Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Thus far in this series we’ve been looking at films with a contemporary setting, but there were also quite a few pinky violence-affiliated films with a period setting - attempts to incorporate the 'violent female action' sub-genre into the more traditional confines of the ninkyo (‘chivalry’) films pioneered by Toei during the ‘50s and ‘60s, presumably with the aim of rejuvenating the latter genre’s fading box office appeal.
Of the three films I’d consider a rough ‘holy trinity’ of these kinds of cross-overs, two - Toshiya Fujita’s ‘Lady Snowblood’ and Teruo Ishii’s startling ‘Blind Woman’s Curse’ – are very much borderline entries that I’d be reluctant to place under the ‘pinky violence’ banner. The third though – ‘Sex & Fury’ – certainly makes no bones about its alignment to the genre, as the reliably manic Norifumi Suzuki drags all the chaos and sleaze of his girl gang and WIP films back in time, with (needless to say) hugely entertaining results, working with what looks to have been an unusually lavish budget to create a movie that's basically the closest thing the world will ever see to a Pinky Violence Historical Epic.
As distinct from feudal era Samurai films, ninkyo movies are usually set in the Meiji era, which began with the end of Japan’s isolation from the wider world in 1868 and officially ended in 1912. A period of vast social change and political turmoil, the Meiji era can (in filmic terms at least) be roughly equated to Japan’s own ‘Wild West’, with the heroes of these movies – gamblers and gangsters attempting to uphold the traditional virtues of chivalry in the face of strife, corruption and malign foreign intervention – perhaps veeery roughly equating to the last-real-men-in-a-doomed-world heroes of a Leone or Peckinpah western.
I mention this background simply because it plays into ‘Sex & Fury’ to a considerable extent. Our tale begins in 1886 (or Meiji year 16) with a young Ocho seeing her father (a police detective) killed by yakuza. (Funny isn’t it how so many PV films feature daughters avenging their fathers, a fairly rare turn of events in Western revenge films?) He dies clutching a handful of hanafuna playing cards, providing the transition in to a wonderfully stylised opening sequence that sees Ocho, now grown up into the shape of Reiko Ike, tattooed and wielding a short-sword, striking combat poses amid a brightly-lit pop-art fantasia that reproduces the imagery from the bloody cards on a huge scale – a pretty striking visual device that immediately marks out ‘Sex & Fury’ as something a bit grander in ambition than your average PV flick.
This impression is underscored by the fact that the credits are immediately followed by a lightning fast history lesson, with captions and still photographs giving us the skinny on significant Meiji era events, including the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, leading all the way up to 1905 (Meiji 38). “Now is a civilised era of enlightenment”, the on-screen text concludes, on what we already know is going to be a blackly ironic note.
An independent woman par excellence, the grown-up Ocho seems to be doing alright for herself pursuing her interests as a gambler, sword-fighter and compulsive pick-pocket, but fate swiftly takes a hand when she steps in to aid the escape of an apparently crazed anarchist who has just tried to assassinate a big-shot politician named Kurokawa. (Very much a ‘modern’ sort of chap, he is seen engaging in internationalist power-broking in baronial, Western style surroundings.)
After Ocho subsequently witnesses an entirely unconnected (or is it..?) murder at a gambling house she frequents, the boss of the house apparently dispatches a gang of armed men to take her down, leading directly to what is almost certainly the film’s overall highlight, an absolutely breathtaking sequence that sees our heroine leaping nude from the bath and slaughtering about a dozen warriors in glorious slo mo – as the snow falls on the ornamental garden outside, naturally. I’ll admit that even on my second viewing I wasn’t *entirely* sure what’s supposed to be going on here plot-wise, but who cares frankly – the sight of Reiko Ike, blood-soaked, tattooed and naked, performing acrobatic leaps and dives as she severs limbs and slices throats surely has to be one of the quintessential images of all Japanese exploitation cinema.
It’s an exhilarating bit of filmmaking, inexplicably accompanied by a jaunty tune that sounds like something off a Herb Alpert album, and the crazy echo on the sword swoosh sound effects alone blows my mind. Aside from anything else, it’s a testament to the professionalism of the film’s editors, technicians and fight choreographers that they managed to cut together a five minute, multi-angle sequence in which a naked woman spins around a room fighting multiple assailants, without once breaking Japanese cinema’s pubic hair embargo. And if the rest of ‘Sex & Fury’ never quite manages to top this scene, well, it’s certainly not for want of trying. Unexpectedly throwing in a sequence that outdoes the finale of 90% of action movies in the opening fifteen minutes sets the bar pretty high for the subsequent seventy five.
By the time we’ve got our breath back and poured a stiff drink, an ambitious and convoluted tale has already begun to unfold, honouring the film’s historical setting with a real Dickensian sprawl of intersecting storylines, packed with intrigue and melodrama to beat the band.
