‘Between man and woman, it’s a fight to the death’, declares one of her many lovers to Otsuya, Irezumi‘s geisha heroine. This piece of fierce wisdom informs many of Yasuzo Masumura’s films, from Blind Beast, which climaxes in a frenzied S&M coupling, to Manji, in which a married couple’s rivalry for the love of a young woman leads them to self-destruct, but nowhere is it as clear as in Irezumi, the story of a woman turned predatory prostitute.
The daughter of a wealthy pawnbroker, Otsuya is a beautiful, spirited young woman, who one night prompts her lover, Shinsuke, a shy young man who works as her father’s apprentice, to elope with her. Much more respectful of the social order than the free-spirited Otsuya, Shinsuke has misgivings about the whole venture but is spurned on by Otsuya’s rebuke, as she derides him as a coward. They find refuge at Gonji’s house, who has agreed to take them in, but he soon betrays them and sells Otsuya off as a geisha.
In the hands of fellow Japanese directors Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse such a premise would have been the occasion for a beautifully nuanced drama about the plight of women in Japanese society. Instead, Masumura goes for the jugular and confronts head-on the complex and conflictual reality of male/female relationships. The film opens as a tattoo artist paints a spider on Otsuya’s back, marking her as a geisha and casting her out of respectable society for ever. In contrast to the heroines of Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and Naruse’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Otsuya is not seen as a victim but rather gains power and independence from her forced prostitution. Liberated from convention, she uses her beauty to make money and ultimately leaves the geisha house to set up on her own.
This independence, however, is coupled with cruelty, selfishness, a manipulative streak and a ferocious drive for murderous revenge. To all the men around her she is a frightening man-eater, increasingly resembling the spider on her back. Otsuya’s transformation from lively young girl to frightful predator is explained by her being possessed by the tattoo. But as that tattoo was ordered by the geisha master and painted by a male artist, does this mean that Otsuya is simply the monstrous creation of the men around her? Or rather, as Otsuya shows signs of being strong and independent from the start, does the spider simply reveal her true nature, a nature that appears horrifying and threatening to men?
It is hard to say whether Masumura is simply reflecting or actively sharing the deep male unease at increased female emancipation and Otsuya can be seen equally as a powerful female figure and as a misogynistic creation. Whatever the case, and despite an undeniable ambivalence towards Otsuya’s character, Masumura doesn’t portray women as victims, and it is this that makes Irezumi a much more satisfying film to a female audience than The Life of Oharu or When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, which offer no hope, only resignation, to downtrodden women. Otsuya may be ruthless and manipulative at times, but she takes control of her destiny, and is paradoxically much freer from the demands of society than men. Surrounded by timid, mediocre males she shines as the most rebellious, individualistic and alive character in the film. If this is misogyny, I can live with it.