In Sixteenth century Japan stoic samurai Hayate (Hiroshi Abe) and his comrade Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima), a warrior monk looking to atone for abandoning his post, are on a mission to trace the source metal behind an enemy bandit tribe’s arsenal of indestructible magic swords. Meanwhile in the woods, Renge (Sayaka Yoshino), a cute and plucky teenage girl working as a beekeeper, has a close encounter with alien warriors Abira, Marien and Kuzto (all played by Yuko Moriyama) who float down from another dimension and start fighting each other. Abandoned while Abira and Marien fly off to continue the battle a dying Kuzto entrusts young Renge with the "Tao", the lone mystical whatsit capable of stopping the Makaraga: a genetically-engineered alien monster-cum-superweapon now running amuck on Earth. It falls to Renge and her newly-enlisted allies Suikyou and Hayate to save the world.
At a point in time when animation was the dominant face of Japanese fantasy cinema irate tokusatsu (live action special effects film) fan-boys championed Keita Amemiya as the great Nippon hope. A multitalented special effects artist, production designer, writer-director, Amemiya broke through with the low-budget/high imagination sci-fi action-adventure Zeiram (1991) then contributed hit entries in the Kamen Rider franchise along with a controversial take on cult antihero Mechanical Violater Hakaider (1995). Despite a budget comparatively meagre by Hollywood standards, Moon Over Tao was Amemiya's most ambitious production up to this point, grafting a wacked-out sci-fi fantasy monster romp onto a classic samurai movie, or "chambara", scenario. While vintage tokusatsu serials like Henshin Ninja Arashi (1972) freely mixed period swordplay with fantasy, sci-fi and horror elements, Amemiya's approach laid the groundwork for later genre mash-ups like Seiji Chiba's more leery and exploitative Alien vs. Ninja (2010) and Yukiko Tsutsumi’s supremely imaginative The Sword of Alexander (2007) which also stars genre stalwart Hiroshi Abe.
Opening with an atypically low-key first act Amemiya takes time to establish his diverse range of characters and detail their relationships. It is an approach that back in the day alienated some hardcore fan-boys but viewed now lends an otherwise modest and schlocky comic book romp a certain elegance and charm. Amemiya clearly knows his samurai cinema and lends the setup an authenticity that makes the film’s eventually switch to full-blown sci-fi action-fest feel more organic. While tasked with inhabiting fairly one-dimensional roles the cast of seasoned veterans and then-fresh-faced newcomer Sayaka Yoshino (one of the biggest child idols of the Nineties) invest proceedings with no small degree of amiability. At the time most of the attention fell on Zeiram star Yuko Moriyama. To the delight of international fans she got to play three different action heroines: one good, one evil, the other, er, dying. However while Moriyima proves as charismatic as ever, the script (co-written by Amemiya with visual effects artist Hajime Matsumoto and Toru Tanaka) does little with the concept.
To its credit though Moon Over Tao does emphasize an unusual theme: which is humanity's connection to metal. Renge has an intense personal bond with her family’s sword which at one point is stolen by bandits. As she lectures Hayate the blade, while practically useless for everyday use, is something forged by her ancestors and handed down from generation to generation and thus so much more than a mere sword. It is a tangible connection both to her family and by way of the minerals drawn from its earth, Japan itself.
Thanks to Amemiya's boundless visual imagination even the film’s schlockiest, B-movie moments are staged in an inventive, exhilarating fashion. Everything from sets, props to costumes boasts Amemiya's trademark impeccable design and tells half the story. Moon Over Tao’s practical effects and stop-motion animation are beautifully executed with intricate detail along with early CGI that while primitive remains eye-catching. Interestingly the film alternates between battle scenes staged in the old fashioned chambara style and hyper-stylized action sequences straight out of one of Amemiya’s sentai shows. While a sequence showcasing a lethal hand-puppet creature bears an unfortunate resemblance to the killer bunny rabbit scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the bonkers climax pitting our heroes against a giant stop-motion meets suitmation demonic crustacean with a beard (!) prior to a trippy mystical lightshow finale crackles and pops with visceral comic book verve.