Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) elopes with her lover Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa), who is apprenticed to her father. The two arrive at a nearby inn where they hope to find refuge with the owner Kenji (Fujio Suga) and his wife. They are betrayed by Kenji, who sells Otsuya to a geisha house run by Tokubei (Asao Uchida), while an attempt is made on Shinsuke’s life. Otsuya begins a new life as a geisha and is tattooed by artist Sekichi (Gaku Yamamoto) with a large spider on her back. She is told that she will become a man-eater. Otsuya sets about getting revenge on all those men who have wronged her, leaving behind a bloody trail of revenge.
Based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, with a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo (The Naked Island), “Irezumi” is a violent erotic thriller with a comanding central performance from Ayako Wakao. Wakao’s Otsuya is strong-willed and unbreakable in the face of adversity, soon coming to dominate all those around her, whether Shinsuke, or Tokubei. Men fall at her feet and she is not averse to standing her ground. Ayako Wakao’s fearsome performance is a highlight of the film, as you sense the passion and rage in her eyes in every scene. Her palpable sensuality means it is no wonder the men around Otsuya fall under her spell. Director Yasuzo Masumura creates an active feel to the film, full of life and movement. While the sexual scenes are mostly suggestive, there is no such discretion when it comes to the violence, with brutal slayings depicted graphically. The fight-sequence between Shinsuke and his attacker is a great example of using the set and surroundings to best advantage. The two men battling for survival seems to draw from and parallel the thunderous power of the heavens as the storm rages.
The vengeful woman has been an enduring trope in literature and cinema through the ages and “Irezumi” gives us one of the darkest and most disturbing interpretations of the archetype. As the title suggests there is a peculiar focus on the tattoo that Otsuya is given, with the artist coming to believe that it is this that turned her into a killer. However, it is not all that clear that Otsuya changes drastically through the film, she is very much the same woman when we first meet her as after her ordeals. Perhaps what changes is the male characters reactions to her, or impressions of her. Aside from Shinsuke, who is very much under her control in many ways, the other men continually underestimate her or take her compliance for granted. Alongside the timeless questions around whether villains are born or made, there is a more contemporary idea at play here: around society’s treatment of women and the potential whirlwind they will reap if they continue to underestimate or abuse them. There is an understanding that if women are pushed, just like men, they will bite back.