Tag Archives: Asian cinema

Battles without Honour or Humanity

Battles without Honour and Humanity
Battles without Honour or Humanity

Format: Dual Format (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 8 August 2016

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Kinji Fukasaku

Writers: Koichi Iiboshi, Kazuo Kasahara

Cast: Bunta Sugawara, Hiroki Matsukata, Kunie Tanaka

Original title: Jingi naki tatakai

Japan 1973

99 mins

Fukasaku’s 1973 yakuza movie is imbued with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence and anger at the mythology of the criminal clans.

Kinji Fukasaku’s influential 1973 yakuza movie Battles without Honour or Humanity opens with a freeze frame of the mushroom cloud. We are in a post-war Japan one step on from Ground Zero. Life is a confused and violent shambles, a shanty town existence – anticipating the opening of Brian De Palma’s Scarface – where a feral criminality lurks, with roaming GIs boozing and raping and yakuza families fighting and jockeying for territory. Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara) is a demobbed soldier who agrees to confront a drunk yakuza as a favour for the local gang. The confrontation turns to murder. It is a hesitant, unglamorous and amateurish killing, but the symbolism is obvious. The traditionally dressed yakuza with the samurai sword represents the floundering figure of the failed old ways, his weapon an outmoded throwback. It is clear that these old ways are not necessarily more honourable – the man is a drunken psychopath and we’ve already seen the samurai sword used to lop off limbs as part of an extortion racket – but Hirono and his friends represent a new reality of instability and opportunism, created by the mushroom cloud that opens the film. In jail, Hirono will make friends, a blood brother indeed, and his loyalty will be rewarded with an entrance into a yakuza family.

The rest of the film follows outsider Hirono – although becoming a blood brother with one family, his loyalty remains with that of his old pals and their boss for whom he went to jail – as he negotiates his way into a gangster’s life. This picaresque hero is an amiable thug, an obstinately thick-headed lump, who barely understands the shifting feuds, the complicated double-crossing and the intricate interweave of loyalty and disloyalty that run throughout the film. His simplicity contrasts with the avarice and power plays around him as the families battle for territory and drug money. There is no dignified old guard here. The boss of Hirono’s family is a transparently venal and petty man provoking a war with his parsimony.

Fukasaku imbues the film with a sense of the absurd stupidity of violence. Each murder is met with a journalistic freeze frame with date and time title (the film is based on a series of newspaper articles written by Kôichi Iiboshi that were themselves adapted from the memoirs of real-life yakuza Kôzô Minô) as well as being punctuated by a blaring scream of American jazz trumpet. When a yakuza decides to cut off his finger in the most iconic of yakuza moments, the scene is played out as a ludicrous comedy with the severed finger flying off into the garden and the assembled gangsters crawling around on their hands and knees to find the missing digit.

It is precisely the mythology of the yakuza at which Fukasaku’s fury is aimed; the rituals and the lore of the criminal clans are literally shot to pieces by the film. The immediacy of his anger can be felt in the documentary style he adopts. His freeze frames are particularly well chosen, they suggest a dynamism most motion pictures lack. Even the yakuza themselves occasionally tire of their activities, one of them complaining that every night he has doubts, but in the morning, when he’s surrounded by his men, he gets back to it. The film was immensely popular and would spawn four sequels known collectively as The Yakuza Papers. Another cycle of films, New Battles without Honour or Humanity and Aftermath of Battles without Honour and Humanity, would also be launched. However, the law of diminishing returns applies and Fukasaku’s thesis had already been forcefully expressed in the first film.

John Bleasdale

This review was first published in 2002 in connection with the DVD release of Battles without Honour or Humanity by Eureka Entertainment.



Format: Cinema

Seen at Rotterdam 2016

Director: Park Hong-min

Writers: Cha Hye-jin, Park Hong-min

Cast: Lee Ju-won, Song You-hyun

Original title: Hon-ja

South Korea 2015

90 mins

A promising but ultimately disappointing elliptical journey through a labyrinthine Seoul.

