Gate of Flesh (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

Post-war Japan is a harsh place, the dog-eat-dog mentality engendered by the war mixed with the disappointment of defeat. The citizens live in a situation of dire poverty, surviving on rations and basic supplies, watched over by the keen eyed Military Police and the prowling US occupiers. A young woman, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), is caught stealing food to survive. She is taken to Sen (Satoko Kasai), the strong-willed leader of a group of prostitutes, as a way out of her situation. This band of women have set up their own business in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned building. They wear their profession as a badge of honour, working for themselves, driving other women from their territory, and having strict rules about who they will sleep with. Their number one rule is that they must never sleep with a man without payment. However, when ex-soldier Shintaro Ibuki (Joe Shishido) turns up looking for refuge after stabbing a GI, he threatens to destroy their carefully managed business.

Director Seijun Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine take us right to the heart of the action of post-war Japan, with the streets bustling with people from all walks of life trying to survive. In contrast to the greys and browns of their surroundings, the central cast of women are always dressed in the same single bright colours, that helps identify them and sets them apart from everyone else. The actresses all do a fantastic job with their characters, giving them a sense of individuality. Yumiko Nogawa’s defiant leader, Sen, Tomiko Ishii’s upbeat Roku, Kayo Matsuo’s wily Mino, Yumiko Nogawa’s fragile yet determined Maya, are a charismatic quartet whose wild, funny, unpredictable, even cruel antics, are always a pleasure to watch. Joe Shishido gives a strong performance as Ibuki, who is putting a brave face on his inner turmoil. Misako Tominaga is also excellent as Machiko, a member of the group who gives in to her feelings and is cast out. All the characters appear fiercely independent but each harbours their own personal tragedy, whether the loss of a husband or a brother in the war. One of the strengths of the film is that it does not create heroes. Every character is flawed, often being cruel, malicious, or greedy, but it is clear that they are products of their environment. The score by Naozumi Yamamoto features a plaintive melody with repeated snatches of song that are often hummed or whistled by characters. There are also several songs that are performed by the cast at various points. The use of a pounding drum at moments of crisis for Maya is powerful. It breaks up the flow of action in a way that suddenly brings home to the audience the impact of everything on her. Suzuki also uses cross-fading imagery to good effect, especially in the moments when we see the ghosts of the past appearing before characters in a moment that moves, like much of the film, from joyous to morose.

“Gate of Flesh” begins with titles shown over drawings of naked corpses. This understanding of the fragility of life seems to haunt both the characters and the audience as the drama unfolds. Following any war or great loss of life, the old certainties disappear. To see a corpse makes us wonder what the point of living is in the first place, given the inevitable conclusion. This is a question posed by one character in the film. This nihilism also helps to explain the mindset of the women, who see their bodies as no more than flesh, a commodity to be sold and for them to profit from. They base their self-worth entirely in terms of business transactions, which in turns strips them of their inner selves, leading them to cruelty. At first they may seem heartless, but it becomes clear that they are simply keeping their emotions buried in order to adapt to a world that seems to have abandoned morality and compassion. In one powerful moment, Maya seduces a priest who had tried to help her, and this is a confirmation that human beings may aspire to higher things but their nature will always draw them back to their primitive urges. It is interesting to consider the male-female dynamics in the film, with the group of women being a strong group who are disrupted by the appearance of a man. Their reactions to him seem over-the-top, even childish, which may be a release of their pent-up emotions in reaction to the cold personas they have assumed. The colour-coded dresses they wear may also give an insight into each of their true personalities, or perhaps represent how they wish to be seen. They are holding on to a brightness and hope that is disappearing from the world around them. “Gate of Flesh” is a masterclass in directing with excellent performances and a story that touches on the very nature of humanity.

