Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
The Pinky Violence films of Norifumi Suzuki represent one extreme of the tendency of Japanese exploitation films of the seventies to combine a very high level of craftsmanship with an unflinching preoccupation with human behavior at its most sleazy and mysteriously perverse. I’ve found some of his films very difficult to get through, while others — such as Convent of the Holy Beast and the film I’m discussing here, Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom — I was able to ride out on a seductive wave of Norifumi’s combined visual imagination and sheer audacity. However, unlike Shunya Ito, whose distinctive vision lifted the Female Prisoner Scorpion films damn near the level of art, Norifumi produced trash that, while littered with artistic touches and surprising moments of beauty, never really quite rose above the level of trash. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike Ito, he had a habit of punctuating the episodes of exaggerated sexual violence that characterize much of his work with moments of direly unfunny juvenile comedy, a mixture that in most cases added up to one pretty noxious cocktail.
I once read a review on some site that contained the statement “Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is not for everyone”, which is my favorite line ever from an online review of a cult movie. Not only is it admirable for being refreshingly direct, but also for how it so clearly provides the guidance that we depend on from such reviews. It makes you truly grateful that the internet exists, especially if you’re one of those people who might otherwise have considered purchasing Slaughtered Vomit Dolls as a Mothers Day gift.
In the spirit of those words, then, I would like to begin this review by stating that Hausu, the 1977 debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, is not for everyone. However, if you are one of those people whom Hausu is for (or for whom Hausu is?), I think that you will find it not only fascinating, but addictive. I myself have seen it five times now, and it’s a testament to its uniqueness that each time I watch it I find myself surprised anew at just how strange it is. It’s as if it contains too much that’s beyond the normal frame of reference for the brain to adequately retain it all. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is one of the most unique horror films that I have ever seen.
Obayashi came to Hausu from a background in television advertising, and, in making it, he not only employs all of the tricks of that trade, but also turns many of them on their head. This is a film in which no fraction of any one frame escapes being stylized to within an inch of its life. In addition to working with a woozy pallet of saturated and uniformly unnatural colors (not to mention a chaotic sound design), Obayashi uses every special effect technique available at the time, in concert with a large repertoire of “naive” optical effects not typically seen since the early talkies, to create layers of visual and aural signals that constantly bombard the viewer at every level. While this can at times come off like a first-time director simply showing off, the film is far from an empty exercise in style. Hausu is simply energized by too much passion (and perhaps rage) for there not to be a vision–and heart–behind its madness.
Obayashi, at least in his early directing years, seemed to be drawn to fantastic stories that centered on school-aged protagonists, especially those that played on themes of teenage angst (his other films include Exchange Students, The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and the manga adaptation Drifting Classroom), and Hausu is no exception, following the fate of a close knit group of seven teenaged schoolgirls. Of these seven, only the ethereally beautiful Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is provided with any kind of back-story–or character, for that matter. The remaining six are simply an assortment of types, each paired down to a descriptive nickname and one corresponding signature behavior: Mack (for “stomach”) overeats; Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is prone to romantic daydreams; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays piano; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) practices Kung Fu and has her own action theme music, etc.
Collectively these girls inhabit a world straight out of a seventies Saturday morning cereal commercial, one in which people rise to greet the day with arms outstretched to the sun as cartoon rainbows play across the horizon to the strains of treacly soft rock. As Obayashi presents it, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of those freaky psychedelic football mascots from Syd and Marty Kroft’s PuffnStuff or Lidsville were to bound into frame at any moment. Oshare’s life outside of the group, however, is presented a little differently, though in no less cavity-promoting terms. Hers is a world of movie-fuelled romanticism with the kitsch level pushed to belligerent extremes (think Douglas Sirk on eleven): Beyond the balcony of her father’s high-rise flat, a permanent artificial sunset stretches across the sky like a glorious, lurid bruise, and, as we watch Oshare, all of the camera’s means of idealizing dewy young womanhood–gauzy soft focus, halo lighting, fan-blown hair captured in dreamy slow motion–are amped to the level of the grotesque. Taken together, the world that’s presented in the first section of Hausu is one in which a malignant, over-ripe greeting card sentimentality has poisoned the very atmosphere. And, given that, it should come as no surprise that rottenness lurks just around the corner–or, at least, just a short train ride away.
Things start to turn when Oshare, heartbroken over the prospect of her widowed father marrying a creepily serene younger woman named Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi), reaches out to her beloved dead mother’s sister, an aunt (Yoko Minamida) whom she hasn’t seen for many years. That aunt has remained in the family home, alone, honoring a decades old promise to wait for the man to whom she was engaged, even though, as we have seen, he was long ago killed in the war that took him away in the first place. (In keeping with the psychotically chipper tone of Hausu‘s first act, the flashback of the aunt’s tragic story is played out as a silent era film while, on the soundtrack, the girls coo inanely over how cute and quaint it all looks.) The aunt in return invites Oshare and her friends to come stay at the remote family house for the holiday.
Quickly after the group of girls arrives at the house it becomes apparent that, not just something, but everything isn’t right. The aunt, they eventually learn, has long ago died and become a ghost whose vengeful spirit has infected the very house itself. Furthermore, in order to maintain itself, the house must literally devour any virgin girl who steps within it. It is at this point that Hausu resoundingly turns against its first half, and the opening scenes’ creepy yet chaste fetishizing of the young girls gives way to an explosive sexuality so uncontainable that it literally permeates and animates the physical environment that they inhabit.
It is also at this point that Hausu takes on the structure of a conventional modern horror film, with the girls being picked off one by one by a variety of gory means. But the nature of those means, given that it’s the house itself that is implementing them–combined with the delirious, candy colored nightmare of their presentation–makes those sequences anything but conventional. The scene in which we watch Melody getting eaten, and then digested, by a grand piano is probably the most memorable, but there are a number of others that equal it in terms of their combined horror and absurdity. Obayashi here performs a neat (and, to my mind, never repeated) trick by drawing on the queasy, hallucinatory imagery of Italian horror directors like Argento, while replacing their languid, dreamy pacing with the sugar rush velocity of a particularly demented Saturday morning cartoon. The result is as intoxicating as it is overwhelming.
Hausu, perhaps surprisingly, dates very well. Despite its surface appearance, it manages to escape itself being 1970s kitsch by presciently recognizing that kitsch for what it was in its own time. From that vantage point, it can treat those treacly feel good excesses, not with nostalgic affection or condescending dismissal, but as a telling symptom of something malignant underneath. It may just be wishful thinking, but I like to believe that it’s no coincidence that Hausu came out in the year commonly associated with the birth of punk–that, though not apparent on the surface, hidden within it is a mischievous punk sensibility. After all, what better symbol of everything that punk rose up against than the smiley face? If Obayashi did not officially count himself among punk’s practitioners, he at least attacked that symbol and everything it stood for with a bile and passion equal to theirs.
Hausu also benefits greatly by comparison to contemporary Japanese horror movies, which typically suffer from their makers’ grim determination to make every moment pregnant with ominousness and foreboding–with the end result being films that are pretty much uniformly tedious and annoying. In contrast, Hausu, a film that is rich with humor and a subversive sense of play, not only delivers a number of effective scares, but also manages to be profoundly disturbing as a whole. At a time when it is becoming distressingly apparent that the Japanese have forgotten how to make horror movies that are actually scary, it might just be that their film industry could take a lesson from Hausu. Perhaps they could learn from it that their taking the horror genre too seriously could be the very thing that is leeching it of all of its horror, and that it’s time to bring a sense of fun and mischief back into the process. The American film industry, on the other hand, should continue in their benevolent ignorance of Hausu, because no one wants to see a remake of it starring cast members of Gossip Girl.
So, if you think that Hausu is for you, that’s the good news. The bad news is that, though long a soft and grainy staple of the grey market, Hausu is, as of this writing, only legitimately available as a German PAL region DVD without English subtitles. That shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent, however, because its simple story and emphasis on visuals make it a perfect example of the type of film that’s easy to enjoy without understanding the spoken language. Still, given the ready availability of so many old Japanese genre titles on the market, it’s somewhat astonishing that no one has seen fit to give a film as ripe for cult appreciation as Hausu a proper American release. Mind you, it’s no Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, but it still deserves to be seen.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Japan | Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Yoko Minamida, Kumiko Ohba, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi, Eriko Tanaka, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mitsutoshi Ishigami | Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi | Writers: Chiho Katsura, Nobuhiko Obayashi | Cinematographer: Yoshitaka Sakamoto | Music: Asei Kobayashi, Micky Yoshino | Producer: Nobuhiko Obayashi
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies are just my speed, because as much as I hate to admit it, I’m a bit of a Pinky Violence lightweight. It’s not that I don’t like the genre. I do, very much. It’s just that it’s one that’s so fraught with potential pitfalls that watching an unfamiliar entry can be a bit of a risky proposition. In my experience, the most successful PV films maintain an almost painfully delicate balance between sleaze and artistry, and those that don’t leave me with nothing more than a ninety minute hole in my life and a feeling of being mildly pervy.
It’s for this reason that, for all the depravity on display, I can still get a kick out of Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom, while Girl Boss Guerrilla, from the same director, makes me want to tear my brain out and scrub it with a Brillo pad–or that, while I consider Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, with all its incest and bloody backroom abortions, to be a small masterpiece, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs just reminds me that I should probably wash my hands after handling the discs I get from Netflix.
