (Tadao Nakamura) and Wing Fat (Susumu Kurobe) in a wild and crazy caper, interspersed with interviews with "creator" Woody Allen ("Danger is my bread and butter") and musical numbers by The Lovin' Spoonful. 

Part of American pop's response to the British invasion, The Lovin' Spoonful were spliced into the movie against the wishes of rock music hater Woody Allen.  Indeed, Allen was scathing about the whole enterprise, calling it: "stupid and juvenile" and tried to sue the producers (including Henry G. Saperstein, who co-produced many a Japanese monster movie with Toho) to prevent the film being released.  He recanted after the film drew good reviews and proved a box office success.  Forty years on, What's Up, Tiger Lily? remains frothy fun with some choice Allen witticisms ("I'd call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that's flogging a dead horse"). 

However, there's something faintly patronising in the titles proclaiming a "no-star cast" and in Allen's sarcastic reference to the Japanese film dwelling on "rape, murder and torture".  Actually, Tatsuya Mihashi was in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (1963), while gorgeous starlets Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama were Godzilla film regulars, and later Bond girls in You Only Live Twice (1967).  At one point, while exercising in their underwear, the girls glance at the mirror and Suki declares: "God, I'm such a great piece!"  Which is sexist of course, but one guiltily agrees.  Wakabayashi and Hama really do look fantastic here and their charismatic performances probably secured them the Bond roles.  Among the voice cast, Louise Lasser (Allen's girlfriend at the time) starred alongside the comedian in Bananas (1971) and Mickey Rose later co-wrote that film as well as Take the Money and Run (1969).  The Lovin' Spoonful split towards the end of the sixties, but reformed for a second stab at movie fame - as supporting characters in the Paul Simon vehicle One Trick Pony (1980)

Based on snippets, Kagi no kagi looks like a pretty fun spy thriller.  Stylish, well shot and with its own sense of humour.  Director Senkichi Taniguchi also helmed Toho's enjoyable children's fantasy, The Lost World of Sinbad (1963), also featuring Wakabayashi and Hama alongside mega-star Toshiro Mifune.  With Japanese pop art thrillers like Black Tight Killers (1966) gaining cult status, it's a shame Optimum couldn't include Taniguchi's original film on their DVD.

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