Hasegawa Akio anxiously eyes Wakao Ayako’s killer tat. Courtesy Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.
Hasegawa Akio anxiously eyes Wakao Ayako’s killer tat. Courtesy Kadokawa Pictures, Inc.

Inspired by the revolutionary climate of the ’60s and ’70s, young filmmakers sought to reshape Japanese society by challenging women’s traditional roles. In a beguiling body of films, three actresses—Kaji Meiko, Okada Mariko, and Wakao Ayako—flouted prevailing screen stereotypes of chaste, submissive, and self-sacrificing women. Mad, Bad… & Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties, a recent series at the Japan Society, highlighted 13 films featuring these atypical stars, and provided an opportunity to view rarely-screened works by two remarkable, underappreciated auteurs: Yoshida Kiju and Masumura Yasuzo.

Kaji Meiko smolders as Matsu, better known as “Sasori” (Scorpion), in the legendary pinky violent (soft-core eroticism plus violent action) series, Female Convict Scorpion. Wrongfully imprisoned, Kaji inflicts bloody vengeance on a slew of betraying boyfriends, sadistic wardens, and corrupt politicians. Her stoic demeanor—she barely utters a word throughout the entire series—and trademark glare exude righteous anger and deadly menace. Ito Shunya’s Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41 (1972), the acme of the franchise, proves a fascinating mixture of exploitation, surrealism, and social commentary. Introduced shackled in the dark depths of her cell, bathed in eerie blue light, Matsu, scraping a spoon she holds in her mouth against the floor, files it down to a sharp spike. Blasted with a fire hose by the sadistic head warden, she’s dragged off to join her fellow prisoners for a visit by a government bigwig. Straight away, Matsu lunges at the evil warden with her makeshift weapon, shattering his glasses and nearly gouging out his eye (in the first episode, 1972’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, Sasori took out his other eye). The film’s frequent assaults on male scopophilia comment on and critique the genre’s requisite misogyny. Additionally, Kaji defiantly stares directly at the camera, implicating and reproaching the audience’s voyeurism.

Largely eschewing genre clichés, the film spends little time inside prison walls, focusing instead on the escapee’s journey through a bizarre series of hallucinatory encounters and primordial landscapes. Dressed in black cassocks, the convicts enter a deserted town half-buried under volcanic ash, where they encounter a mysterious old woman. In a stylized sequence that evokes pop art and Kabuki theater, the ghostly woman, lit in violet, relates the convict’s battered pasts, blaming their misfortunes and crimes squarely on the patriarchal order. Indeed, the men in this universe are uniformly venal, forming a grotesque gallery of cowards, criminals, and sadists. A boisterous busload of vacationing salarymen grope their bubbly guide while reminiscing about the fun they had raping women in China during the war. The savage satire directed at bourgeois society brings to mind Godard’s Weekend or Pasolini’s Porcile. Ito’s eye-popping compositions and expressionist use of color evoke a Technicolor comic strip. In a patently artificial autumnal forest, the old woman hands the knife she’s been clutching fervently to Matsu, as flame-orange leaves caught in a supernatural windstorm swirl around her. The scene unveils Sasori’s elemental, mystical nature, and attains a delirious, oneiric poetry. French film critic, Serge Daney once wrote that the most beautiful films are the ones that leave you wondering whether you dreamt them.

Okada Mariko adopts a subtler form of rebellion. A pristine beauty, Okada excels at maintaining a placid exterior while projecting inner anguish. After becoming a huge star at Shochiku, she left the studio to form an independent production company with her New Waver husband Yoshida Kiju. Together, they collaborated on an extraordinary series of arty “anti-melodramas” in which Okada usually portrays a despairing upper middle-class wife torn between societal obligations and a quest for self-fulfillment. In The Affair (Joen, 1967), Oriko (Okada) finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to a business executive. Appalled by her mother’s decadent ways and affairs with younger men, Oriko disavows her own sexuality. Yet, her sensuality rekindles after she spies her slumming sister-in-law having sex with a laborer. In a hypnotic sequence, Oriko, kimono-clad, traverses a forest at night like a sleepwalker and surprises the stranger in his shadowy hovel. A handheld camera circles the couple at close range as they pursue each other through the dilapidated interior, bobbing in and out of pools of light and dark. Evoking Bergman and Antonioni, Yoshida’s stark black-and-white compositions accentuate the pervasive alienation and sterility. He finds inventive ways to divide the screen, creating frames within frames that entrap and isolate his characters. In one shot, Yoshida makes the emotional gulf between Oriko and her mother palpable by placing a shoji screen between them and positioning them at opposite ends of the CinemaScope frame. Startling cuts and odd angles produce a disorienting sense of space. Filming characters through gauzy fabrics, curtains, and bamboo trees, Yoshida often obscures their faces. Through such avant-garde techniques, he limns a world of blurred identities, mirroring Oriko’s hazy sense of self.