The Delinquent Girl Boss movies, on the other hand, could best be described as Pinky Violence “lite”. That is due in great part to their star, Reiko Oshida, who is simply so adorable that you’d never want any of those things that happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike in their movies to happen to her. (Not that you necessarily want them to happen to Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike, either–but obviously someone does, because it seems like neither of them can get through a movie without having some sweaty yakuza or lesbian prison guard string them up and whip them across the chest.) Though Rika, the character that the baby-faced Oshida portrays, is certainly a tough customer, she’s less worldly and careworn than her sister delinquents, and you get the clear impression that her bravado is to some extent meant to cover up for some residual adolescent doofyness. In contrast to the hardened teenage killing machines typically played by Sugimoto or Ike, with Rika there is a faint glimmer of hope of a brighter future lying ahead, and that not only keeps you rooting for the character, but also allows the series as a whole to take on a somewhat lighter tone than other films in the genre. Not that it’s all picnics and popsicles, mind you.
Blossoming Night Dreams is the first in the Delinquent Girl Boss series, as well as Toei’s first entry in the Pinky Violence genre. Spurred to jump into the game by the success of Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of female delinquent films, the studio would go on to make the PV genre their own through more brazenly exploitative franchises like the aforementioned Terrifying Girls’ High School and Female Prisoner Scorpion films. At the time of this film, the template that those later films followed had yet to be set, and so, while there is a fair share of tits and blood on display, there’s nowhere near as much as would become standard within a couple years. Furthermore–and again unlike perennial PV stars Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike–Oshida was not required to shed her clothing for her role, leaving the burden of baring all upon her supporting stars.
As with Worthless to Confess, the final entry in the Delinquent Girl Boss series (and the only other one that I’ve seen) Blossoming Night Dreams opens in a girls’ reform school, giving us a scene in which the rowdy inmates make a mockery of a presentation on bridal etiquette, using it as an opportunity for what you have to guess is just the latest in a series of regularly occurring wild brawls. This presentation, in which a prim charm school matron delivers such dispiriting bromides as “to look like a bride is life itself”, paints a pretty cynical picture of the possibilities that await these girls on the outside, and it’s not hard to side with them when they run riot over the thing. Still, these possibilities have to be confronted, and we soon shift forward a year, where we find nineteen year-old Rika back on the outside, trying to put her past behind her and play it straight and narrow. Unfortunately, as countless films have taught us, that’s rarely an easy thing to do.
Rika first finds work at a laundry, but loses that job when the owner attempts to rape her, and his wife, stumbling in on the two of them, assumes that it is Rika who is trying to seduce him. The next horny male Rika encounters, however, ends up being a little more helpful, as Tsunao (series regular Tonpei Hidari) is able to provide her with an introduction to Umeko, a former inmate of the same reform school who runs a bar and nightclub where a number of the schools’ alumni work as hostesses. It seems like Rika may have found a safe haven under the wing of the maternal Umeko, but the old ways start to exert their pull again once she discovers that a local Yakuza clan is trying to muscle Umeko out of her ownership of the club. Just when you think you’re out…
As is typical with Pinky Violence movies, pretty much all of the men that the girls in Blossoming Night Dreams encounter are goonish, sex obsessed louts. In the case of the more sympathetic ones, you get the sense that only a thin layer of civility (or, in some cases, just timidity) prevents them from simply taking by force what they want from these women. This conceit makes watching Pinky Violence movies in general a complicated proposition for a male; While you’re invited to ogle at the exposed female flesh on display, these films pretty much tell you that, in doing so, you’re no different from the leering and slobbering potential rapists that inhabit them. Aside from the odd reformed yakuza, the only nobility you’ll see is that displayed by the women, who know that they only have their own community to protect them within a world dominated by ruthless male predators (something that’s driven home, as it is here, by the mournful enka ballad that opens so many of the films in the genre–which is usually a tragic rumination on a woman’s narrow options in a heartless male world). Because of this, the scenes of stoically endured torture and abuse that you see in some of the harder-edged entries in the genre are as much tableaus of martyrdom as they are mere kinky spectacle. Finally, placing a further obstacle in the way of enjoying these films as pure titillation is the fact that what consensual sex occurs is almost always joyless for these women, with sex presented as just another cynical means of survival.
Now, by this I’m not saying that these films are necessarily feminist in their perspective–though they do seem, despite being written and directed by men, somewhat anti-male (which–sorry guys–is not the same thing). I’m just trying to point out that the viewpoint they present is certainly one that’s more complex than one might assume. And that complexity provides a framework for, among other things, some well drawn and sympathetic female characters–though not so much the male ones. Don’t get me wrong, of course: while Blossoming Night Dreams is pretty tame, a lot of the other films in the genre could fairly be called “dirty movies”. But to dismiss them as being only that would be a mistake, and would perhaps deny you a challenging and rewarding movie watching experience… with boobs.
Anyway, because suffering is such an important part of these movies–and Reiko Oshida seems to be off limits in terms of baring the full brunt of it–it’s a good thing that we have on hand Yuki Kagawa’s character Mari. Judging from this and Worthless to Confess, Mari serves as the Delinquent Girl Boss saga’s emotional pin cushion. Here Mari is working as one of the bar hostesses, and a major subplot involves her desperate search for her drug addicted younger sister, Bunny, who is on the run after having stolen a stash of drugs from the Yakuza (those same yakuza who are trying to take over the nightclub, naturally). After failing to reach Bunny before the gang can, with predictably tragic results, Mari goes out seeking revenge, only to end up being viciously gang raped. Kagawa gives one of a number of solid performances in the film, investing Mari with a haunted soulfulness that makes her plight all the more painful to witness. Because of that I wish I could say that things improve for Mari as the series progresses, but I’m afraid no one saw fit to give the poor girl a break, as the final film ends with her stricken with a case of TB contracted from her no good yakuza boyfriend.
The above is not to say that Rika is wholly exempt from being at the receiving end of some hard treatment and harsh lessons. There’s a somewhat surprising episode in which she naively offers herself to the yakuza boss Ohba in return for him waiving a debt he’s been holding over Umeko’s head. Of course, Ohba avails himself of what’s offered (though, unlike with Mari, we’re only shown the aftermath) but with no intention of keeping up his end, and he allows the rest of the gang to rough Rika up before kicking her to the curb. Though there is a brief scene in which Umeko admonishes a shame-faced Rika for her stupidity, the film gives only cursory attention to the effect that this presumably traumatic event has had on Rika, and mostly just uses it to provide fuel for the bloody payback that we know is coming. It’s not the only time that the series is a little dishonest in how it isolates its star from the worst of what it has to dish out, but for me it was the instance in which that practice was the most distracting.
Once every other avenue of recourse has been exhausted, and the accumulated insults and injuries have become to great, the women of the Bar Murasaki determine that screaming, blade slashing, blood spraying vengeance is the only answer. It’s at this point that those of us who have already seen Worthless to Confess (which is most of us who would watch Blossoming Night Dreams, given that Worthless beat the first film to DVD by a couple of years) realize that Blossoming Night Dreams has followed pretty much the exact trajectory as that later film: We have the opening in prison, followed by various attempts to go straight in the outside world, which are foiled in turn by the greedy machinations of the Yakuza, and, finally, a number of intertwining subplots that coalesce into a hyper-violent girl-on-gangster finale. This, however, doesn’t make the sweet, sweet payback any less satisfying, and it’s to Blossoming Night Dream‘s credit that its predictability doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
While it lacks those unexpected moments of transcendent lyricism that mark Norifumi Suzuki’s better PV films–and that can be found throughout the first three Female Prisoner Scorpion movies–Blossoming Night Dreams is not without its instances of visual poetry. Still, its overall look is most representative of the type of high level craftsmanship that was standard in the Japanese commercial cinema of its day. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi would go on to direct all four films in the series, and his work here–along with that of cinematographer Hanjiro Nakazawa–shows a studied attention to composition and color that insures that each shot has an appealingly hyper-real sheen. This serves especially well in the psychedelic nightclub numbers, which are largely indistinguishable from the psychedelic nightclub numbers in many other Japanese movies of the period, and are all the better for it (after all, why mess with a winning formula?).
I really liked Blossoming Night Dreams. As I’ve indicated, it won’t overwhelm you with its artistry, but it is a handsomely made film, and the performances are uniformly top notch. And because I didn’t have to spend half of its running time cringing and hoping that my wife didn’t walk into the room, it afforded me the opportunity to savor some of those aspects of the PV genre that are most appealing to me. I imagine that the other two movies in the cycle that I have yet to see are largely the same, but that doesn’t make me want to see them any less. The fact is, I would watch them for Reiko Oshida alone, even if they consisted entirely of her reading the Tokyo phonebook to a stuffed ocelot. She’s simply one of the most appealing stars of her day, period.
Release Year: 1970 | Country: Japan | Starring: Reiko Oshida, Masumi Tachibana, Yukie Kagawa, Keiko Fuji, Hayato Tani, Toshiaki Minami, Bokuzen Hidari, Yasushi Suzuki, Saburo Bouya, Tatsuo Umemiya, Tonpei Hidari | Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Writers: Norio Miyashita, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi | Cinematographer: Hanjiro Nakazawa | Music: Toshiaki Tsushima | Producers: Kenji Takamura, Kineo Yoshimine
Ogon Batto (Golden Bat) is in many ways typical of the type of films Sonny Chiba appeared in before he became an international action star with the Street Fighter movies. Under a long term contract with Toei Studios, he racked up an impressive slate of low budget B movies during the sixties, a good number of kiddie-themed science fiction films among them. His turn as Iron Sharp in Uchu Kaisokusen (aka Invasion of the Neptune Men), as well as his starring roles in the Toei TV series Nanairo Kamen and Ala-no Shishai, also made him a veteran of the costumed hero Tokusatsu genre of which Ogon Batto is squarely a part–though in Ogon he was, for once, spared having to be the guy in the silly super hero costume (an honor that went to actor Hirohisa Nakata). This might have provided a nice break for Chiba–as well as an opportunity to enjoy a bit of shadenfreude at Nakata’s expense–but it also results in a rare instance in which the charismatic and energetic Chiba is rendered relatively low-key by all that is going on around him. For, while Ogon Batto may have little in terms of art that distinguishes it from other such films in Chiba’s early filmography, it does have a certain energy to its presentation that clearly sets it apart.