Yarukya Knight (2015) by Katsutoshi Hirabayashi

Makoto Gosuke (Tomoya Nakamura) moves to a school ruled by the female students. The girls, fed up with their strict and perverse teacher, Arashi (Alexander Otsuka), have kicked him out and taken over the school. Misaki Shizuka (Nina Endo) is the leader of this new female-led revolutionary governing order. The male students meanwhile are kept in check, repeatedly punished for their sexual desires, stripped and tied up for their apparent impertinence. Gosuke falls in love with Misaki and urges the other boys to take a stand and take back the school. When cruel teacher Arashi returns, Makoto and Misaki must put their differences aside to fight together against their common enemy.

“Yarukya Knight” is based on a manga of the same name by Nonki Miyasu. Director Katsutoshi Hirabayashi uses an active camera and off-kilter angles to create an exciting visual style. Special effects are used sparingly but to great effect to further emphasise that the film should be seen as a live-action cartoon. In particular a scene of our protagonist being thrown so forcefully into a wall that he becomes lodged there. All members of the cast do a fantastic job with their characters and have great comedy timing and performances. Particularly Tomoya Nakamura, Nina Endo and Erisa Yanagi.

A simple teen comedy that treads familiar ground of male sexual desire and female attempts to avoid it. The dynamic between the groups works well as a catalyst for much of the humour. The jokes usually land well and the premise is amusing. The sexual politics that the film portrays are simplistic and rely on stereotypical views of teen life, but this plays to the film’s strength. It creates a host of likeable characters in a tongue-in-cheek teen comedy.

Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

A Snake of June (2002)

Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa) works as a mental health nurse and lives a comfortable, if apparently sexless, existence with her husband (Yuji Kotari). A package arrives at their apartment and Rinko finds a number of photographs showing her pleasuring herself. There is a mobile phone in the package and she is soon contacted by a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) who wants to blackmail her with these images. He proceeds to lead her on several sexually charged trials, including walking around in an uncharacteristically short leather skirt, buying a sex toy, and inserting a remotely operated vibrator. This man tells her that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that she is the only thing that makes him happy. Rinko’s husband soon discovers the blackmail and attempts to track down this man who is forcing his wife to perform these acts.

Writer and director Shinya Tsukamoto is no stranger to twisted narratives and difficult subject matter. “A Snake of June” sees the auteur director taking on the erotic thriller genre and infusing it with his own particular style. The film is shot entirely with a blue tint that gives it a unique look and the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The endlessly pouring rain and torrents of water pouring into drains create an almost unbearable sense of tension, blending concepts of sex and violence through pure visual storytelling. The connection of moisture and sex is understandable, but here it is taken to an extreme that creates an oppressive atmosphere of almost hyper-sexuality. This is balanced against the asexual couple at the heart of the narrative. When we see them they are always seated apart. It also seems that Rinko’s husband has an obsession with cleanliness, perhaps referencing the sense of shame that some feel in relation to their sexual urges. Their homelife is painfully sterile, while outside the world is filthy and rain-soaked. This is further highlighted by the rain pounding on the glass window above Rinko as she bathes. She can sense that she has cut herself off from something that is calling her. The shadows of the rain pouring above certain characters, the close-ups on drains, the intercutting of a snail, all do a perfect job of creating an atmosphere that is as gripping as it is terrifying and confusing. While it may not always be apparent what the precise meaning of particular shots are, they have a subconscious and cumulative effect that is undeniable. There are shots that will linger with you long after the film has finished. The eroticism of the film is expertly done and understands that it is often far more about what is suggested than what is shown. It lingers on expectation and suggestion rather than lurid details. Tsukamoto also shows his tendency for horror with the nightmarish vision of characters looking through telescopic headgear at scenes of sexual torture. The character of Rinko is brilliantly brought to life by Asuka Kurosawa, whose story is one of self-discovery and gives a nuanced portrayal of women and sexuality. Yuji Kotari is no less important as a foil for Rinko. His constant cleaning and his anger at discovering the blackmail is important in understanding their relationship. He is almost unreadable sometimes, showing devotion to his wife but a complete lack of physicality in their relations. Both characters have back stories that are alluded to, that help the viewer understand this rather odd relationship. Shinya Tsukamoto himself rounds out the main cast, playing the villainous blackmailer.

