From the very first frame, Masumura’s Blind Beast is as visually arresting as it is morally dubious, and it doesn’t let up pursuing its own preposterous logic for a second from then on in. What more can you ask of a film? Whatever the narrative may seem to claim, it would be a gross injustice to suggest that Blind Beast has anything as coherent as a thesis. There are ideas at work, of course, but really, if you want to discipline them and make them reasonable you will have to poke your eyes out. Which is just as things should be.
Early one morning, artist’s model Aki is visiting a photographic exhibition featuring images of herself in various states of bondage, reminiscent of (though predating) the work of Nobuyoshi Araki. In the sterile, brightly-lit, empty gallery she comes upon a man on his knees, strangely embracing and scrupulously caressing the nude sculpture (also modeled by Aki) that forms the centre-piece of the exhibition. Within minutes, the same man has turned up at Aki’s apartment in the guise of a masseur, knocked her out with chloroform and, with the help of his grimly besotted mother, carted her off to a bleak and isolated warehouse. We know the warehouse is bleak and isolated because we do not see the way there, or any suggestion of surrounding space: it is always presented by the same twilit establishing shot in mottled greys, occasionally enlivened with flecks of snow. The whole film is, in many respects, remarkably minimal. There are only the three characters mentioned and not a single other breathing human figure. The action from now on is confined to the interior of the warehouse, made up of a spartan living space where Michio the blind sculptor and his mother live, eat, and share a bed. Through the double iron doors, however, lies the more ambiguous space where Aki is imprisoned.
Michio’s ‘studio’ is likewise minimal in its palette, but otherwise monstrous and excessive. Aki awakes to find herself surrounded by a cavernous darkness punctuated by off-white giant effigies of dismembered female body parts. As Michio explains his artistic mission and tries to persuade Aki to become his muse, the camera reveals what appear to be only small areas of a much vaster space; one that has no visible walls, is not unambiguously rectilinear, and is ultimately incomprehensible. At one point the camera makes a series of high speeding jolting pans to reveal one segment at a time, each devoted to a different body part. Each tableau is flat, but fish-eyed: logically, they ought to be walls, but they doní‚Â´t add up as walls. The only things holding all this together are two giant recumbent female torsos occupying the studio floor, one supine, one prone. It is around these, particularly the one on its back, that the action and sense of space increasingly revolves. The only touch of vivid colour is Akií‚Â´s green dress, but this quickly fades. Latterly, the scene is all chiaroscuro in close-up, small moments of light picked out in an enveloping, shapeless darkness. By now, Aki has lost her sight, presumably out of sympathy, and the presentation of blindness has shifted. Earlier Michio showed off his agility and awareness, nimbly chasing Aki round the studio in near-slapstick, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t routines. By the end, they are both clambering tremulously like Beckett characters whose misfortune is to be condemned to inhabit a big papier-míÂ¢ché lady; quivering, boggling, reaching with splayed fingers, stumbling.
The film, it seems, is trying to find a way to render non-visual intimacy in an inescapably visual medium. In this respect, it is almost as crazy as the blind beast himself. Why, laments Michio, should art be all about sight and touch? He will create a new genre of art devoted to touch, an art by and for the blind. Tragically for him, the genre in question has already been around for some centuries. What is more, there is nothing in it that positively excludes the sighted, and you are often not even allowed to touch it. It’s sculpture! But it seems almost cruel to point this out, and certainly Aki is too scared to mention it. The theme of blindness is nevertheless important to the film, and it places it oddly in relation to other famous cinematic obsessions with the female body. When cinema has taken a long hard look at itself, it has often concluded there may be something voyeuristic in its very nature. Most obviously, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) upset people because it had the camera perform the rape and violation which it usually only happens to witness. The spectacle of alluringly terrified women driven into darkened corners on its own would hardly raise an eyebrow. Blind Beast, on the other hand, claims not to be about voyeurism at all. Michio’s beef is that, as a blind man, he has been deprived of the only sort of contact that makes sense to him: why should he not be allowed to touch beautiful ladies just as we get to see them?
We, of course, do get to see a lot of Aki, and in a light that becomes more and more curious. After her initial and understandable attempts to escape, at one point aided by the incestuously jealous matron, Aki inevitably falls for her touchingly virginal captor. Her conversion is abrupt to say the least, and the descent into limb-chopping suicidal lunacy is vertiginous. If only they had heard King Missile’s ‘Gary and Melissa’, they would have seen there were many more erotic options open to them between massage and butchery. Even Nagisa Oshima’s famously adventurous couple in Ai no corrida (1976) make their perverse progress at an infinitely more sedate pace. The turning point is Michio’s mother’s death. After this the camera barely leaves the studio; once to focus on Mum’s putrid grave, and once to follow Michio in search of Akií‚Â´s ultimate sex-toys, a cleaver and mallet. As he returns, she assumes the position, the one, that is, that she took for Michio’s sculpture. And as the cleaver falls, it is the limbs of the sculpture we see fall with a clunk to the studio floor.
But it’s also the posture of the vast landscaped reclining Robert Crumb woman that was already the centrepiece of the studio when Aki first awoke there. For that matter, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the sculpture by a quite different artist round which the pair first met. The whole point of abducting Aki was to produce an unprecedented, genre-forging perfection in the art of touch. To this end, he spends quite a considerable time ascertaining the precise form and consistency of Akií‚Â´s breasts. He also artfully conceals them in the process. This coyness continues throughout the sex scenes, but interestingly enough is completely forgotten once torture is the order of the day. And what we see here is that Aki’s breasts bear absolutely no relation to those on the sculpture supposed to represent her. What the sculpture does have are the very same mountainous breasts as its artistic ancestors. These breasts, the vast hill-like ones, have a large part in the film. Intimacy gravitates towards their sheltering valley. On a more practical note, they are useful as hand-holds when scaling the heights of giant torsos. But most importantly, they are also a sort of leitmotiv of commodified femininity throughout. They owe their form not to the vagaries of individual artistic perception, but to an invariable, transcendent consumer demand. We are all, it seems, blind beasts, but that never stopped us looking.