Ogon Batto begins with Akira (Wataru Yamakawa), a young amateur astronomer, making the shocking discovery that the planet Icarus has gone off course and is heading rapidly toward Earth. No sooner has Akira made his case to the disbelieving staff at a nearby observatory than he is whisked away by a cadre of Men In Black and taken to the headquarters, hidden in the Japanese Alps, of The Pearl Research Institute, a secret, UN-backed organization dedicated to studying strange space phenomena. Here he meets Capt. Yamatone (Chiba), who promptly asks Akira to join the institute–because, despite being a kid, he obviously knows a lot about science and stuff. Akira accepts, and is immediately introduced to Doctor Pearl (Andrew Hughes) and his granddaughter Emily (Emily Paird), a twelve-year-old child who, in classic Japanese sci fi movie fashion, obviously holds a position of some authority at the institute. Doctor Pearl shows Akira the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, a ray gun with the power of “1000 hydrogen bombs” designed to blast Icarus out of the sky before it can hit Earth. Unfortunately, Pearl tells him, the cannon is not yet operational, because a special mineral is needed to create its lens. No sooner has Pearl said this than the team receives word that an expedition searching for that very mineral has run into trouble and is not responding to contact. At this, the entire staff–man, woman and child–pours into the institute’s flying Super Car and takes off over the ocean. Soon the location of the expedition is spotted: It’s the lost continent of Atlantis! The team touches down on Atlantis and finds the entire expedition team dead, at which point a giant tower–looking like a mile high drill bit with a squid’s head on it–rises up from the ocean and starts shooting cartoon laser beams at them.
This tower is the base of Nazo (Koji Sekiyama), the self-proclaimed Ruler of the Universe, who wants to destroy humanity because “No one else should exist except for me, Nazo!” With Nazo’s foot soldiers hot on their heels, the team retreats into a temple, where they find an ornate sarcophagus. On the sarcophagus is an inscription stating that, 10,000 years from the date of that inscription, a crisis would erupt that would necessitate the aid of the Golden Bat, the occupant of the sarcophagus, who could conveniently be resuscitated by just adding water. As the foot soldiers close in, Emily follows those instructions and revives the Golden Bat, a hulking figure in Gold lycra and skull mask, who proceeds to beat the enemy into retreat with his Baton of Justice. With Nazo and his minions gone for the moment, Golden Bat informs Emily that, because it was she who revived him, only she can summon his aid–and with that makes his magic bat mascot affix itself to her uniform in the form of a bat-shaped broach. He also informs the team that, now that he has been revived, Atlantis will once again sink below the ocean. The team makes for the Super Car and manages to take off in the nick of time as Atlantis crashes back beneath the waves.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: The first fifteen minutes of Ogon Batto. And things don’t really slow down much from there. The film may be a pure, hastily made, low budget construction (just how many commercial Japanese features were still being made in black and white in 1966?), but there is one thing of which you can be guaranteed: By the time you reach the end of its seventy-minute running time, you will have seen an awful lot of stuff happen within a very short period of time.
While the Golden Bat is a lesser known Japanese super hero compared to the likes of Ultraman or Kamen Rider, he is no less a venerable one. The creation of one Takeo Nagamatsu, his origin dates back to the early thirties, and is attributed, depending on who you ask, to either pulp magazines or to kami-shibai, a practice of live storytelling with printed illustration cards that was popular with children in that era. Whichever is the case, he would later make the transition to manga, where he would, at one time, be rendered by the capable hands of the master himself, Osamu Tezuka (Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astroboy, and Jungle Emperor Leo, aka Kimba). A year after his feature incarnation in Ogon Batto, he would go on to make his debut in a popular animated television series, making this movie just one stop in his journey toward total Japanese media domination. A live action television series would follow in the early seventies.
It is clear that the Bat’s manga incarnation is the inspiration for Ogon Batto, and it’s one of the film’s most admirable qualities that it tries to stay true to the look of that source, even if with mixed results. The Nazo that appears in the comics, for instance, is a distinctly weird creation, sort of an amorphous black shape with bat ears and four-laser firing eyes who has a hovering flying saucer in place of a lower body. There is definitely an attempt to duplicate that look on the part of Ogon‘s art department, but with the resources they had to work with, Nazo just ends up looking like a man in a big floppy flannel sack–and because the effect of him hovering above the ground with no lower body was hopelessly beyond their means, the actor simply keeps his bottom half hidden within a stationary saucer-shaped control console.
Nazo’s tower, on the other hand, really looks like a manga creation given real world dimensions, and it’s one of the movie’s visual treats. The model is put to its best use during the film’s climax, in which the tower suddenly erupts from the bowels of the Earth directly below Tokyo and rises up to loom threateningly over the city’s skyline (a scene closely parodied in the 2004 live-action film version of the 70s anime Cutey Honey). In fact, all of the film’s models–from the tower to the shark-shaped flying submarine that Nazo’s toadies use to travel between it and their various villainous assignations–are imaginative and fun, and none the less so for all the visible wires used to put them in motion.
As for the Golden Bat himself, he seems here to be the kind of super hero whose super powers rely mostly on you being repeatedly told by the other characters in the movie just how super powerful he is. His preferred method of combat is running around and clubbing people one-by-one with his baton while stopping to strike highly stylized dramatic poses, which doesn’t give the appearance of being that much more effective than the ray guns the members of the Pearl Institute are equipped with. Furthermore, he always announces himself with a laugh that is obviously meant to be ghostly and fear-inspiring, but which sounds more like the kind of chattering, forced laughter that just makes people uncomfortable. Whenever he does this, you kind of expect Sonny and company to start uneasily and halfheartedly laughing along while slipping each other nervous sideways glances. And when he flies it just looks ridiculous. All of this, of course, somehow combines to make the guy actually seem kind of lovable, though I don’t think that was the intention.
The practice of striking highly stylized dramatic poses is a popular one in Ogon Batto, and it’s not just limited to our titular hero. In fact, the whole cast gets in on that action at one point or other, most memorably when a whole group of them, reacting en masse to some shocking revelation or bit of off-screen business, will do it all at the same time. It comes across kind of like a cross between silent movie acting and Vogueing. I realize that this film was produced in an era when camp was a dominant aesthetic in popular culture. But, as campy as all of that comes across, I don’t think that the intention of the makers of Ogon Batto was to poke fun at their subject matter, but rather to use that prevailing aesthetic as carte blanche for them to be absolutely as corny as they wanted to be. The result is a film that’s the cinematic distillation of the spirit embodied in the phrase “Gee whiz!”
As I indicated earlier, the remainder of Ogon Batto‘s plot unfolds with much the same breathless pacing as it’s prologue, each frantic set piece practically stumbling over the next in the overall rush to cram everything in before the credits roll. Nazo, rallying after the whole Atlantis debacle, sends three of his evil emissaries to infiltrate the Pearl Institute headquarters. This trio includes Jackal, a wolf-man, Piranha, a woman in a scaly fish outfit, and Keloid (Yoichi Numata), a Grandpa Munster look-alike with oatmeal on his face. After a series of frantic ray gun battles and the Golden Bat showing up to run around and club people with his baton, the villains succeed in making off with the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, only to find that it is missing the crucial lens (which, by the way, has now been successfully fabricated by Doctor Pearl and company, thanks to a gem comprised of the necessary mineral being in the Golden Bat’s hand when he was found in his sarcophagus at the beginning of the movie).
Taking on the appearance of Naomi (Hisako Tsukuba), another member of the institute, Piranha kidnaps Emily, and soon both Emily and Doctor Pearl are being held hostage by Nazo, with the lens stated as the price of their safe release. This leads to the final showdown between the Golden Bat and Nazo, held high above the streets of Tokyo (and involving, among other things, a dog fight with that cool shark-shaped flying submarine), as the rogue planet Icarus hurtles perilously ever closer to our seemingly doomed Earth.
And just where is Sonny Chiba in all this, you may ask? Well, he does have his heroic moments, but the top-billed star seems mostly content to blend into the background and let all of the insanity just happen around him. Which is a very sensible attitude to take with Ogon Batto. It’s an easy film to mock, but if you take the time to step back and appreciate just how furiously it’s working to entertain you, you’ll find that it’s equally easy to love. Just don’t expect it to be a showcase for the Street Fighter himself.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Sonny Chiba, Hirohisa Nakata, Andrew Hughes, Wataru Yamagawa, Emily Paird, Hisako Tsukuba, Yoichi Numata, Koji Sekiyama, Kousaku Okano | Writer: Susumu Takahisa, Takeo Nagamatsu | Director: Hajime Sato | Cinematographer: Yoshikazu Yamasawa | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Producer: Kaname Ougisawa | Original Title: Ogon Batto
It was not an unusual practice for Hong Kong’s powerhouse Shaw Brothers studio to participate in international co-productions during its heyday, and the result of that practice was often some fairly unique screen pairings. For instance, there was British horror icon Peter Cushing teaming up with kung fu badass David Chiang in The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and the Sentimental Swordsman himself, Ti Lung, trading lines with American TV movie staple and Night of the Lepus star Stuart Whitman in Shatter. But the 1967 spy thriller Asia-Pol stands out in particular for being a potential wet dream for fans of 1960s Asian action cinema. This participation between Shaw and Japan’s Nikkatsu – the studio that trademarked its own distinctive brand of hardboiled action cinema during the late fifties and sixties – boasts two stars who have, respectively, come to represent more than any others the identity of each of those studios at that moment in their histories.
