Irezumi (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 86 minutes approx.
If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned then perhaps we chaps should, you know, stop scorning them? That way, when the so-called weaker sex does finally snap after having enough, we men won’t have any wounds to lick afterwards. Simple right?
Mild-mannered pawnbroker Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) is in love with his boss’ daughter Otsuya (Ayako Wakao), and they plan to elope, finding refuge in a floating inn owned by Gonji (Fujio Suga) and his wife Otaki (Reiko Fujiwara). Gonji makes advances on Otsuya but is rebuffed, so he and Otaki set up a plan to have Shinsuke killed and sell Otsuya off as a geisha.
Prior to being handed over to Tokubei (Asao Uchida), Otsuya is drugged and tattooed by Seikichi (Gako Yamamoto), inking a giant spider with a vampiric woman’s head across Otsuya’s back as a curse. While Shinsuke disappears after surviving the attempt on his life, Otsuya acclimatises to being a prostitute but vows revenge on the men who made this way, using her sexuality to lure them into her trap.
Based on the 1910 novella by Junchiro Tanizaki, Irezumi (trans. “spider tattoo”) is the second collaboration between directors Yasuzo Masumura and Kaneto Shindo, the latter again on writing duty. The lurid plot description will no doubt suggest to some a steamy bodice…well, kimono ripper awaits, but there is in fact something a more subtle story told here, and a rather progressive one given the period it was made in.
Female-led revenge flicks became popular in Japan in the 1970s with the likes of Lady Snowblood and Female Convict Scorpion although they often provided pinku films with their plots to appease horndogs and gore fans alike. Irezumi is something of forerunner to this subgenre, a little lighter on the sex and gore but still bold for it time, not just for having a fearless female lead, but for its challenging take on sexual politics.
The first bold move is opening the film with a helpless Otsuya being bound and subdued by Seikichi as he heaps praise on her perfect skin ahead of getting his primitive tattoo needles out. Immediately, Otsuya is framed as tragic heroine, chaste and victimised for her beauty, but Tanizaki rolls back the clock a couple of weeks to explain how we got to this stage, and the Otsuya we meet then is not quite as pure as she seems.
She may well love Shinsuke as she declares and throws herself on him repeatedly, but he is such a milquetoast, we doubt how dainty Otsuya really is. At one point, in between browbeating a reluctant and guilt ridden Shinsuke, Otsuya claims she wants to be as “elegant” as a geisha, raising more questions about her innocence if she thinks this is the height of class.
Like the spider spinning a web to catch flies, Otsuya’s looks catch the men; her desire for revenge is like the vampire of the legend behind the image, sapping them of their lives. When on the job, Otsuya has to be as convincing as possible which why the men all fall for her and are willing to kill for her, be it Gonji, Tokubei, or wealthy samurai Serizawa (Kei Sato). The only one essentially forced into bloodletting is Shinsuke, the closest to a pure victim in all of this.
Questions will be raised as to how much of a feminist Otsuya is considering her sexuality is not just her primary weapon, but also how easily she adapted to her priapic lifestyle. Otsuya’s sexual energy is palpable from the start, her journey is less a “good girl gone bad” rather a “naughty one let off the leash”, yet she is destined for tragedy because of he looks, and maybe she knows that is the only thing she can rely on, so why not use it to turn the tables on her male tormentors?
Even if the tattoo is meant to be symbolic, it carries a bit more supernatural weight than a cursed video tape (as great as Ringu is) as a tacitly overlooked facet of the story. Seikichi looms in the background solemnly watching the chaos unfold as a result of his artwork; the only person to feel any genuine guilt for his actions, he is relegated to the sidelines, but as a morbid observer or someone biding his time?
86-minutes may not seem like enough time to tell such a tale but Tanizaki achieves this with ease, whilst delivering a stunning visual feast, captured by famed cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Part period drama, part atmospheric horror, part sultry erotica, the range of different set pieces presented in this one film is remarkable, and thanks to this flawless new HD transfer, it barely looks 55 years old at all.
Colours burst off the screen yet don’t overwhelm as was the trend in the late 60s, they simply exist to enhance, not to dominate. Otsuya’s red kimono would be retina burning under other circumstances; here it is a natural complement to Ayako Wakao’s stunning looks and vivacious presence. Whilst she disrobes a lot, it is to show off the tattoo yet the tone is still sensual and not sexual, a testament to Wakao’s layered performance in portraying Otsuya as someone more than a sex object/fallen woman.
Violence in cinema was still taboo in 1966 Hollywood whilst Asian and European cinema were less inhibited. Compared to even a decade later, the bloodshed here might seem tame but for its time, the frequent sight of pouring blood (especially in the climax) and brutal stabbings in this film still shock to this day. And yet none of it is senseless or exploitative because of the supreme storytelling that demands it.
Given a new lease of life via this Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, Irezumi is a timeless gem from Japanese cinema with a cautionary proto-feminist tale that retains its power to shock, provoke, and inspire after all these years, remaining as relevant and engaging today as it did then.
Original Uncompressed Japanese Mono Audio
Audio Commentary by David Dresser
Introduction by Tony Rayns
Out Of The Darkness
First Pressing Only:
Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ****
Man In Black