First off, it turns out that the anarchist whose life Ocho saved is desperately in love with a foreign spy named Christina. Not only “the foremost female gambler from a Western country”, but also apparently “the most popular dancer in the stormy city of London, England”, Christina is played by none other than Scandinavian sexploitation goddess Christina Lindberg. Unable to even speak the same language, it seems its love at first sight for these two, prompting all manner of star-crossed shenanigans, set against some pretty complex political machinations. Christina’s ‘handler’ is a chap named Guinness, an Englishman and guest of Kurokawa who secretly aims to bring Japan under the influence of the British Empire by means of “starting a second opium war in this barbaric country”.
As an aside, can anyone help me ID the actor who plays Guinness? IMDB has him down as one ‘Mark Darling’ in his only screen appearance, but I’m SURE I’ve seen the guy in a few Euro-horror movies and such. Anyone care to jog my memory?
Like any good pinky violence heroine, Ocho has her own gang of loyal female buddies, time in the form of a sisterhood of fellow orphan pick-pockets who operate as part of a kind of benevolent Bill Sykes / Fagin type operation overseen by the big-hearted lady who describes herself as their adopted mother. Then there’s a sub-plot about Ocho taking up the cause of a dying gambler who was trying to raise money to stop his sister is being sold into slavery. Oh, and of course she’s also trying to identify the coded yakuza animal tattoos that identify her father’s killers, in order to wreak the necessary vengeance upon them.
So seriously, there’s all kindsa shit going on, all realised on the kind of scale that Western exploitation flicks of the same period barely even attempted. Suzuki certainly doesn’t skimp on the sex or the fury either though, happily rocketing through his usual line-up of OTT set-pieces, this time taking in a battle with switchblade-wielding nuns onboard an express train to Osaka, and Lindberg in a cow-girl outfit whipping a chained Ike to the accompaniment of spookshow organ music in a weird Christian chapel / torture chamber straight out of ‘School of the Holy Beast’ (what is WITH this guy’s thing for cowgirl outfits and Xtian imagery anyway..?). One particularly eye-popping / credulity-stretching scene even features Ocho’s pick-pocket friends being tied to the ceiling and beaten with sticks in a darkened room that looks like one of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable concerts, prints of Japanese military exploits projected on the wall overlaid with psychedelic lighting and flashing strobes.
Plenty of the usual rapey unpleasantness is also in evidence of course, but even several lengthy (semi-consensual) sex scenes don’t slacken the pace – they’re excitingly shot with kinetic camerawork and some winningly kinky details (the bit where Ocho kills a vengeance-recipient by smearing her body with poisoned perfume is worthy of Jess Franco’s fevered imaginings). Many things ‘Sex & Fury’ may be, but it’s NEVER boring, the beautiful, lively photography full of fast cutting, crash zooms and focus shifts, detailed close-ups and solid blocks of bright colour, reminiscent of both Jack Hill’s better exploitation efforts and the technicolor frenzies of Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Toyko Drifter’.
As with many of Norifumi Suzuki’s films, ‘packed with incident’ scarcely does the maximalist approach on display here justice. To all intents and purposes, it’s a‘70s exploitation fan’s wet dream come true, a rollercoaster ride through everything that made that decade’s popular cinema so wild and vibrant, and a directorial high wire act that serves up enough sex and fury to satisfy the audience’s appetites ten times over, with vast swathes of barbed socio-political commentary, historical melodrama and pop art visual excess thrown in for good measure – the kind of densely-packed, rip-roaring 90 minute entertainment that shows up today’s slack-ass multiplex directors for the time-wasting clowns they are. God bless you Norifumi, you freakin’ maniac.
Surprisingly, about the one thing this movie doesn’t manage to cram in is an enka ballad, so instead here’s a nice English language voice-over segment in which Christina Lindberg discusses the sad lot of a female spy.
Saturday, 17 March 2012
“When I get lonely, I come to the beach
I play this melody, thinking of you
Please waves, don’t disturb my melody
My lovely girl is listening to it
Waves in the sea
A sad melody”
Although the relatively high level of technical professionalism that resulted from the classic Hollywood style ‘production line’ ethos at Japanese studios in the '60s and '70s often served to disguise the fact, the truth is that commercial films were generally produced at incredible speed on minimal budgets, with popular stars and directors sometimes turning out over ten features per year.
Normally such haste isn’t really an issue (in fact it probably helped fuel these films’ wildly imaginative excess to some extent), but sometimes the limitations of relentless, studio-enforced turnover time become all too clear, with ‘Stray Cat Rock: Wild Jumbo’ perhaps providing a definitive example.