I was having a hard time starting this review, and I’m not sure why. I don’t mean that I was caught in some moral dilemma, wondering if I should dare discuss such a filthy, irredeemable piece of trash — I think we all know how such a moral dilemma would hash out if I’m involved. I guess it was just a case of writer’s block, or exhaustion. Or maybe it was the fact that there were just so many things to say, so many approaches that could be taken in discussing the source material, that I was overwhelmed. Perhaps even spoiled for choice. And under a bit of pressure. An epic as vast and sprawling and serious as this demands an appropriately grave and serious demeanor. Would I do the subject justice? Would my review be deserving of such a monumental work of art? In the end, I simply had to accept that sometimes words don’t come easy, even to a rambling windbag like me, but like the titular character of the Overfiend, while words may not come easily, they must come never the less.
Which brings me to the disagreeable preface that must be applied to a review of a film of this nature. As regular readers know, I pride myself in ardently defending the standards and decency of the community. Luckily, since the community to which I refer is the Internet, which means pretty much anything short of Hitler jerking off on Jesus while the Savior makes sweet love to a little boy can be considered decent and acceptable. Still, even with the community standards of the Internet thus established, I feel like I should warn some of our less seasoned and no doubt happier readers that the movie about which we’re going to talk today is a work of questionable morality and ill repute.
At this point in my career, I don’t think any recreated act on film or video could manage to shock or offend me. Amuse, perhaps. Disappoint, sure. But when you’ve been at this for as long as I have, the disconnect between make-believe and reality becomes crystal clear, and once you’ve managed that, there’s not much point in getting offended by goofy make-believe sleaze. But I understand that not all of you share this particular immunity toward offense, for a variety of valid personal reasons, so allow me to warn you now: Legend of the Overfiend is utter and absolute filth. Unless, like me, what was human in you died a long time ago, you will find this series inexcusably tasteless, offensive, and perhaps even upsetting. In a couple weeks, I’ll be reviewing the ridiculously fun and enjoyable Bollywood caper Shaan, and I suggest that if you have heart or soul left in your being, you simply rejoin us then and give this whole horrible Legend of the Overfiend thing a miss.
On the other hand, if you find cartoon tentacle porn more absurd than upsetting, and if you want to slog through a film that is indeed filthy and wretched, but also one of the single most important titles in the history of anime in the United States, then steel yourself, make sure your boss isn’t working (I’m writing this at work — I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be reading it there), and prepare to submerge yourself in a series that is impressive both for how callously offensive and perverse it strives to be while also striving to be colossally epic and vast in scale — sort of like the Old Testament.
When, during the summer of 2006, Teleport City decided to dig about in the waters of anime from the 1980s, we mentioned on more than one occasion that the eighties were probably the most glorious decade of unfettered excess and decadence in the anime world. The giant robots and melancholy space pirates of the 1970s gave way to hot chicks in battle armor, exploding heads, and the now infamous birth of tentacle porn, among other things. While today’s anime market may be choked with cheap hentai titles full of tentacle rape and nurses pooping on each other, it’s neither as shocking nor as notable today as it was in the eighties, for two main reasons. First, the eighties did it first, and just about everything that happens today is derivative of the sleazy pioneers of the 1980s. Modern sleazeball anime may have plumbed further into the depths of human perversions and replaced magical demon bodily fluids with actual human bodily fluids, but given how mainstreamed porn and sexual deviance has become (and God bless it!), even the most shockingly sick and twisted modern hentai lacks the punch of its forefathers, if for no other reason than we’ve seen it all before. I don’t know what it says about me or society that a title like Cool Devices can come out, and my reaction is a decadent sigh of boredom and, “Oh, ho hum. He’s peeing on his sister.”
Second, modern hentai (for you people who don’t take time to acquaint yourself with esoteric terms, “hentai” is what people call porn anime so they don’t have to call it porn anime) exists largely and almost exclusively within the confines of the porn ghetto. There is very little, if any, cross-over between hentai and the more mainstream world of shrieking blonde ninjas in orange jumpsuits telling me to “believe it!” Of course, I speak only of official production anime; if one needs to find the crossover between porn and mainstream anime, one need only turn to our dear old friend, the Internet, which will allow you to access a whole world of fanfic in which the characters of Naruto lick each others buttholes while fending off an endless attack of bad grammar and spelling mistakes. But that’s fanfic, and it’s a ghetto all its own. Only Dragonball filk is lower.
There was plenty of underground hentai in the 80s, of course, but there were also several titles which crossed the line (in more ways than one) and either flirted with or achieved legitimate mainstream crossover success. Here in the United States, when anime broke in the latter half of the Reagan era, it was defined primarily by three titles, though only two are ever really acknowledged as having reigned supreme, while the third is filed away as sort of this guilty curiosity that no one really saw, but don’t let that sort of anime history revisionism fool you. There were three king hell titles: Akira was the obvious top of the heap, followed by the OVA Bubblegum Crisis, which dominated the home video market for reasons I still cannot fathom to this day. I guess it was all we had at the time, and it was better than watching MD Geist.
The third title comes to us courtesy of one of the creators of the classic anime series Yamato, aka Starblazers in the United States, and even though Akira is named time and again as the defining moment in 80s anime and one of the landmark accomplishments in the history of anime as a whole, it was the bastard son of a writer-director-producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki — The Nish, as he has become known lately — that really defined anime in the mainstream press. In between creating Starblazers, delighting generations with Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, and shooting cannons off on his private yacht, Nishizaki found time to serve as producer for a new series which, unlike all his previous ideas, wasn’t just a rehash of Yamato. Following the lead of Lovecraft-inspired horror that flirted with graphic sex presented to us in Wicked City, Nishizaki decided that the one thing wrong with that movie was that it only featured some sex thrown in with its violence, and never had the guts to show full-on penetration of a woman by a gigantic demon penis.
And so, as the 90s came to a close and the window for getting a high-profile work of such decadence and depravity was closing, Nishizaki collected together a crew that included director Hideki Takayama (still brand new to the game in 1989, but he’s since gone on to direct all sorts of screwed-up demon rape porn, and for some reason, Sakura Wars) and writer Sho Aikawa (who was fresh off the popular title Vampire Princess Miyu and would go on to write for Fullmetal Alchemist), and together, they made a little OVA series called Urotsukidoji, more popularly known as Legend of the Overfiend.
This is a pretty dubious assembly of talent, and one sort of has to stretch the meaning of the word talent to really fit them all in. After all, Nishizaki hadn’t really come up with anything memorable since Starblazers, and he seemed to be batshit insane in addition. Sho Aikawa — who I’d like to think is the same Sho Aikawa who would go on to acting fame in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t — may have achieved some degree of respectability with Vampire Princess Miyu, but that was flirtation with respectability, at best, and you have to do much better work if you want to make people forget about you also having written Dog Soldier and Angel Cop. And director Hideki Takayama? Other than becoming the go-to guy for Overfiend sequels and rip-offs, he doesn’t have much to offer. But the fact remains that while they may not have been impressive names, they were still names, and they had some legitimate work under the belt. And The Nish, crazy or not, still had Yamato era clout that helped make his own private exploration of ridiculously grotesque and pornographic extremes more of a high profile release than the average piece of hentai naughtiness.
But whatever respectability the Overfiend saga — and porn aside, it is a saga, complete with a vast and ambitious personal mythology and epic scope — may have squeezed out in Japan is nothing compared to what happened to the thing when it hit the United States. It became a cult phenom that, for a brief time, very nearly rivaled the status of Akira, albeit with a decidedly different tone in those who talked about it. I remember seeing it for the first time in 1990, when a friend who was heavy into trading VHS tapes to get obscure horror films, ended up with a copy on a tape where it shared space with some Japanese porn movie about a woman pursued by a garbage bag containing her murdered husband, and an underground video of some chick performing “hanadensha,” or “pussy arts,” such as blowing up balloons, shooting a dart gun, smoking a cigarette, and, umm, filling herself up with squirming, live eels. Yeah, I really don’t have any excuse whatsoever, other than it was pretty late, and we sure did laugh a lot.
It was just the first episode of Overfiend, fuzzy and with no translation, so all we really knew was that there was a spectacle on the screen the likes of which we’d never really seen, not even in Wicked City. And we weren’t the only ones. Bootleg copies of this “ridiculously screwed up thing from Japan” were circulating like wild fire throughout the cult film underworld, and while many looked on with awe-inspired disgust, that doesn’t change the fact that many looked on, always corrupted by a friend waving a VHS tape and saying, “Dude, you have got to see this!” So many saw it, in fact, that the Overfiend eventually crept into mainstream consciousness and became the poster boy for how hideous and corrupt anime was. Not just porn anime, but all anime. It didn’t matter if it was the gender bending shenanigans of Ranma 1/2, the turgid teen romance of Kigamure Orange Road, or the epic science fiction of Akira. Overfiend, as far as the local newscaster was concerned, embodied them all, and all anime looked like and was as perverse as Urotsukidoji. If only. I might have finished Kigamure Orange Road if that had been the case.
Of course, it’s not like anime was totally innocent of the charges. The 80s were, as we’ve said, pretty packed to the gills with messed up stuff. If anything, The Overfiend was simply the trends of the 1980s taken to their most logical extreme, or as logical as Nishizaki was ever capable of being, and exploding in the final year of that decade with all the gruesome force of the Overfiend’s orgasm blowing some chick’s head off in a messy splash of blood, brains, and semen. It was the last gasp of the twisted, free-for-all of the 1980s. After that, anime settled down, and the porn settled to the bottom of the barrel. In time, when old timers would go back and talk about the seminal movies of the 1980s, they would neglect to mention the most “seminal” of them all. If Urotuskidoji was mentioned, it was usually as an offhanded aside, or a sneering condemnation of how this tasteless abomination ruined anime and made everyone thing anime fans were all a bunch of murderous pervs. Rarely will they mention that, for better or for worse, damn near everyone who watched anime in those days saw it. Rarely will they mention that it was, again for better or for worse, a defining title of the era, and that among other dubious claims to fame, it was the first anime feature (when the OVA episodes were edited together to create a feature film) to be released in both dubbed and subtitled format not just to U.S. home video — but to U.S. movie theaters as well.