Revenge is bloody and sweet. Kaji Meiko in Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Courtesy Toei Co., Ltd.
Revenge is bloody and sweet. Kaji Meiko in Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Courtesy Toei Co., Ltd.

After studying at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome with the likes of Fellini and Antonioni, Masumura Yasuzo returned intent on subverting mainstream Japanese cinema. “My goal,” Masumura wrote, “is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and passions of living human beings. In Japanese society, which is essentially regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist.” Consequently, Masumura celebrates obsessive desire even when it leads his doomed protagonists to madness or death. Sexual transgression becomes an expression of revolutionary politics. His call-to-arms paved the way for filmmakers like Oshima Nagisa, who credited Masumura’s early films with jump-starting the Japanese New Wave. Unlike Kaji and Okada, Masumura’s muse, the versatile Wakao Ayako, disappears into her roles. In Tattoo (Irezumi, 1966), based on a celebrated Tanizaki tale, she plays a wealthy pawnbroker’s daughter sold into the geisha world against her will. After a tattoo artist etches his masterpiece—a fearsome black spider—on her back, she avenges herself on all men she encounters. Does the tattoo represent her inner essence? Or has it taken possession of her? Shot by legendary cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo (Rashomon, Ugetsu), every frame resembles a vibrant ukiyo-e print. Both sympathetic and cruel, the sensuous Wakao ignites the screen. Yet, I find her performance in Red Angel (Akai Tenshi, 1966) even more spellbinding.

Set in Manchuria during the Sino-Japanese War in a frontline hospital, Red Angel plays like a collaboration between Samuel Fuller and Luis Buñuel. Opening with a series of combat photos culminating in a mound of skulls, the film unflinchingly portrays war’s physical and psychological devastation. Lacking antibiotics, amputation is the most common treatment for even minor wounds, and limbs pile up grotesquely in buckets. Through such images, Masumura conveys war’s gruesome senselessness. An idealistic young nurse, Sakura Nishi (Wakao), enters this nightmarish setting. Early on, a sex-starved private rapes her while his fellow soldiers cheer him on. She later attempts to save her tormentor’s life by convincing the head surgeon to give him a blood transfusion (a privilege usually reserved for officers), but he dies during the procedure. She bestows sexual favors on a frustrated double amputee—allowing him to place his foot between her thighs in one haunting scene—but afterwards he commits suicide. Ironically, all the men she tries to save end up dying. As she herself begins to wonder: is she a selfless saint or an exterminating angel? Wakao’s restrained, sphinx-like performance underscores her inscrutability. Are Sakura’s emotional and sexual sacrifices acts of generosity or perverse fulfillments of her own desires? Having no interest in Yoshida’s cool formalism, Masumura fills his chaotic compositions with wounded and dead bodies. The grimy black and white cinematography packs a visceral wallop. Often cutting directly from the climax of one scene to another, Masumura builds fast-paced rhythms that intensify the film’s mad energy. Infatuated with a morphine-addled surgeon, Nishi sets out to cure him of his addiction and restore his virility. However, her quixotic crusade flies in the face of a brutal reality. In a darkly absurd scene, Nishi fastens the doctor to his bed, forcing him to go cold turkey, while a suicidal battle to hold their besieged base rages outside. In the wake of the onslaught, we see the dead doctor still clutching his broken phallic sword. This potent image indicts Japanese militarism and samurai codes of honor.

Refusing to portray martyrs or passive objects of desire, these defiant, taboo-busting actresses remain relevant and provocative. The range and complexity of the characterizations belie the series’ sensational title. By spotlighting the “bad girl,” the curators risk promoting another stereotype. Intrigued by these titles, you may want to explore the films of Imamura Shohei, who celebrates resilient, sexually vibrant women in such 60s masterpieces as The Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder.


Ethan Spigland

ETHAN SPIGLAND likes to hide in broad daylight.


JUL-AUG 2010

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