Sadly not featuring a storyline in which Meiko Kaji’s girl gang fights a rogue elephant, the film basically plays as if the team behind it woke up one morning with a blazing hangover and realised they had about four days and a few thousand yen to create a whole movie from scratch or else lose their jobs, with predictably wayward results. If you were in a charitable mood, you could perhaps align ‘Wild Jumbo’s best moments with the breezy ‘first thought/best thought’ style of early Godard, or the pure headfuck cinema of Koji Wakamatsu, but in all honesty the film’s fragmented style seems to have less to do with any deliberate artistic process, and more just with the filmmakers’ need to just throw whatever they could at the screen in a desperate attempt to make the deadline.
It’s rare for Japanese movie series to carry across characters and storylines from film to film, but even by these standards, Nikkatsu’s ‘Stray Cat Rock’ franchise plays pretty fast and loose with its central concept. Initially conceived with the idea of focusing on all-girl biker gangs and co-staring pop star Akiko Wada alongside Meiko Kaji and male lead Tatsuya Fuji, the series had lost both Wada and the motorbikes by the time it got to Yasuharu Hasebe’s superb ‘Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter’ (the third film to hit cinemas), and 'Wild Jumbo', the fourth installment, doesn't even have a girl gang, or indeed any gang at all in the conventional criminal / delinquent sense, and sees Kaji is pushed back to what is essentially a pretty pointless supporting role. In fact, the only elements to really cross over from ‘Sex Hunter’ are a lot of gratuitous jeep-driving, a similarly run-down looking harbour setting and the sight of Fuji sporting ray-bans and a crappy pencil moustache.
Concentrating instead on the exploits of a bunch of hippy-ish male losers (one of them has long hair, and Fuji wears beads and a poncho, so I’ll assume they’re supposed to be hippies) who apparently comprise something called ‘The Pelican Club’, the film plays for the most part as a kind of broad, youth-orientated comedy, spending a disproportionate amount of time following these guys as they simply goof around – holding running races, doing handstands, driving jeeps, dancing around with their shirts off, pulling gurning sex faces and laughing uproariously and, in one extraordinarily childish sequence, repeatedly mooning the security guards at a beach and then driving away sniggering.
To some extent, all this stuff could perhaps be seen as a hangover from Nikkatsu’s late ‘50s / early ‘60s ‘sun tribe’ movies, wherein the sight of free-spirited youngsters running around enjoying themselves provided a gently subversive thrill in the midst of the more austere reality of Japan’s post-war reconstruction. Assuming there’s any truth in this at all (I’m just bullshitting really), it’s difficult for me to determine whether all the hi-jinks in ‘Wild Jumbo’ are a deliberate throwback to this era or merely a late period continuation of it, but either way, it certainly has a very different feel to it than the kind of late ‘60s/early ‘70s Japanese films we’re used to seeing in the English-speaking world.
Whilst it does have some nice location shooting, period detail and occasional outbursts of really cool music to recommend it (a couple of great fuzz-rock songs can be heard briefly, and I loved the ‘pedal-steel / harmonica funk’ cue that plays incessantly), I’m sad to report that ‘Wild Jumbo’ still comes across as excruciatingly witless for the most part. Perhaps some of these oddball comedy scenes just don’t translate very well, but I fear it’s more likely they’re just totally stupid wherever you come from.
Why is Meiko Kaji even hanging out with these oafs, you might well ask. She doesn’t really partake in their antics with any degree of enthusiasm, and doesn’t seem to share any particular bond with any of them. It’s like they just threw her into the movie because she’s the star, but forgot to actually assign her a character, or think of anything for her to do except grin and look politely tolerant of her co-stars’ assorted tomfoolery.
Things get plain surreal when one of the guys starts spending his nights obsessively digging holes in the recreation yard at the local high school, taking his new hobby to such extremes that he gets written up in newspapers as “the mysterious moleman”. Initially he refuses to tell anyone what he’s up to, causing his friends to understandably worry for his mental health, but eventually all is revealed: he was digging for a forgotten cache of WWII weaponry, which the gang subsequently make their own, decamping to a patch of wasteland for some light-hearted target practice.
At this point, temporarily remembering what kind of film it’s supposed to be, ‘Wild Jumbo’ takes a sudden lurch toward a crime story, as the gang get mixed up with a mysterious woman who eventually recruits them to undertake a daring heist involving the theft of a cool thirty million yen from an armoured car belonging to a mysterious religious organisation called 'Seikyo Gakkei'. Quite why she’d entrust this dangerous mission to a bunch of goons who don’t even have the wherewithal to get a new front door for their house is beyond me, but, I dunno… I’ll buy it I suppose. It sure beats watching them lighting their farts and playing ping-pong for the duration.
