Irezumi (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

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.

Inferno of Torture (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Unable to pay her debts, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama) is taken by Samejima (Haruo Tanaka) to a brothel specialising in sadomasochism. All the women there are tattooed with elaborate designs across their backs. Yumi falls for Horihide (Teruo Yoshida), who is tasked with tattoing her. Horihide is hoping to win a competition by the Shogun to produce the greatest tattoo, the prize of which is the Shogun’s daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana), against his rival Horitatsu (Asao Koike). Meanwhile, the brothel where Yumi works is dealing with a wealthy foreigner who delights in the tattooed women they provide.

Teruo Ishii continues his ero-guro series of historical films with “Inferno of Torture”, a complex tale of sex, violence and revenge. Unlike previous films, “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” (1968) and “Orgies of Edo” (1969), this film is not comprised of short stories, but is a singular narrative. This leads to more complexity, with several plot threads coming together. The film features the now familiar scenes of torture at the beginning, but also a structure of flash-forwards to generate a sense of dreadful expectation as events unfold. While the film is packed with action, some of the plots do get tangled and hard to follow, lacking a substantial resolution. While Yumi begins the film, it ends with Horihide, in an unexpected yet not quite satisfactory conclusion. Similarly, the introduction of a group of prisoners who are sold into prositution fails to develop beyond providing several moments of humour and action. The two male members of their group offer comic relief, but as with the rest of the film, there seems to be little significance to their characters beyond this. Despite its lack of depth the film is stunning to look at, with colourful costumes and sets, and some creative direction. Writer-director Ishii again conscripts long-term collaborators in composer Masao Yagi and cinematographer Motoya Washio, as well as many cast member returning from his earlier films. The chase through the market is one of the best examples of the creativity that is evident throughout, using the environment to full effect. In typical Ishii style, plot is set aside at several points in favour of provocative sequences of nudity or violence, often both. The parade of half-naked ladies at the Shogun’s court for example. The pounding of traditional drums in Masao Yagi’s score helps the sense of tension and underscore the violence, helped by the sound design of cracking bamboo lashes in the background.

“Inferno of Torture” shows the dark underbelly of the period, with the mistreatment of women a continuing theme through Ishii’s work. Novel elements here include the two transgender characters and the foreign villain. Little is made of the transgender experience in the film, the characteres serving solely as comic relief, but it perhaps reflects Ishii’s modus operandi in smuggling contemporary sexual politics into his historical dramas. While in “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” the foreign Christian women were very much the victims of Japan’s oppressive anti-Christian doctrine; here we have the introduction of a foreign villain, reflecting post-war Japanese reconsideration of their relationship with the outside world. There are a number of historical films that touch on the foreign influence in Japan, both positive and negative, no doubt filmmakers seeing historical echoes through the post-war period of American occupation with earlier waves of immigration and what they brought to the country. As with much else in the film there are potential readings left open to the viewers interpretation. The film appears content to provide an exciting ero-guro revenge film, leaving aside the more satirical bite of other works, but nevertheless still has at its heart some of these ideas presented less prominently, or stridently. An entertaining film that manages to pack in so many elements, while it is not always cohesive, it never fails to surprise, excite and shock.

Ride or Die (2021) by Ryuichi Hiroki

Two women go on the run in this stylish romanctic thriller. Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) has had a crush on her former highschool classmate Nanae (Honami Sato) for years. When Nanae turns up out of the blue and reveals that she is in an abusive relationship, Rei takes matters into her own hands. After killing Nanae’s violent husband, Rei goes on the run from the police. Deciding she can’t let her go alone, Nanae joins her and the two make their escape from the city. While attempting to outrun the inevitable, the two women reassess their relationship.

Based on the manga “Gunjo” by Ching Nakamura and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki from a screenplay by Nami Sakawa, “Ride or Die” has all the elements of an exciting crime drama, sex, murder and two troubled protagonists. What begins as a stylish thriller soon morphs into a romantic road trip movie, with the two leads cruising around Japan, largely unphased by what has happened. The inciting incident of the crime is merely a means to get these two characters back together after a long separation; with the main focus being on Rei’s attempt to win Nanae’s heart. The direction, with many long hand held takes, demands the best of its actors and both Mizuhara and Sato deliver in their performances with many emotionally charged moments between them. Both are struggling with their sense of self, their worth and identities, which they hide beneath an outwardly upbeat persona. Their chemistry together is believable and you can sense the halting confusion of two people who are working out exactly what their relationship is. One of the weaker elements of the story is the relationship of Rei and her girlfriend Maki which is broken off unceremoniously and undermines some of the sympathy we might have for Rei. The cinematography and aforementioned style of long takes draws us in to the drama completely, as the omnipresent camera follows them through environments smoothly, allowing the action to unfold in a naturalistic way. Occasionally, the film can be a little indulgent with its long tracking shots of cars, but they always look stunning. The film shifts gears several times from being a stylish crime thriller and an light-hearted romantic drama, with explicit sex scenes and unflinching violence on the one hand, and on the other a pop soundtrack as the two women laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