The Overfiend gets no respect, and frankly, it doesn’t deserve much. The animation is sometimes hit or miss, occasionally nicely realized, and in some cases bordering on great; the story is scatter-brained; and yes, it’s packed full of misogynistic violence toward women, underaged sex (though the warning at the front of the film swears the high school characters are all over the age of nineteen), and rape that culminates in exploding heads. It’s just not very good. But it does have its moments, and good or not, it played a huge role in defining the formative years of anime, and deserves, if nothing else, to be recognized for its contributions (be there good or ill) and its rightful place in the history of anime. So it was that I decided that, while I wasn’t going to champion the series (I save my Nishizaki championing for Odin), I would at least try to put it in it’s proper context, and I would do so with the help, should they chose to offer it, of the great and mighty torchbearers of celebrating “old school” anime, the Anime World Order podcast. Of course, they’re a podcast, and I’m a written review website, so I don’t know exactly how this collaboration will work out, but that’s all part of the fun.
Of course, as soon as Gerald from the AWO took me up on the offer, I had to figure out exactly how I was going to deal with such a notorious and admittedly irredeemable piece of filth. The Overfiend, I mean, not Gerald. In my younger years, I would have simply indulged in it with reckless abandon, celebrating the filth and the fury with slimy screencaps and interminable gusto. I am older now, and not so prone to adolescent fits of petty offensiveness, but I’m also still not offended by things that are saucy or stupid, or in the case of Urotsukidoji, both saucy and stupid. And in the end, Urotsukidoji is definitely stupider than it is offensive. In fact, I find the whole thing so absurd, so totally ludicrous as to be inoffensive, because seriously, man, how can anyone take this crap seriously? There are much scarier things in the world and much scarier things in the world of anime, and they are called moe and harem shows, but we’ll come to those later.
So in deference to my more sensitive readers who do not share my callous disregard for what you humans call morality, I’ll do my best to exercise some degree of restraint, which may be an odd thing to do in the case of Urotsukidoji — but only just barely, because while I may claim that the purpose of this review is to put this much maligned piece of trash in its rightful place in the pantheon of anime, my real motivation is simply to have a good laugh, which ultimately, is about all you should get from something as completely goofy as the Overfiend.
Our story begins with narration courtesy of a guy who seems to be competing with Tomisaburo Wakiyama as Ogami Ito for the deepest voice in the world. He lays out the basics for us — demon world and human world, one intruding on the other — the usual. And there’s a chosen one who will rise up and cleanse the world and unite us all while demons with six breasts do it doggy style to clue parents in to the fact that they shouldn’t have rented this movie for their kids, even though the kids themselves are no doubt appreciative. Right away Nishizaki clues us in to the fact that there’s not going to be much in the way of originality on display in this story. We then meet the nominal hero of our story, a goofy peeping tom named Nagumo, who alternates his days between peeking in the girls’ locker room and being licked on the cheek by the number one ace hero of the basketball court during some weird Japanese high school sport in which basketball games are accompanied by a girls’ gymnastics routine. Watching everything from up in the rafters is Amano, the new kid at school who no one seems to notice has catlike whiskers. Amano is searching for the titular Overfiend, the super-being foretold by prophecy to be the savior of the world. Amano is pretty convinced that it’s that cheek-licking basketball guy, but Amano’s sexy sister Megumi is convinced that it’s someone else, possibly nerdy perv Nagumo. Either way, once again we see that ancient beings relying on a “chosen one” is always a stupid idea, because the chosen one is always some kind of a chump. Here we get a face-licking basketball star or a masturbating nerd. Nice going, prophecy of old.
When next we meet the brave and noble Nagumo, he is slinking into the school to peep on Ameki, the sweet girl next door on whom he has a crush, and one of the female teachers. When it turns out that the teacher intends to sex up the young student, Nagumo assumes his standard position of peeking in. But when it’s further revealed that the teacher is, in fact, a hideous demonic monster that is going to rape Akemi via a twitching tangle of giant tentacle penises that spurt glowing neon goo, well, Nagumo still just sort of squats there peeping through the crack in the doorway. It’s not until Amano shows up that the sexual assault is halted thanks to some good ol’ magical intervention that results in exploding heads.
The good thing about Legend of the Overfiend is that it doesn’t try to trick you into thinking it’s something it’s not. If you are going to be offended and disgusted by the movie, it makes sure you know that from the very first few minutes. That way, at least you haven’t wasted your time. Pretty much everything that will jam pack the rest of the series running time is put up front for your consideration in this opening scene, so you can’t say Nishizaki didn’t warn you. Personally, as I said before, the whole scenario is so utterly silly and juvenile and presented in such an over-the-top manner that it’s really hard for me to feel offended in any way. I would have loved to have been sitting in on The Nish and his crew when they were writing the story for this absurd exercise in the extreme. Although the story itself is presented in a serious fashion, I can’t imagine anyone taking it the least bit seriously when they were writing it.
But then again, Nishizaki is batshit insane, so who knows? Whatever sexual and psychological hang-ups he and the society in which he lived might have had are certainly laid bare in The Overfiend. There is an obvious fear and lack of understanding in regards to women. Lesbians are all secretly drooling demons who have hidden their giant penises behind a veneer of femininity. And even as they paint a terrified phobia of homosexuality, they fetishize the penis to a degree that would even make Tom of Finland blush. If you are the type to analyze such things, it’s worth noting that The Nish made his millions working on the Yamato series. The original battleship Yamato was a massive World War II ship that was supposed to be the pride and joy of the Japanese people and a symbol of their might. Its construction bankrupted the Japanese military, and during it’s first major combat operation, it was sunk by American airplanes. Still, however, the Yamato is held up by many — mostly men — as a great symbol of pride despite it being a catastrophic failure. More than a few people have said that the Yamato was nothing more than the “big dick” syndrome. Theirs was the biggest and that made them the baddest. Never mind that the thing turned out to be impotent.
So decades later, Nishizaki resurrects the myth of Yamato’s grandeur by creating a cartoon series in which the original ship is recovered from its watery grave and turned into a spaceship that will save humanity. If The Nish had his history straight, then there would have been tremendous fanfare and pomp as the space battle cruiser Yamato was launched. Then it would have been shot down by aliens a few minutes later. But that would have been a pretty lame television series, and since Yamato is one of my favorites, I’m glad Nishizaki didn’t go that route. And ultimately, I reckon championing the old Yamato battleship is no different than any other country championing their lost causes.
Anyway, after Yamato, Nishizaki made a show about a submarine that’s turned into a spaceship — completely different from the Yamato series, right? Anyway, you may notice that Nishizaki — who also happens to be a gun and cannon nut, as well as sporting a fondness for speed boats and big yachts — seems to have a preoccupation with things that are long and cylindrical in shape. And then comes The Overfiend…I’ve never seen Nishizaki naked, and likely never will, so I can’t say what he’s compensating for. However, it’s pretty obvious that the man has built an entire career around his obsession with his own penis. Overfiend is just the most overt example.
Anyway, having established that this movie is going to be an affront to all that is decent and tasteful in the world, Overfiend then goes on to lay out the rest of its plot, which has got to be one of the most complex and sprawling mythologies ever grafted on to cheap animation and porn. Nishizaki may be obsessed with dicks, he may fear and/or hate women, he may be ripping off Wicked City, but no one can say that the man didn’t have vision or put work into the back story of his infamous masterpiece of the grotesque. Spread over the first few episodes of Legend of the Overfiend, we get a story that spans thousands of years and involves everything from depraved captains of industry to Nazi madmen, to peeping tom high school students. As Amano and Megumi continue to try and ferret out the Overfiend — or Chojin — other forces from the demon realm seek to do the same. This includes such demon assassin hits as messing with that basketball guy during his orgy, offering up a giant possessed demon penis that will make the school’s resident nerd ultra-potent and powerful if he chops off his own useless little member and replaces it, and finally sending a wizardy uber-being out to kill Amano. Just when you think Overfiend can’t possibly get any sillier, it finds a way.
Eventually, Nagumo realizes his destiny, but to the horror of Megumi and Amano, it’s not the destiny they expected — and for all that is ridiculous about Overfiend, the final revelation that basically, the people who believed in the prophecy just got it all wrong, is a pretty nice writing touch. The series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts — with Amano shedding his human disguise and attempting to take on the Overfiend himself while vowing to survive the carnage that comes from the inevitable destruction of the world. Unfortunately, the series is never fully resolved. The final two episodes of the OVA end up being post-apocalyptic side stories that don’t really go anywhere, and subsequent sequel series’ were equally pointless. Eventually, the final Urotsukidoji series was just a remake of the first series. If you’ve seen Odin and suffered through its non-ending, then you might pick up that this is sort of a thing for Nishizaki. Unfortunately, Overfiend does not end by randomly cutting to a Loudness music video.
Not all the blame (or credit — whatever) for Urotsukidoji can be laid at the feet of Nishizaki. Urotsukidoji was actually created by manga artist Toshio Maeda in 1986. Maeda was working as a porn manga artist and had gotten bored, he says, with drawing the same mundane crap over and over. He decided that what erotic manga needed was a dash of grotesque fantasy. Blending his erotic manga with a Lovecraft-esque sense of the horrific, Maeda more or less invented the tentacle porn genre — yes, it’s a genre now — with tentacles and nightmarish abstractions of the penis standing in for actual sexual organs as a way to skirt Japanese censorship laws. When Nishizaki seized upon Urotsukidoji as the source for his next masterpiece of anime, Maeda’s position as the father of sick and twisted cartoon porn was cemented. Maeda went on to create several more of the more infamous high-profile hentai titles of the early 1990s, including the terrible Adventure Kid, Demon Beast Invasion, and La Blue Girl. Maeda is infinitely proud of his legacy and has reportedly even said that he wants “Tentacle Master” inscribed on his tombstone. Urotsukidoji remain his defining “masterpiece.”