For the final reel or two depicting the robbery and its aftermath, the film’s tone shifts drastically toward a sorta ‘doomed & out of their depth’ seriousness, and, though clearly derivative of every heist movie ever made, the whole thing is done quite well, incongruous moments of sudden violence leading up to a fairly astonishing final two minutes that are more memorable than the rest of the movie put together. Hazy clifftop long-shot, sudden gun shots punctuating a kind of weird existential calm, cut to bold white-on-red lettering and a final fade as incongruously jaunty music plays on a distorted loop.
It’s difficult to know what to make of a film like ‘Wild Jumbo’ really. As discussed above, the “made incredibly quickly and cheaply” theory is my best guess. The one widely reported nugget of info regarding the film’s production states that it was actually made concurrently with Hasebe’s ‘Sex Hunter’, with personnel shuttled across town from one shoot to the other as part of a Nikkatsu drive to knock out as many ‘Stray Cat Rock’ sequels as they possibly could in 1970. This makes sense, and as the more established and respected of the two directors, maybe Hasebe simply got the better deal re: time and resources, leaving ‘Wild Jumbo’ to flounder..?
Watching it blind, it’s difficult to know whether Toshiya Fujita was a young director trying out a few new ideas in an inexperienced, devil-may-care sort of fashion, or an older man reluctantly making a ‘youth’ film whilst under the impression that the youth in question were so degenerate that they’d put up with any old slack-jawed rubbish, occasionally perking up when he got the chance to handle some old school crime/action material. Hitting IMDB and reminding myself that Fujita was born in 1932 and went on to direct Meiko Kaji in the far, far more accomplished ‘Lady Snowblood’ films a few years down the line, I think we’re gonna have to go with the former possibility and contentedly file ‘Wild Jumbo’ in the “for completists only” pile.
About the best things in this movie are the sporadic bits of great music heard throughout, and as such I’ve actually done a quick .zip of choice bits and pieces, including not just the obligatory ballad but a cool fuzz-rock number and an absolutely beautiful Meiko Kaji vocal / guitar performance amongst other things: check it out.
Monday, 12 March 2012
“A cold wind is blowing
Not a soul on campus
The shadows cast are full of lies
That’s me in my school uniform
Days of songs are so far away
They’ll never come again for me”
If you’re looking for a demonstration of what makes Japanese exploitation cinema from the early ‘70s so unique, consider the fact that not only did they routinely make movies called things like ‘Terrifying Girls High School: Lynch Law Classroom’, but that, after watching them, you’re often able to sit back and think “yes, on reflection, that would seem to be an entirely appropriate name for this particular film”.
Certainly, renowned maniac Norifumi Suzuki wastes no time in letting us know just how terrifying life at Kanto’s ‘School of Hope for Girls’ is, throwing us straight into an alarming, horror movie-esque sequence that sees the school’s fascistic ‘Disciplinary Committee’ clad in red rubber gloves and surgical masks, using equipment in the science lab to drain the blood from a half-naked victim, calculating how long she’ll be able to remain conscious as she slowly bleeds to death.
Thus we’re introduced to the shock troops of the film’s institutional villains, but frankly the three new transfer students who comprise our heroines are scarcely much less terrifying. Denim-clad Noriko (Miki Sugimoto) – called ‘The Boss with the Cross’ on account of her crucifix pendant - actually manages to get arrested whilst en-route to the school, kicking a cop in the balls as her attempts to steal a car outside the train station. Cowgirl-attired Remi the Razor meanwhile does.. well, exactly what you’d expect really, landing a transfer to Kanto after cutting up a bunch of hooligans in a street brawl, and bisexual Kyoko (“I only do it with guys to wash out the taste, have sex with me once and I’ll drive you insane”, she announces within her first few minutes on-screen) finds herself in hot water after being caught masturbating a truckdriver as he crashes into a police checkpoint.
Plot-wise, ‘Lynch Law Classroom’ quickly establishes itself a variation on yr standard Women In Prison set-up, with a corrupt, authoritarian institution, bungling, ineffectual principal, scheming vice-principal, sadistic guards (in the form of the aforementioned Disciplinary Committee). Gratuitous shower scenes, cat fights and demeaning initiation rituals are all present and correct. Suzuki never lets things trundle along dull WIP rails for long though, concentrating on an astounding array of exploitation set-pieces, taking in lesbian toilet seduction, genital light bulb torture, boob electrocution, and one particularly memorable sequence in which a girl is prevented from going to the toilet until she wets herself in public.
