Like the pretty girl-thief says, ‘Western goods are somehow elegant’. The goods in question – mysterious little transparent rubber rings that roll out into tubular balloons stolen by one thief from another – are ‘rude sacks’, from England, popular amongst students. But the comment has wider resonance for this magnificent exploitation flick-cum-political fable. In 1905, at the height of the Meiji era, lots of Western things are penetrating Japan, and the stakes are high for spies, businessmen, and politicians with an eye to the main chance. Faced with a corrupting invasion of ballgowns, pianos and oak panelling, someone has to stand up for the traditional Japanese arts of gambling, thieving and nude swordfighting, and Inoshika Ochô is the very lady for the job.
Not that Ochô is primarily acting under patriotic impulses: like all the other major players in a complex but impressively coherent plot, she is driven by private passions. Ochô’s story starts with the murder of her detective father, and it has been the making of her. His dying act is to assemble a hand of three blood-spattered karuta cards bearing the emblems boar, stag, butterfly, and Ochô knows this is the hand she has been dealt, as the cards prescribe her duty of revenge, and give her her name. Later in life they also provide her with a living as a renowned gambler. As she says, her whole life is strangely tied to these flower cards. Smaller, harder, glossier and more colourful than western cards, they are woven into the aesthetic of the film from the opening credits where they rain down, then form tiled ensembles. Later, they are emblems and calling cards of Ochô’s fury, dropping from the ceiling moments before the female yakuza herself; and as she staggers off into the snow in the delirious blood-soaked aftermath, suddenly it is a blizzard of cards that falls around her.
The first step towards the final reckoning, however, is a detour, a sort of double of her debt to her father. A gambling-house employee caught in the act of cheating for the house is sacrificed to his boss’s hypocrisy. ‘Hell awaits beneath the gambling mat’, quips the elder sister of delinquents, before taking upon herself the duty of redeeming his little sister from prostitution. So it is that private, petty passions – a predeliction for deflowering maidens – rather than big-time corruption, expose legitimate businessman Iwakura: the business of defloration naturally requires the removal of his respectable Edwardian suit, unavoidably revealing the tattoo that spells more to Ochô than just yakuza roots. As a stalling tactic, Iwakura proposes a wager that introduces Ochô to another piece of elegant western goods; a poker match with Europe’s foremost lady gambler and dancer, Christina Lindberg. This leads us to the ballroom of British agent Guinness’ mansion were Iwakura’s politician boss Kurokawa is assailed by his aggrieved anarchist nemesis Shinosuke. Ochô has already saved Shinosuke after his first bungled attempt, and filched his locket, containing a photo of his beloved; none other than Kurisuchina Rindobaagu, as Lindberg is known to her Japanese fans. For indeed, with her dancing career on hold through pregnancy, she has got herself mixed up in Guinness’ effort to stir up a second Opium War, just to have the chance of coming to Japan to see her lover once more.
It is, admittedly, a tangled web, but by no means the mere clothes-hanger of nudity some reviewers have suggested. Clearly the ‘cowardly sneak attack’ while Ochô is in her bath is as much geared to viewer titillation as for the convenience of gambling boss Inamura’s henchmen. In fact, the viewer is the net beneficiary here, as the full brilliance of Ochô’s swordplay shines all the brighter unencumbered by clothes, whereas the goons’ hopes of a path to victory smoothed by soap are roundly thwarted. Somewhat more problematically, the morally alert viewer may ponder the form taken by Christina’s lessons in spying; viz., prolonged sexual assault at the hands of Guinness. But Sex and Fury is living proof that the pink and the violence comprising pinky violence can be brought together with wit. The tassled buckskin mini and tunic combo worn by Christina as she whips Ochô certainly provides excellent upskirt camera opportunities. But the setting – a weirdly modern Christian chapel, with nuns in attendance, and Ochô suspended in chains – hints that the West’s gifts are, shall we say, double-edged. Another unabashedly pink scene smartly sums up what the film is about here: Ochô lures the paunchily corrupt satyr Iwakura into licking perfume off her body before coolly announcing – Deadly poison, from Germany.
Another popular view is that Lindberg’s performance is only good in the pink. Obviously she is not in the same league as the utterly brilliant Reiko Ike who invests Ochô with a sly, sexy wit, and more dignity than one would have thought possible in one fencing entirely naked, in the snow, in slo-mo. But Lindberg’s range – earnest to despondent wide-eyed vacancy – limited as it is, is not so far removed from that of, say Laura Dern, and fits her part perfectly. Her introduction as Europe’s best dancer, in bilious green ball gown and carnival mask, halting halfway down a luridly uplit staircase to receive thunderous applause, already suggests the marionnette. The mask lifts to reveal her trademark innocent lasciviousness. Fathomless, distended eyes, lips melting with gloss and so engorged they are actually not able to ever properly shut, spell distraction and availabilty in equal measures. Lindberg is, in other words, always a power of seduction not in charge of itself. As she intones in one of her strangely hypnotic voice-overs, as Guinness mauls her, the spy has to learn to separate mind from body. Lindberg is already half way there: her body seems to be a perpetual source of astonishment to her. But bearing this all in mind, there is something genuinely touching in the stilted earnestness of her ‘Where are you Shinosuke?’ soliloquies, and Shinosuke’s English, when they do meet up, has a similar vulnerability: ‘Kurisuchina’, he growls, for all the world like a mop-top anarchist Scoobie-Doo. Some things are also found in translation.
The sequel, Female Yakuza Tale (1973), is rather less successful. Director Teruo Ishii seems to lack Suzuki’s skill in weaving narrative, and the result is a dog’s dinner of too many characters and storylines getting in the way of each other. The basic premise – girls lured by drugs and sexual abuse into smuggling drugs in their vaginas – is more nakedly exploitative and one-dimensional, whereas some potentially good ideas are weirdly underexploited. Yoshimi of Christ – ‘When I pray, I kill’ – is flagged only to disappear for most of the film, when she reappears as the leader of a gaggle of the least impressive female delinquents in Japanese cinema, whose main contribution is a sequenced strip in an apparent hommage to Busby Berkeley. The film does have its good points. In contrast to the narrative chaos, design and cinematography are slick and coherent; if anything holds the film together, it’s the insistent use of blood red against white and black. But the use of pink is often just silly, and the violence middling. Ochô herself is curiously peripheral, a shocking misjudgement given the poise with which Reiko Ike marries pink and violence in the earlier film.
Sex and Fury is a shining example of the peculiar potentials of exploitation cinema. It is thoughtful in ways that have nothing to do with chin-scratching; morally unencumbered, it is light on its feet in its exploration of some really quite daft desires. With the super-ego put to bed, it certainly wanders into some indefensible territory, particularly in questions of sexual politics. But equally, and for the same reasons, it can produce the sort of baroque combinations that have more to do with dreams than waking consciousness, and at which the spectator, deprived of a ready-made, clear-cut moral stance, can only boggle. This is what distinguishes real trash from the knowing appropriation of imitators and would-be improvers. Morally armoured with the badge of artful allusion, a Tarantino bids to somehow elevate the material, but can only weigh it down. Sex and Fury is certainly guilty of voyeurism, but unapologetically so. As wrong as it is right, it is at least never guilty of prurience.