You know, Urotsukidoji is an absolute mess. Although the high concept is interesting and intricate, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. And it’s still largely just a pornographic rip-off of Wicked City with a bit of Akira thrown in (the scene in which the Overfiend comes full into power and decides to destroy the world is very reminiscent of the finale of Akira). It draws from the same Lovecraftian/H.R. Giger vision of horror as Wicked City. The characters are ridiculous — after being raped in every orifice by a teacher who turns into a slobbering monster, Akemi shows up for school the next day and is basically no more freaked out than, “Boy, that sure was weird.” Nagumo is completely impossible to like as a character. I guess the story is ultimately about Amano and, to a lesser degree, Megumi, which is OK since Amano is the only halfways decently developed character in the whole thing. The animation is often incredibly cheap, with limited motion in most scenes. Effort seems to have been put into the big battles and the demon rape, but that’s about it.
But for someone as awful as me, there’s a perverse enjoyment to be extracted from the nonsense. For one, I admire the ambition of the story. Most of the tentacle porn that would follow in the footsteps of Urotsukidoji was incredibly weak — basically, they would say, “There’s a demon world, and they rape humans and some people fight them,” and leave it at that, knowing that the ultimate goal of their little film is to get some lonely perv off, and he’s probably not even going to listen to the plot. That wasn’t good enough for Nishizaki. The man had created an expansive universe for Yamato, and even for Odin, and he saw no reason that Urotsukidoji shouldn’t enjoy the same epic mythology. Never mind that it was an endless parade of filthy porn and callous rape; he was still going to weave a monstrously complex tapestry to serve as the backdrop Also, as cheap as the animation is in most scenes, one does have to admire the imagination that went into the monster design. There are, after all, a lot of monsters in Urotsukidoji, and no two of them look alike. From hulking wolfman-like monsters to grotesque toadmen that dress like Humphrey Bogart, the sheer number of drooling ghouls the art team dreamed up is fascinating. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all about the giant screaming (sometimes literally) cock, but still, points for wickedly sick imagination.
Finally, there’s the finale. Although it leaves almost all of the plot threads dangling and is a weak resolution to the story as a whole, the scenes of mass destruction and carnage as the fury of the Chojin and the whole demon world is unleashed on earth are pretty impressive. They obviously cut costs on the rest of the series so they could deliver on the finale, and at least in that respect, Urotsukidoji doesn’t disappoint.
But it’s still pretty foul. I wouldn’t really recommend it, although I was just as enthusiastic in the old days about convincing unsuspecting friends that they should watch it. But there is something grotesquely fascinating about the whole artistic abomination. The incredible insanity and over-the-top spectacle of it all trumps the nasty misogynistic edge and juvenile penis-obsession and really transforms Urotsukidoji into a sleazy carnival sideshow. You hate yourself for looking, but you can’t turn away. It’s that car wreck everyone slows down to gawk at. As wretched as it may be, it has a strangely hypnotic power that can draw even decent people into its world of laughing demons and spurting bodily fluids.
It might be worth watching just so you can see the cast list for the English dub. Apparently, whoever worked on it was a little embarrassed, so the English cast list includes names like Chris Courage, Rebel Joy, Rosie Palmer, and my two personal favorites, Lucy Morales and Jurgen Offen. I would assume that the use of such names is perfectly in tune with Nishizaki’s high school locker room level of discourse. The dubbing was done primarily for the theatrical cut of the film, which combined the first few OVA episodes into one film and cut out all the scenes of actual penetration. The Japanese cast (most of whom elected to have their names left out of the credits) actually includes a lot of experienced actors, including a lot of people The Nish roped in off the Yamato series and other Leiji Masumoto works. Tomohiro Nishimura, who voices Amano, even worked on My Neighbor Totoro! It’s sort of reminds me of all the respectable actors who showed up in Caligula.
If you are interested in the history and evolution of anime, you can’t help but pay attention to it. The dang thing played in American movie theaters, for criminey’s sake! Newspaper and TV reporters held it up as the sole defining example of “anime,” resulting in crusades to have anime banned and all anime fans branded as slobbering perverts, while at the same time, apologists tied themselves in knots trying to write pieces that deconstructed and analyzed the film and trumpeted its artistic merits (it’s a cautionary tale about teenage pregnancy or a cautionary tale against blind faith, depending on who’s writing the analysis). It was an absolute fiasco, and if nothing else, I always enjoy a good fiasco. As alarmist and shocked as the reaction in the U.S. was, it was even more sensational in England. In the U.K., things were a little more serious. Urotsukidoji practically destroyed the anime market in England, which was only just coming off the high of its infamous Video Nasties years. It took a long time before anime fandom in the U.K. could rebuild itself. Like its titular character, Urotsukidoji destroyed the world so it could rebuild a new and better one in its place. But the fact that it gutted the industry and made anime so incredibly difficult to obtain for many people might be the main reason, far more so than the actual pervy content of the series, so many people harbor a lingering distaste for this anime atrocity.
For me, personally, it didn’t make much of a difference. I didn’t suffer any of the “anime is all porn and anime fans are all perverts” stigma because, frankly, no one at my high school even know what anime was or was in any position to even hear about Overfiend or anime. everyone in Buckner, Kentucky, was too committed to the new Bocephus album at the time. So I have a much better sense of humor about this series than many other people who did get branded as freaks on account of it may have — even if they were Miyazaki fans and had never seen Overfiend. I mean, hell, as far as anyone I knew was concerned, if you were watching cartoons, period, you were just a nerd.
At the end of the day, Urotsukidoji is all those things and more — and less. It is filth. It is irredeemable. It does have artistic merit. It lacks artistic merit. It is shameless and offensive. It is ridiculous and harmless. It was the logical illogical extreme and the culmination of the increasingly outrageous nature of anime in the 1980s. You should avoid it like the plague. You should absolutely see it.
There’s really no way to make sense of the controversy and jungle of opinions surrounding the series. At the end of the day, you really just have to see for yourself. Me, I think it’s mildly entertaining in spots and ultimately harmless. In fact, as outrageous as the porn aspects of Urotsukidoji may be, when held up against certain aspects of the modern anime landscape, it seems to be little more than goofy doodling — quaint, almost, perhaps even innocent. And that’s because everything is presents is so preposterous that it can’t be taken seriously or really looked at as a corrupting agent. No one is going to go out and mimic the Chojin, after all. Compare that to something like the modern moe or harem show — things that may not feature a giant demon raping a woman and making her body explode with his semen, but instead paint a world where an unlikable loser with no redeeming qualities never the less finds himself in control of a group of slavishly devoted women who worship him like a god. Or moe, in which female characters are so overly precious and innocent and doe-eyed and pre-pubescent that the whole thing reeks of child pornography. These types of shows are far more insidious and perverse than the flashy, over-the-top idiocy of Urotsukidoji. They often appeal to a segment of the population that really does relate in some way to the lead male character and really does let the portrayal of women and little girls affect their opinions of the real world. I don’t see Urotsukidoji operating in quite the same fashion.
So yeah. Whatever man. Urotsukidoji is the tawdry piece of pornographic trash you’ve heard it is; it’s also not all that fiendish or corrupting. It’s just silly. But it is a major milestone in the history of anime, so if you are the type who needs or wants to understand the evolution of anime, then you pretty much have to deal with Urotsukidoji. It’s really not as painful as you think it might be. I mean, I wouldn’t watch it with my parents or invite a date over to watch it, but come on: it’s so loopy, so genuinely cracked in the head, and so unabashedly over-the-top, and so epic and ambitious that it really stops being offensive porn and starts being nothing more than a laughable freak show. And it does try to be something more than cheap porn. It tries to be really lavish, complex porn. Earlier, I made a passing reference to Caligula. Overfiend is definitely the Caligula of anime — fitting, even, since both films were funded with Penthouse money. They both contain about the same degree of perversion an twisted grotesquery (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word — but it is now!).
Release Year: 1989 | Country: Japan | Starring: Yasunori Matsumoto, Koichi Yamadera, Yoko Asagami, Daisuke Gori, Tomohiro Nishimura, Maya Okamoto, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Yumi Takada, Norio Wakamoto | Writer: Sho Aikawa | Director: Hideki Takayama | Music: Masamichi Amano | Producer: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Yasuhito Yamaki | Original Title: Chojin densetsu Urotsukidoji
Things in the Japanese film industry were chugging along during the 1960s. The gradual erosion of restrictive post-war regulation of the Japanese film industry by occupying American forces (samurai and yakuza flicks were banned, as was just about anything that would “inspire the Japanese spirit”) meant that writers and directors were coming out of a long creative hibernation and finally getting to flex their brains again. Inoshiro Honda and Toho Studios were cranking out a steady stream of highly enjoyable fantasy, science fiction, and monster movies built on the foundation of the enduring success of Godzilla. Akira Kurosawa was making movies that no one would watch until Americans started discovering them in the 1970s. Takakura Ken and Akira Takarada were burning up screens as Japan’s two biggest matinee idols. Japan had yet to befoul the world by making M.D. Geist. All in all, not a bad time to be a film fan.
If I say “post apocalypse film,” then chances are, one of two things will pop into your mind. If you are my age or younger, or slightly older for that matter but not by much, then it’s entirely likely you’ll immediately picture Road Warrior and its many imitators often of an Italian origin. Pink mohawked men running wild in the desert atop supped up dune buggies while a stoic hero in leather mumbles and saves some band of peaceful folk trying to re-establish civilization. If you’re older, or more in tune with the length and breadth of exploitation film, then you might also drum up less-than-fond memories of those old 1950s atomic paranoia films, or the more interesting sci-fi films set after such a war had devastated the world and left it populated by nothing but nubile, sexy young women and virile, two-fisted scientists from the 20th century.