After my review of ‘Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs’ last week, you might anticipate some tut-tutting from this corner, but remarkably, Suzuki just about manages to get away with it all I think. Rather than throwing this stuff around just for the sake of sheer cruelty, he invests it with a kind of grotesque, anarchic humour that renders these scenes freaky and blackly hilarious, rather than merely offensive. At a push, you could maybe even compare Suzuki’s approach here to early John Waters - whilst still unrepentantly prurient and gratuitous, he seems less concerned with providing unwholesome titillation for his audience, and more with simply getting a reaction out of people any way he can. Not content to merely introduce these icky concepts, he seems determined to milk them for as much visceral impact as possible, handheld camera spinning crazily, zooming in for hair-raising close-ups as victims struggle, scream and generally freak-out, often to the accompaniment of incongruous action-scene funk-rock.
Although the film’s universe is pretty sketchy at times (for instance, the way the girls seem to be able to leave the confines of the school when they feel like it and even have access to vehicles, money etc., but nonetheless spend most of their time hanging around in the playground in approved school uniform, is never quite explained), one gets the feeling that any concept of ‘coherence’ was wisely left eating dust as Suzuki simply raced from outrageous sequence to the next, and, rejoicing in their own ridiculousness, the results are really something to behold.
A harder sell for Western viewers perhaps is the film’s middle section, wherein our heroines collaborate with a suave blackmailer guy to try to bring down the school’s top brass by means of a series of ‘honeypot’ stings, wherein the men (who are naturally all lecherous comedy bozos of one kind or another) are coerced into having sex with the pupils, photos and tape recordings of their shameful depredations subsequently ruining their careers. As well as introducing us to the uncomfortable notion that young women don’t really mind being violated by disgusting fat men as long as it serves their eventual goals, these Porkys-goes-to-hell style japes are just a bit predictable and repetitive, causing the otherwise lightning fast pacing to sag somewhat.
Fear not though, sukeban fans, as, as if realising things are starting to drag a bit, Suzuki orders 20 CCs of Reiko Ike, stat, and verily she appears, gate-crashing the classroom on her motorbike as the leader of a chapter of rival Kanto girl gangs with a score to settle with Noriko. As joint queens of the pinky violence era at Toei, it seems to have been written into their contracts that Ike and Sugimoto have to square off for a knife fight in every film they appeared in together, and, well, say what you like… their showdown certainly got me back on-side.
Somewhat surprisingly given his no holds barred approach to sleaze though, Suzuki’s more serious anti-authoritarian agenda creeps up on us with a certain degree of subtlety amid the mayhem. About an hour in, the corrupt political big-shot who acts as the school’s patron takes a look at the school yearbook, and decides to rape Tomoko, the film’s pure-hearted, hard-working innocent girl. Despite what has gone before, this scene and the victim’s subsequent suicide are handled in a surprisingly restrained and harrowing fashion that not only seems to cast a dark reflection back on the more casual instances of sexual degradation we’ve seen earlier in the film, but also conveys an unmistakable feeling of genuine rage against a system that allows the wealthy and powerful to ruin the lives of those beneath them.
As the big-shot prepares for the arrival of his victim, he sits in tranquil ryokan surroundings, reading aloud from a passage in the ‘Compendium of the Law’ praising the Imperial family. Sparing us the gory details of the assault itself, Suzuki’s camera subsequently pulls away, zeroing in instead on the book, which has fallen open on a page detailing the sentencing of rapists.
Tomoko’s subsequent death (she hangs herself in a classroom) signals a definite shift in the film’s tone, as gross-out exploitation is increasingly sidelined in favour of a more tangible attack on institutional hypocrisy. Angry and disgusted at their friend’s fate, the pupils hold a vigil around her corpse and, led by Noriko, Remi and Kyoko, instigate a full scale insurrection against the powers that be, destroying the campus in a fit of rage, barricading the entrance gates and attacking riot police with rocks, water cannons and wooden clubs – a breath-taking outburst of anarchy, like some crazed Japanese exploitation take on Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’.
In the closing minutes of the riot, a Japanese flag burns on an overturned limousine as Reiko Ike, clad in a red mini-dress, beats the crap out of a policeman with a giant wooden pole, and, finally overwhelmed, the girls laugh defiantly, sharing gestures of solidarity as they’re carted off to an even sterner detention centre. Hell yeah! Right on, comrades! Every school you trash takes us one step closer to a world in which delinquent gang girls can go about their business unmolested by weaselly comic relief men with Hitler moustaches. And that, I think, is a cause we can all get behind.
I suppose it should go without saying by this point that ‘Terrifying Girls High School: Lynch Law Classroom’ comes with a ‘NOT FOR THE EASILY OFFENDED’ warning in ten foot high neon letters, but beyond that, it’s an unruly, punk-ass masterpiece that anyone with a taste for the crazier end of world cinema owes it to themselves to check out.