Nothing is quite clearly defined in the film, eroticism and horror, love and sex, life and death, all of these are in conflict with one another. There is a theme running through of sex as both dark and dangerous, yet also an emancipatory force. The characters live in their cordoned off home, secure from the metaphors for sex and debauchery outside. The husband’s dedication to cleanliness seems to reference the idea of expunging sin. The death of his mother is alluded to and there is clearly something in his psychology that prevents him being physically intimate with his sexually attractive wife. Likewise, Rinko’s father was a drunken bully, which may have led to her closing herself off from male advances and seeking a similarly asexual partner. The film is divided into sections “woman” and “man”, and the trio of characters act almost as archetypal figures, with Tsukamoto being an unknown quantity, perhaps representative of death or some dark force that is controlling the lives of the man and woman. This work is Tsukamoto at his absolute best, showing a unique talent for directing. “A Snake of June” is beautifully shot and has a story that is engaging, but leaves enough unsaid for multiple interpretations.

Orgies of Edo (1969)

“Orgies of Edo” tells three stories connected with themes of sex and violence. The first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), a young woman who is tricked by a gangster into a life of prostitution. The second features a woman with strange sexual perversions. She has a fetish for rape by men who are disfigured. In flashback we learn the dark secret that lies behind her perversion. She is attended by a man who harbours unrequited feelings for her, though towards whom she has no affection. The final story begins with a sadistic lord who delights in watching his harem being gored by a herd of bulls. One of the women takes his eye, seemingly a masochist with an equally insatiable appetite for torture and pain. However, she is also carrying a secret, one that threatens to end their twisted relationship.

The film written by director Teruo Ishii with Masahiro Kakefuda is a portrayal of the most base impulses of human society, lust and violence. Each tale unfolds almost as a dark parable, although the moral of each tale can be hard to discern at first. Despite a heavy emphasis on sex and gore it would be wrong to dismiss the film as mere titillation. There are deeper themes at work. Likewise, although the women are shown as victims in almost all cases, the film is sympathetic towards them. There is a certain sense in which the film delights in the most obscene material, incest, bestiality, rape, sexual violence and sadomasochism, but the film’s almost art house opening and closing sentiments set these things in context. The opening, with grotesques coming forth from a cabinet cues the audience in to the idea that this is intended as gruesome theatre. The stories are exaggerated portrayals of the very worst kinds of behaviour. The opening credits to the film are offensively garish, with names juddering and flashing across the screen while the music blares in concert with the images. Like with other films of the exploitation genre it intends to assault you with its message and has little time for subtlety. Ishii’s voyeuristic directorial style makes the viewer complicit in the horrors, peering from above as the terrible events unfold. There are great performances in all of the stories, especially from the main cast of women. The gory special effects are a little dated, and certain plot points cross the line of unacceptable racism, but a film of this kind is almost obliged to be as offensive as possible.

“Orgies of Edo” is disturbing from its first moments and in a little over 90 minutes manages to cover prostitution, infidelity, rape, incest, bestiality and sadomasochism. The film lays out a brutal worldview, one in which characters do despicable things and women are subject to all manner of sexual and psychological violence. The shock tactics are highly effective and it is not a film that could be considered boring, although some may find it offensive or distasteful. It is hard to summarise the messages of the film as they are multifarious. It does touch on ideas of power in sex relations, on the male tendency to violence, and on the underlying psychological causes of sexual perversion. In a sense the film is intended to provoke strong emotions, both of disgust and empathy towards the characters. The god-like perspective of many scenes also hints at a possible anti-theistic reading, as we are forced to watch impotently as the horrors unfold. This is a world in which morality, if it exists at all, is pushed aside and humans are shown as base and atavistic organisms. While passing decades and an increasingly liberal society may have dated certain scenes (particularly the use of dwarves and a black man as shorthand for ‘difference’ in the middle story), the film works well as a shocking exploitation drama with a message.