What you won’t think of, I’m willing to bet, is a gritty Japanese yakuza film set in the years immediately after the end of World War II, but that’s exactly what Battles Without Honor and Humanity can be construed as. It is, after all, taking place in the wake of the one atomic war we’ve actually had, and you can’t get more post-apocalyptic than Nagasaki or Hiroshima after the Bomb. And while you may not, thankfully, spy any pink-haired men in assless leather pants or bodybuilders in a Quiet Riot mask imploring a bunch of people in shoulder pads and burlap sacks to, “just walk away,” and while there may be no rolling deserts in sight, there are roving gangs of hooligans in leather jackets wreaking havoc on the innocent. The only real difference is that in the postwar chaos of Hiroshima, no hero emerges to defend the honor of the downtrodden. Everyone is too desperate, too defeated, too decimated to worry about heroism or honor – a state that seems foreign and inconceivable in a nation preoccupied with such notions. Here the hooligans are no better off than the citizens, and everyone is wracked by a panicky confusion that manifests itself either as defeatism or rage. This being a yakuza film, we’ll focus on the group of people who react with rage.
But if this is a post-apocalypse film of a different color, it is also a yakuza film quite unlike most anything that had come before it, and that difference stems entirely from the challenges facing postwar Japan, when survival suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more important than honor. Honor was paramount as a theme in yakuza films. Always there is the righteous gangster with an impeccable sense of honor and loyalty who stands in stark contrast to his foil, who will inevitably be the yakuza or samurai who has turned his back on “the code.” Even among thieves, there is still honor. Maverick director Kenji Fukasaku, however, would put an abrupt and bloody end to the classically romantic notion of the honorable gangster. After all, it is and always has been a load of crap. But no number of backstabbers, internal wars, hits, or squealers ratting out their fellow gangsters to the police seemed able to tarnish this idea of honor bound warriors abiding by a code of fair play, loyalty, and decency.
Fukasaku’s films sought to debunk this myth by portraying the yakuza as what gangsters and criminals often were – petty, vindictive, deceitful, and ready to exploit any vice if it’ll increase their power or the size of their bank account. He never dismissed the notions or any of the other conventions that were expected of the yakuza film as set down by the great icon Takakura Ken, who starred in dozens of post-war yakuza films that all seem to start with him being released from prison. Fukasaku knows the genre inside and out, and he makes sure he includes each of the clichés – the main character fresh out of prison, notions of honor, someone cutting off a pinky, so on and so forth; Once they’re in there, however, he twists them around wildly and turns them inside out in a way that hadn’t been done since yakuza genre deconstruction got its start under Seijun Suzuki in films like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. At the same time, however, he hasn’t set out to simply make a movie full of seedy characters in sunglasses shooting each other and selling drugs to little kids. At the center of it all is the motivation, the reason, these men have abandoned honor, and that is the war.
It all comes from a long lineage and the yakuza film’s peculiar position as one of the true Japanese cult genres. Samurai films were obviously Japanese, but they were also easily adaptable to other genres – as a good many Western has proved. And although they had in them the ideals of honor and loyalty, there were also swashbuckling sword films that could be, at least on the surface, translated into any number of other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy. Yakuza films, on the other hand, are often so obsessed with the esoterica, Japanese tradition, secret codes, handshakes, and minutiae of their subject matter that it can’t be repeated without losing almost all its meaning. Strip it away, and you just have another gangster films, and while yakuza films were, on the surface, gangster films, they were also something quite different. There aren’t very many action-oriented shoot-em-ups in the yakuza genre. Most of them are fairly slow-moving, and that’s because most of them aren’t about the crime as much as they are about the criminals and the counter-culture they inhabit. A yakuza film without it isn’t a yakuza film; it’s just an action film. At their core and below the violence and gruff men shouting at each other, these are movies about a culture with roots stretching as far back as the Tokugawa Shogunate that first unified Japan and introduced to it a whole class of disenfranchised wandering samurai, or ronin, who basically lost their jobs when the petty warlords and regional masters become obsolete under the one government, one country system.
Suddenly, and in a way that eerily mirrors the post-bubble Japan of the early 21st century, these men who thought they’d been guaranteed jobs for life as noble samurai were out on the streets with nowhere to go and no one in need of their skills. Bands of ronin started forming their own societies, some acting almost like local police defending villages from marauders and greedy officials (like the chaps in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), others acting like local thugs. These bands of ronin eventually became known by the name yakuza – Japanese for the unlucky 8-9-3 combo in dice gambling that means you just lost. The early yakuza films dealt primarily with these historic and usually heroic samurai. 1927’s Chuji’s Travel Diary was the first of the bunch, but others quickly fell in and began writing the rules by which the genre would play. After World War II, however, yakuza films were more or less banned under the thinking that, to keep the Japanese from standing up to fight again, you had to strip them completely of their dignity and take away anything that might showcase that famous fighting spirit. Hey, it was MacAurthur’s idea, not mine.
The result, of course, was the desperation we see in the beginning of Battles Without Honor and Humanity. When we first meet our rowdy bunch of central characters – and there are a lot of them, with plenty more on the way, so you better keep a flow chart handy – they are bitter hustlers trying to stay alive in the turmoil and madness of post-bomb Hiroshima. Ostensibly, our main character is a young hustler named Shozo, played by yakuza film staple Bunta Sugawara. Sugawara became one of the most recognizable and beloved faces in the yakuza films of the 1970s, thanks in large part to his partnership with director Kenji Fukasaku. Shozo and his mates live in a world without a future. They’ve just survived the most horrific single attack man has ever seen (and no, I’m making a pro- or anti-atomic bomb statement there – I think proponents and opponents of dropping the bomb on Japan can agree at least on the fact that it was a pretty big deal), and in the aftermath, they find themselves at the mercy of an occupying force determined (so the story goes) to strip them entirely of what little dignity they may still retain. In such an atmosphere, honor and humanity was a distant consideration to simply staking out a claim, and if the myth of the yakuza code had ever been real, it was certainly killed in the atomic blasts.
When, in 1951, the Japanese regained much of their freedom as a nation, period films were back in action, but most of these were samurai films. They were the best way for the Japanese to recapture their lost glory and start to rebuild a sense of self-worth. Honor, nobility, self-respect – these were the things that made the samurai movie tick. And loyalty – loyalty was essential, both to the samurai and to the mid-century Japanese who were trying to forge a new nation and establish a new government unlike any they’d had before. The era of shoguns and emperors had given way to the Japanese Diet, or parliament, and democracy.
If there weren’t many yakuza on the screen, then it was compensated for by the fact that so many of them were involved behind the scenes. Bored with turf wars among themselves and with the Chinese and Korean minorities who formed their own gangs, the postwar hooligans saw money to be made in the newly revitalized Japanese film industry. Many of them became involved as scouts, producers, and a few even became studio heads. Eventually, of course, yakuza films started creeping back onto screens, this time set primarily during the period of rapid modernization just prior to World War II and involving a heroic gangster usually stubbornly clinging to traditional Japanese clothing facing off against corrupt gangsters who had usually sold out and started wearing Western style suits – very similar to what we’d see again in the 1970s when Hong Kong kungfu films invariably featured a guy in that traditional Chinese shirt and pants and slippers kicking the crap out of a bunch of thugs in bell bottoms and those Little Rascal caps.
When the yakuza films started toying with a more modern, post-war setting, the films were still richly melodramatic and steeped in nostalgia for the old ways. Takakura Ken became the poster boy for the new yakuza film and starred in more than a sane person would want to count. By the end of the 1960s, the social upheaval that was engulfing much of the world was just as strong in Japan as anywhere else, and people weren’t buying these sentimental doomed heroes bound by codes of honor and love. Seijun Suzuki had started messing with the truisms of the yakuza film, but his wild pop-art experiments were more a rebellion against assembly line, characterless filmmaking than they were against the yakuza genre itself. The real hit on honor-heavy yakuza films came in 1967 with the release of Junya Sato’s Organized Violence starring Tetsuro Tanba (best known to Western audiences as Tiger Tanaka from the James Bond film You Only Twice) and Sonny Chiba. In 1973, Kinji Fukasaku upped the ante with Battles Without Honor and Humanity, a cutthroat, unflinching, and decidedly unromantic look at the world of post-war gangs in Japan.
At the center of the maelstrom is Bunta Sugawara, a former matinee idol turned iconic bad boy and sporting a severe flattop and all-around stern, militaristic look. After striking back at some rowdy American GIs, typically portrayed as loud-mouthed, swaggering, and ready to beat up or rape anyone in sight, Bunta’s Shozo goes to prison, where he becomes blood brothers with another inmate, Hiroshi, played by Tatsuo Umemiya. When he gets out, Shozo is taken under the wing of the boss of Yamagumi Gang, but he quickly learns that the yakuza world is not as it was, if it was ever that way in the first place. His boss is a coward, ready to backstab at the drop of a hat, and equally ready to cower and sob if he can’t get a sucker punch in. Shozo is bewildered by the array of gangsters all fighting amongst themselves and jockeying for political alliances and territorial gains. It gets to the point where so many players are introduced and so many loyalties switch back and forth that it soon becomes impossible for the viewer to keep everything straight – which is precisely the effect Fukasaku is going for, as it mirrors perfectly the feelings of the confused and frustrated Shozo, who wanders through this madness in a half-dazed state, harboring still some notion of loyalty and honor that manages, paradoxically, to both make him the center of attention and marginalize him completely, to keep him in the crosshairs but also safer than most. When an old friend makes a dramatic power play, Shozo is caught between him and his old boss, who is hardly worthy of Shozo’s continuing loyalty.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity was based on a book by journalist Koichi Iiboshi chronicling the history of the real life Mino gang. As such, the film rings especially factual in its documentation of dirty yakuza life, playing at times almost like a series of yakuza home movies. The film is brutally violent but not action-packed. The drama between the character, and the stripping away of every lofty romanticized delusion regarding the yakuza and the yakuza film are the film’s primary weapons. When the violence does come, it is fast, ugly, and street-style. You’ll see no white-clad gangsters with two guns leaping through the air in balletic slow motion. Instead, there is only sweating, grunting, screaming, and blood. Fukasaku employs a lot of street-level hand-held cameras – something that was in vogue at Toei Studios, owing mostly to the fact that they were cheap, easy to use, and resulted in faster shooting schedules. The effect was often detrimental to the film, as in many of the Sonny Chiba karate flicks whose action was undermined by blurry, shaky handheld camera work. Here, however, it serves to throw you into the thick of the action and further confuse you and make you relate to Shozo and makes the movie feel even more like a piece of guerrilla documentary filmmaking.