Mp3> Ballad of the Lynch Law Classroom
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
"The city’s lights must strain you
You must long for your mother’s breast
Oh, you poor lost puppy
If you lose faith, it’s all over
The world is filled with such sadness
It is difficult to keep walking towards the future
“Someday, happiness will come to me”
I believe this in my heart and live on"
At completely the other end of the spectrum from the genteel ‘Wandering Ginza Butterfly’, we have ‘Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs’, adapted from the long-running manga created by Toru Shinohara. The Zero Woman stories centre on the character of Rei (here portrayed by Miki Sugimoto), a renegade ex-cop/assassin whose raison d’etre is hunting down rapists and other extremely bad men, posing as an innocent victim and then executing them when they least expect it, often by means of her trademark red handcuffs, which she manages to use as a kind of midair decapitation device. All of which could be seen as potentially jolly and female-affirmative stuff, were it not for the employment of the old ‘have your cake and eat it’ exploitation strategy of deferring this violent payoff until the villains have already given her poor body a good going over – a tradition that is recreated to a somewhat unhappy extent in Yukio Noda’s film.
The plot line here – which bares more than a passing resemblance to Umberto Lenzi’s excellent poliziotteschi movie ‘Almost Human’ – sees the daughter of an influential politician kidnapped by a gang of feral thugs. Rei is thus extracted from her prison cell and offered a deal by the corrupt cops who want to hush the whole thing up. Her mission: to infiltrate the gang, rescue the girl and kill everyone else, in exchange for her freedom.
And so the scene is set for… well, for about ninety minutes of utter psychosis, to be honest. By far the most violent and misanthropic entry I’ve seen in the ‘pinky violence’ cycle thus far, ‘Red Handcuffs’ seems to blur the boundaries somewhat with the nastier rape/sadism-focused films that began to predominate at studios like Nikkatsu from the mid ‘70s onwards, its promising opening as a hard-boiled crime story swiftly becoming little more than an excuse to fill the screen with as much cruelty and depravity as possible.
The film is full of sex and nudity, absolutely none of it consensual, and in fact nothing approaching a normal human relationship is portrayed at any point. Aside from Sugimoto’s dead-eyed avenger, every character on screen is either a depraved, hideous beast or a voiceless victim - this is pure exploitation movie nihilism, thrilling and repulsive in equal measure.
And I can roll with that to a certain extent - certainly the kind of unpleasantness showcased here is comparable to that seen in the work of Shunya Ito or Norifumi Suzuki, whose films I love – but what nixed my enjoyment of ‘Red Handcuffs’ wasn’t only the lack of human feeling, but also a crucial lack of content. As a drama, the movie fails to really make a connection with the viewer even on the basic rape/revenge level usually favoured in films like this, and as a crime story, it just plain doesn’t work.
Having infiltrated the gang’s hideout and proved her ability as a fearless killer by promptly filleting their sole female member after a botched lesbian rape attempt, why does Rei not only let the rest of them live, but actually collaborate with their plans and give them advice, meekly putting up with them as they turn against her, torture and brutally rape her, then drag her halfway across the country on the run from the cops, as they perpetrate further outrages against innocent civilians…? Why only THEN – in far less salubrious circumstances – does she finally get around to dealing with them..? Because otherwise the story would only have stretched to about forty minutes, presumably. With all tension and narrative drive thus diffused, and with no particular goal to be achieved or point to be made, the film basically just descends (or ascends, depending on your point of view) into a senseless parade of increasingly exaggerated mayhem.
And it pains me to say this, but Miki Sugimoto’s performance scarcely helps matters either. She’s a fantastic presence in a lot of girl-gang focused pinky violence flicks, but here, carrying the whole movie without an ensemble cast to back her up, she just seems a bit out of her depth. Whereas Meiko Kaji saw through the various abuses her character suffers in the ‘Female Prisoner: Scorpion’ films with a look of burning hatred in her eyes, Sugimoto seems unable to move beyond her default expression of vague dissatisfaction, meaning that her character seems to shrug off gang-rape and torture with an attitude of ‘whatever, all part of the job’, re-emerging five minutes later looking completely unscathed. Maybe that’s just the nature of the Zero Woman character, or maybe I’m just mistakenly applying Western sensibilities about such things, but still… not really a nice message to leave people with, y’know?
Not that ‘a nice message’ is something anyone but me would be stupid enough to expect from a movie as thoroughly fucked in the head as ‘Red Handcuffs’, mind you. And with that in mind, I don’t want to do a total burn on the film, because as a pure, visceral experience it’s still pretty damn impressive. Realised with a kind of fast-moving, shot-from-the-hip stylistic flair, and with characteristically brilliant Toei photography still strongly in evidence (if only more Western b-movies from 1974 looked half this good..), the closing car chase / gun battle sequence packs an incredible punch, utilising dutch angles, freeze frames, montage cutting, beserk stunt work and absolutely ridiculous quantities of gore to ensure that, as a piece of low budget action cinema, the last few reels just plain kick ass.