“Ride or Die” is about two women rediscovering who they are, unrequited love, domestic violence and the trap of not being able to express yourself. Rei’s infatuation with the girl from her highschool is a passionate love that pushes her to the extremes of behaviour. She is tragic in her one-sided passion for Nanae. The two are separated not only by their sexuality, but by their wealth and status, with Nanae feeling indebted to Rei. We feel this tension throughout, the tugging of various impulses and obligations that drive the two characters. One of the most heartbreaking moments in the film is reserved for Maki, a supporting character, whose relationship with Rei touches on themes of one-sided love and being comfortable with your sexuality. The domestic violence faced by Nanae is depicted starkly, her body covered in bruises, and the catharsis of her husband’s death is something the audience will sympathise with. However, issues of male violence are brushed over to allow for the flourishing of Rei and Nanae’s relationship on their own terms. A film that occasionally obscures its more meaningful themes with its stylish veneer, it nevertheless is an exciting romantic crime adventure with two outstanding performances from its leads.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

Lesson of Evil (2012) by Takashi Miike

            Takashi Miike gives us a violent crime thriller following a deranged psychopath in this gory film adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel. The film begins with a scene in which two parents anxiously discuss their problematic son, right before he murders both of them with a knife. We then move forward in time to find Hasumi (Hideaki Ito) working as a high-school English teacher. He is charismatic and well-liked by his students. Following incidents of cheating at the school, Hasumi suggests perhaps interrupting the signal from their mobile phones during tests, which would be illegal but would also prohibit such cheating. Cheating is far from the only problem at the school, with one teacher sexually harassing a female student, and another involved in an affair with a male pupil. Hasumi also soon reveals himself to be far from the ideal mentor his students imagine, himself using his knowledge of the sexually harassed student to first scare away her abuser, and then to begin an affair with her himself. Hasumi comes under suspicion by another teacher, Tsurii (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), and several students, who believe he may have been involved in a rash of suicides at a previous school he worked for.

            The first half of the film plays out as a high-school drama, with elements of a murder mystery, as we delve deeper into the character of Hasumi and discover more of his secrets.  Just as you are beginning to piece together a semblance of what might be termed normality in this world, the film completely throws this plot out of the window and turns into an almost comedic rampage of death and destruction, as Hasumi begins to dispatch the students of the school one by one with a shotgun. Ito gives a great performance as evil incarnate who is able to mask his sadistic tendencies with a veneer of respectability. The film also features a great cast of young actors as the school. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido, who worked together previously in Himizu, KENTA and Elina Mizuno all bring a vitality to their roles as believable high-schoolers trapped in an incredibly dangerous situation.

The film is beautifully shot, with some fantastically atmospheric images and the direction holds your attention throughout. There are striking visuals that add a depth to the film beyond what is in the script. Examples of this include the contrast between the permanently grey shadowy look of Hasumi’s house, and the brightly lit school scenes during the day. Later in the film there is a great tonal discrepancy that emphasises the film’s dark satire, as Hasumi rampages around a school colourfully adorned with balloons and handmade ornaments, often cast in red light.

“Lesson of Evil” can be enjoyed as a straight-forward slasher film, with an evil monster brutally dispatching innocent teenagers. However, the film demands consideration in its use of folkloric and theological allusion. Hasumi is troubled by the appearance of two ravens, we later see him researching Odins corvid companions Munnin (memory) and Huginn (thought). Hasumi kills the raven he names Huginn, but continues to dwell on the presence of Munnin. This is perhaps some reference to Hasumi’s lack of compassion and his senseless crimes, albeit with his past sins being inescapable. While it is easy to see the film as pure exploitation cinema, it plays both sides of the aisle, indulging in this while also offering a perfect satire and critique of our obsession with violence. The high-school massacre at the end of the film goes on so long that you are forced to consider your reaction to it. Ito’s crimes transform from being blackly comic with the first unexpected killing, through terror when you realise that he is not going to stop, and finally a sort of numb sense of inevitability that you are going to witness the slaughter of every innocent child at the school. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of violence, creating a sense of uneasiness as it flips between moments of humour (such as Hasumi being temporarily deafened by the sound of his gun), to horror as we see students cowering in fear. We see several moments in the film that may be a direct attack on American gun culture and the tragedies stemming from it: these include Hasumi’s own past as a Harvard graduate, his use of English, and later in the film a scene in which he trips over an American flag as part of a moon landing display. In fact this entire sequence of slaughter is rich with background details that speak to the waste of talent and creativity that such killings result in. We are also left to ruminate as the title of the film suggests on what we mean by evil, whether and how it can be defeated. A number of characters plead with Hasumi for an explanation of his actions, but none is forthcoming. At the end we are left only with the horrific aftermath and no clearly picture of what caused it. Again, this may be an attempt to poke fun at the notion that killing and violence can be understood rationally or that crimes such as this can be ameliorated by context.

As with many of Miike’s films, “Lesson of Evil” blends a number of genres, making you unsure what to make of it at times. In the end you are left to reflect on your own experience and impressions of the film, and perhaps come to a deeper understanding of yourself through it. As the killer says to the police in the film, it is not his job to explain why he has done what he has done, that is for them to do. The same might be said of the audience. It is not necessarily the artist’s job to explain themselves clearly, it is your job, as the viewer, to consider what you have seen and your reactions to it and see what that tells you about society and yourself.