Although the sheer number of characters keeps you from ever becoming too emotionally attached to any one person, Shozo included, it’s still an emotionally engaging film. It’s the entirety of the situation that pulls you in, the mere act of watching these people pull themselves – and ultimately, their entire country – out of the ashes only to self-destruct once the hard part was over. It’s a common occurrence that continues to play itself out on a daily basis. It’s easy to find unity when there is a common struggle, but once the struggle has been surmounted, once the battle has been won, people find it’s even harder for them to hold things together. The experiences in the desolation of Hiroshima pulled these men together, and the increasingly secure and prosperous times that followed tore them apart. The peace, as they say, is always harder to keep than to win. Compare these post-war yakuza, then, to something like the criminal gangs and militias of Chechnya. Like the yakuza, they banded together against a common enemy, in this case the Russian army and the utter ruin visited upon the country of Chechnya.
Like Hiroshima after the bomb, Chechnya has been reduced almost to ashes, its infrastructure shattered, its people hopeless and angry, and its future even bleaker than that of Japan at the close of World War II. Gangsters became politicians became resistance fighters and military heroes, and after years of bitter struggle the inhumanity of which may be unparalleled in the 20th Century, even by the standards set by such atrocities exhibitions as Sierra Leone and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the Russians finally withdrew, claiming a bogus victory in the war and leaving the Chechens with a wasteland to rebuild. Unfortunately, the men who proved so valiant, fearless, and admittedly bloodthirsty and brutal in (and out of) combat could not rebuild the nation they defended. The war had been their element, but peace and rebuilding proved too much. In the end, at least for Chechnya, it didn’t matter, since as soon as Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, he made a point of resuming hostilities with a shocking ferocity that should leave the world aghast if the world ever bothered to pay attention to some bunch of mountain rabble with ties to fundamentalist Islam. The bitter cold of the Caucasus Mountains seems an odd place for jihad, accustomed as we are to seeing it played out on the sands of the Middle East. But then that whole area where the Middle East collides with Europe and Asia is a fascinating, confusing, and endlessly tumultuous corner of the world that few people seem to understand or take much interest in.
That nations are often built on the backs and from the sweat and blood of criminals is a frequent theme in history, and indeed most human history is little more that a chronicle of criminal acts committed in the name of god, king, and country. Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York sought to examine that very piece of the history of New York in particular and the United States as a whole, as did Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather before it. Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity does the same for Japan, and later entries into the series would trace the development even further, going so far as to make the claim, perhaps not outrageously, that much of Japan’s emergence as a global economic power is the result of the machinations of driven but corrupt criminal gangs. For the first entry in the series, we see simply their emergence from the war and subsequent failure to work cohesively without the immediate threat of US occupation. Left to their own devices, boredom sets in and brings with it violent internal conflict and turf wars. They were born of chaos and need chaos to survive. If there is no external threat to unite them, after all, then they will create an internal one to rip themselves to shreds.
Fukasaku’s film is not completely devoid of the yakuza genre trappings; it simply presents them so that it can dispel them. Indeed the beginning, in which Shozo is sent to prison and we meet him again as he is released after some brief scenes while incarcerated, could be the opening to any of a number of Takakura Ken films. The only difference is that there is very little in the way of nobility to any of it. Takakura Ken was always a majestic figure who radiated righteousness and honor even as a criminal. He was strong, confident, and trustworthy. Bunta Sugawara, however, plays his part with a sullen shiftiness. He never radiates confidence of nobility as much as he does awkward discomfort and confusion. Both actors and characters steep themselves in the melancholy, however, and Bunta’s Shozo might ultimately be what one of Takakura Ken’s yakuza figures would be like if he came out of prison and was faced with the ream world of organized crime, where men hardened by the experience of the war had little use for outdated romantic notions of the noble yakuza.
Fukasaku plays with other genre conventions as well. The obligatory pinky-chopping scene (chopping off a finger being the traditional way to atone for some offensive transgression of the code in the yakuza world) is played for laughs on an almost slapstick scale. Shozo, like Takakura Ken’s many yakuza characters, leaves prison to find the world is not as he left it, but rather than standing in stark contrast to it like one of Ken’s Walking Tall-esque gangsters, Shozo becomes a participant in it, maybe not as active as others, but a participant none the less. And no, he won’t be making any moving or eloquent speeches. If Takakura Ken was the Elvis of the yakuza film, then watching Bunta Sugawara must have been like The King seeing The Beatles for the first time.
By the time the final shots are fired and the groundwork is laid for future films, the viewer is exhausted, physically and emotionally, partly from the not-so-simple task of trying to keep straight all the betrayals and factions that come into play in this battle between the Doi and Yamagumi gangs. Besides Shozo, who is relegated almost to the role of spectator, there are very few people for whom to root, no honorable yakuza. There are only backstabbers, petulant childlike bosses, and the occasional visionary who wants to run the yakuza like a corporation and reap huge profits as a result – the road that would eventually win out, as it was. Bunta Sugawara remains, through it all, a solid presence with a deadly gaze. In effect, he’s seeing things the same as we see them and is just as confounded by it all. His performance is one of subtlety, which is often how people try to describe a bad performance they don’t want to call bad. Chuck Norris, for instance, is more bad than he subtle. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, was subtle and deadly good at it. Bunta is more Clint.
If the film has any weakness, it’s in some of the period costumes. The film is set in the 1940s and early 1950s, but some of the cars and fashions on display are without a doubt early 1970s. It’s a good idea not to sweat a detail like that. Kinji isn’t Akira Kurosawa after all, who demanded that whole sets on Tora! Tora! Tora! be destroyed and rebuilt because the shade of paint on the battleship wasn’t historically accurate. That might be why Akira Kurosawa was replaced on that film by.hey, Kinji Fukasaku! So just let the big collars and ’70s shades slide. The film is trying to accurately dissect the yakuza, not the fashion trends that surrounded them.
Battles Without Honor and Humanity is a demanding film, especially for audiences who don’t speak Japanese or aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the yakuza genre. People looking for knockdown, wall-to-wall action are going to be disappointed. The action here come sin spurts and is ugly, unchoreographed, and very real. First and foremost this is a drama and a societal study, a philosophical film but stripped of lyricism and poetry. It is more like the streetwise wisdom delivered by some old crank. After all, you don’t sit down to watch Goodfellas or Miller’s Crossing for the action scenes. This is crime drama, and as crime drama and modern day film noir, it’s complex and engaging on multiple levels and remains one of the best and most unconventional yakuza films around. It does require a lot of the viewer, but then most good films do. Unlike many films in the crime genre, it can’t be enjoyed on a purely popcorn level. It’s not one of those movies where you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. You have to actively engage it and work at it, and even then it’s the film’s point that sometimes you’re going to be lost, just like Shozo.
If you aren’t interested in the yakuza as a social phenomenon or cultural study and not just as an action movie cliche, then Battles Without Honor and Humanity won’t do much for you. Not that the movie is dull or lacking in action, but it’ll seem that way if you were expecting something more.modern, I suppose. Guys in sharp suits posing and doing Hong Kong style kungfu fights, that sort of thing. Even contemporary Japanese audiences don’t seem that interested or able to grasp what a film like Battles Without Honor and Humanity was attempting to accomplish. This is a completely brilliant film, and like most brilliant films, it just isn’t dumb enough for some people.
It was a major hit at the time and made Kinji Fukasaku’s career. It’s odd that until the release of Battle Royale, the director was best known in the West for the movies that least defined his oeuvre. Sci-fi quickies like The Green Slime were hardly Fukasaku’s calling card, but since the yakuza films, and especially the kind of yakuza films Fukasaku was making, were and to some degree still are fairly inaccessible to most audiences, it’s Green Slime and Message for Space for Kinji. Or at least it was until, as an aged man with failing health and nothing to lose, he set Japan — and this time a good portion of the rest of the world — afire again with Battle Royale, another movie that seeks at its heart to pick away at Japan’s notion of itself as an orderly and honorable country in much the same way a chicken in Battles Without Honor and Humanity picked away at the dismembered pinky of a disgraced yakuza.
Films like this would later become some of the most popular films among real-life yakuza, who would gather in old theaters and watch them and pine for the days when crime was nasty and tough and violent instead of white-collar and dull and corporate. It probably has a lot to do with films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity being so grounded in the reality of the situation and with the fact that many of them involved real gangsters. Heck, Noboru Ando was a real life yakuza who eventually starred as himself in a series of more or less autobiographical film adventures about his seedy life. It’s the ultimate irony that these guys would get nostalgic for a type of film that made a point of dismantling nostalgia, romantic for a film that strove to strip away any notions of romanticism from its subject matter. It’s also a sign that when Kinji Fukasaku made this film, he was doing more than making a film; he was documenting an entire culture and way of life.