And, horrible, one dimensional characters though they might be, the criminal gang certainly pull their weight as all-purpose avatars of cinematic destruction, fucking, killing or blowing up everything in their path in about ten seconds flat as they plough on relentlessly toward a suicidal showdown with the police. Gang leader Nakahara – I’m not 100% sure on the actor who plays him, but he looks pretty familiar - totally steals the show, his descent into foaming-at-the-mouth homicidal mania played to such comical extremes that he makes Tomas Milian’s equivalent character in ‘Almost Human’ look like a refined man of letters by comparison. The taciturn bad-ass second in command guy – mirror shades, denim cap, evil grin – is great too, spending the first half of the movie whittling female figures out of wood with his hunting knife, and most of the second half holding it to the throat of the kidnap victim as he pumps her full of dope, occasionally pausing to reiterate the fact that he don’t trust no one.
Searching in vain for a bit of depth amid all this mess, there is at least a touch of the same criticism of post-war Western cultural imperialism that can be found in films like Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter in evidence in 'Red Handcuffs'. Fleeing to that ubiquitous Japanese movie showdown location, the abandoned US navel base, the gang promptly piss all over an American ‘Urination Prohibited’ sign and invade the privacy of some Japanese people who seem to be living in a American style suburban home, reciting stilted English dialogue for a production of ‘Romeo & Juliet’.
During the finale, Nakahara – a Japanese/American half-breed – is even presented to some extent as the tragic result of cultural miscegenation. “My mother was a prostitute here..”, he remarks to nobody in particular as he cowers in the ruins of the US base, a brief photo montage seeking to show us how his troubled, rootless upbringing inevitably led him to a life of sociopathic criminality. But such blunt commentary seems pretty crass compared to the more complex treatment given to East/West co-dependence in some of the better pinky violence films, and as an attempt to try to invest ‘Red Handcuffs’ with some sort of a point, it’s too little too late.
One has to admire the technical skill, crazed audacity and sheer unrelenting nastiness of ‘Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs’, and if pure, unfiltered exploitation is your bag you’ll probably dig the hell out of it. But, like the psychopathic characters it portrays, there’s an emptiness at the heart of the film that’s cold, man, real cold, and I didn’t really go for that.
Mp3> Closing Theme (Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs)
Saturday, 3 March 2012
“For a man I love, I’d give up my life
I cried for all the pain and wounds
But nobody has ever seen my tears
Where will I find myself tomorrow?
I’m a wandering Ginza butterfly”
Recently released from a women’s correctional facility, ace poolhall hustler Nami (Meiko Kaji) takes the train back into Tokyo as the slightly freakbeat-tinged title ballad plays over the opening credits. That sounds like the cue (sorry) for some sort of gag about her being ‘framed up’, but.. oh god, let’s just end this sentence now.
She is heading back to her beloved uncle’s poolhall, situated – like just about every other location in the movie – in the shadows of the city’s sprawling, neon-saturated commercial district. All is not well on the streets of Ginza however, and it soon becomes clear that the pillars of the area’s friendly, long-established underworld – Uncle’s poolhall, the female-run hostess club where Nami seeks employment, and ‘Shin the Player’, the happy, generous gang boss who everyone seems to like – are under threat from a new breed of nastier yakuza who are intent on taking over. Can our heroine do her bit to help save the livelihoods of the nice folks to whom she owes so much..? Well, yeah – I mean it wouldn’t make for much of a film if she didn’t give a shit, would it?
Almost entirely lacking in the kind of sleaze and extremity that define pink eiga and yakuza flicks, ‘Wandering Ginza Butterfly’ seems like a deliberate attempt to drag some of those generic tropes into ‘classier’ territory, with decidedly mixed results. The other pinky violence entry I’ve seen from Yamaguchi, ‘Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless To Confess’, follows a broadly similar pattern, and it’s slightly surprising to learn that the director, who doesn’t exactly seem fond of violent action on the basis of these two films, actually went on to direct Etsuko Shihomi and Sonny Chiba in the hair-raising ‘Sister Street Fighter’ a few years later.
A ridiculously sentimental film, ‘Wandering Ginza Butterfly’ is probably the only one of these movies you’ll find in which acts of selfless kindness and repaid debts of gratitude outweigh cynical double-crosses and nihilistic vengeance, and unfortunately they’re given more screen-time too. Despite the contemporary setting, it’s full of nostalgic nods to Hollywood gangster imagery (did guys in ‘70s Japan really dress like extras from Bugsy Malone?), with mournful accordion laments and Spanish guitar flourishes filling the soundtrack as shots of snow-covered prison windows and wilting roses dissolve into vistas of pastel-coloured neon. You totally won’t believe the scene in which the aforementioned nice gangster is gunned down by the cowardly baddies as he shields the homeless little girl whose flowers he bought everyday from their fire, and even the obligatory nightclub scene has some cheesy Barry Manilow type character crooning about seagulls instead of a rock n’ roll band.
