It’s customary (and a tad predictable) at this point for me to preface any review of an older anime title with some rose-tinted reflection on how it was in “the old days,” when we were trading VHS tapes by U.S. mail and had but a smattering of titles available for rent or purchase here in the United States. So let’s skip that part, since as fun as it is to drag those hoary old chestnuts out into the realm of public discourse yet again, the truth of the matter is it was never very much fun when we all had to do it. Nostalgia for “a simpler time” aside, I really don’t miss running off tapes on clunky old VCRs, waiting in disorganized lines at the overcrowded post office, then hoping that the virtual stranger at the other end of the transaction actually receives the package and, even more importantly, actually gets around to reciprocating. And then you finally have your own copy of whatever it was you were trading for, complete with shaky quality and occasional tracking problems.
Ever since his rediscovery, it seems like Seijun Suzuki has had the term “Maverick Director” permanently affixed to his name like some kind of mandatory honorific. However, given the rigidity of the Japanese studio system within which he spent his peak years, Suzuki never would have had the opportunity to achieve that maverick status had he not at some point been able to tow the line and deliver the straightforward genre pictures that he had been hired to create. That he was capable of doing that and then some is more than amply demonstrated by Underworld Beauty, an outstanding little noir programmer that he directed during his early years at Nikkatsu.
In recent days I’ve been pouring over Jasper Sharp’s just published history of Japanese sex cinema, Behind the Pink Curtain — certainly for the purpose of broadening my world cinema knowledge, but mainly because I really, really want to understand the way that sex is presented in the Japanese movies I watch. And right now, to be honest, I really, really don’t. I sometimes suspect that we — in this case meaning “we Americans” — are more to blame for this than the Japanese, that the overwhelming impression of Japanese films as dealing with eros only in its darkest and most perverse manifestations is the result of us yanks, in our eagerness to point a mocking finger at “those crazy Japanese”, focusing only on those films that enable us to do so.
As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004’s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00’s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.
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.