Weak tea for many viewers perhaps, but the exquisite cinematography lends a pleasantly elegiac atmosphere to proceedings (Toei studios seemed to specialise in making even low budget genre films look absolutely stunning in the ‘70s), and, helped along by performances from some fine character actors whom I wish I was able to properly identify, the movie makes for quite enjoyable viewing, even at its dullest moments.
It’s interesting too to see Meiko Kaji stretching her acting muscles in a rare role requires her to move beyond her usual implacable avenger/silent bad-ass moves and actually portray a regular, good-natured sorta person, prone to giggling and apologising and getting all emotional about things. And she’s pretty good at it too, of course. I mean, she’s Meiko Kaji – she’s good at everything.
And thankfully, the film’s relatively ‘refined’ tone doesn’t stand in the way of one or two noteworthy action/exploitation highlights. Chief among these is a scene perhaps unique in all of cinema – the tense table billiards showdown in which Nami must take on the yakuza’s top player in a life-or-death defense of her friends’ property deeds.
Tales of courageous female gamblers and big sporting showdowns are obviously pretty ubiquitous in Japanese genre films, but never have I seen one quite like this. The villains’ shooter - ‘Ryu of the Third Eye’ – is a freaky, stone-faced dude in mirror shades and a black leather shirt(?!), whilst Nami competes in thigh boots and a white mini-dress. The logic of the rather complicated game they’re playing is relayed to us using freeze frames and on-screen captions, and Ryu’s downfall finally comes when his cravings for speed (I think it’s speed anyway – there’s a reference in the subtitles to him being paid in ‘crank’) get the better of him, an effect which is brilliantly achieved by having the actor freak out and make jittery, horror movie faces whilst someone shines Bava-esque yellow lights in his face. Eventually he cracks, and charges across the room, jamming a gigantic syringe into his arm and sighing with relief as the assembled hoods look away in disgust.
Then of course, there’s the blood-soaked vengeance massacre at the end. I mean, I don’t care how classy you wanna try to make your pinky violence/yakuza movie, you’re not gonna get away without the blood-soaked vengeance massacre, and Yamaguchi is at least wise enough to deliver the goods. I seem to recall that Meiko and the goofy on/off love interest guy she’s been hanging around with throughout the film basically have a conversation that goes a bit like “hey, you’re secretly a master-swordswoman, what a coincidence, I’m a disgraced yakuza hitman”, and so they set out to kick some ass.
Blood runs in rivers, lives are ruined, the cops are on their way, and she’s not going to get far in that blood-stained kimono waving a sword around. But vengeance has been served, we’ve had some carnage to keep us satisfied, and all is right with the world – perhaps the most perversely feel-good ending I’ve ever seen to a film in which just about everyone is dead or in jail.
Nami’s adventures continued (perhaps?) in 1972’s beautifully titled ‘Wandering Ginza Butterfly II: She-Cat Gambler’, the unusual use of Western style sequel digits suggesting a sense of cohesion that I’d imagine is probably quite misleading in a world where studios seemed to come up with titles for their movies simply by jamming a load of mad words together with a colon in the middle. Praise be.
Mp3> When the Sun is Gone (Wandering Ginza Butterfly)
Thursday, 1 March 2012
In a significant departure from my usual secluded anglophone existence, I’m actually visiting Japan next month. So, by way of psyching myself up for that, what better excuse could there be for a series of short(ish) reviews relating to that country’s most universally beloved cultural export (ahem) – the early ‘70s cycle of ‘Pinky Violence’ movies!
Sure, it’ll be a bit of a culture shock after all the comfortable British horror and sci-fi I’ve been covering recently, but just imagine how the poor customs officers at Narita airport will feel when I turn up with my tweed suit and elephant gun.
The precise definition of the ‘pinky violence’ sub-genre is of course the subject of much confusion and disagreement in the West (and probably in the East too for that matter). I’m not going to bother going into all that here, but for those unfamiliar with the form, the concise primer found here is recommended reading, and nicely delineates the specific usage of the term as I’ll be applying it in these posts.
Of course, just for the hell of it, I’ll probably end up throwing in write-ups of a few Japanese films that fall way outside the acknowledged boundaries of the genre too, but I’ll do my best to make such distinctions clear from the outset.
And as an added bonus, I’ll try to throw in translated lyrics and brief mp3s of some of the absolutely fantastic Enka theme songs featured in *every single one* of these movies, where possible.
All clear? Well, chocks away then.
(The poster reproduced above is for ‘Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack’, image borrowed from Pulp International.)