The thin line between real and unreal, solid ground and liminality, sanity and insanity, dream and nightmare, certainty and confusion, is the wire that most of director Park Hong-min’s second film Alone balances upon. An oppressive mystery tour of the alleyways, rooftops, stairwells and labyrinthine passages of a tightly packed Seoul shantytown reflects metaphorically the circuitous nature of the protagonist’s mind.

As the film opens, he is looking out of his studio window and inadvertently witnesses masked men murdering a woman on a nearby rooftop. Since he is a photographer he grabs his camera and begins taking pictures of the crime. Having been spotted by the perpetrators, he hides away in his studio, but is soon located by the thugs who assault him with a hammer, rendering him unconscious. When he awakes it is night time and he finds himself naked and lying in the street. As he attempts to recover both clothing and memory, he runs furiously around the area, up and down stairs, in and out of alleyways like a rat in a T-maze – a T-maze that keeps heading into dead-end pathways. As he keeps sprinting around this physical and mental maze, he encounters a variety of odd characters and finds himself thrust into a series of strange and startling scenarios. These encounters are presented elliptically; their logical and chronological ordering shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes, similar events are encountered more than once but with different narrative frameworks intended to disorient the protagonist as well as the audience.

Now, this oft-used approach to plotting in arthouse cinema – a signifying indicator of the genus – can have its rewards, but it can be risky too, if not handled in a convincing and meaningful manner. There needs to be some sort of cinematic reward for the spectator’s work in sticking to the film and trusting the director and editor’s decisions as to story presentation, and in this regard Alone founders. The overall film did not present this viewer with any gifts for post-viewing reflection or insightful observations to be taken away from the cinema. It simply did not persuade. It has been said by distributors that for a critic to call a film a ‘festival film’ is a nail in the coffin for the sales agent, so apologies in advance, but Alone falls exactly into that category.

James B. Evans

This review is part of our Rotterdam 2016 coverage.

Eros + Massacre

Eros + Massacre

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Part of Kijû Yoshida Love + Anarchism limited edition box-set

Release date: 9 November 2015

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Kijû Yoshida

Writers: Kijû Yoshida, Masahiro Yamada

Cast: Mariko Okada, Toshiyuki Hosokawa, Yuko Kusunoki, Kazuko Inano, Etsushi Takahashi

Japan 1969

169 mins

Kijû Yoshida’s 1960s masterwork on free love and radical politics finally comes to Blu-ray/DVD.

A monumental work of late 60s Japanese cinema, Kijû (also known as Yoshishige) Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre has been rather difficult to view for several years, decades even, its reputation largely kept alive after serving as the title for David Desser’s pioneering book on Japanese New Wave Cinema published in the 1980s. Now, the film finally arrives on DVD and Blu-ray via Arrow as part of their Kijû Yoshida Love + Anarchism’ limited edition box-set, in both its original theatrical cut (the version under review here) and Yoshida’s rarely seen director’s cut, with around 50 minutes of restored footage previously removed for legal reasons.

Even in its shorter form, Eros + Massacre is a deeply challenging and sprawling work that unfurls with gusto over the best part of three hours. The film is split between two connected narratives, one a biography-of-sorts centred on famed Taishô-era polygamous anarchist Sakae Ôsugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), and the other a contemporary storyline concerning two university students, Eiko and Wada, as they research Ôsugi’s philosophies on radicalism and free love. Things start to get interesting as the time periods appear to converge, with characters from the 1910s/20s strand – including Ôsugi and the three women that he simultaneously romances (including Yoshida’s wife, actress Mariko Okada) – being fleetingly transposed without explanation to late 60s Tokyo, as if them being discussed by the students had the ability to literally bring past into present. Eiko even gets the opportunity to interview one of the women at one point.

The relationship between historical fact and present speculation as well as the relationship between Ôsugi and his women begin to blur, and confusion is further fuelled (in the theatrical version at least) by the sheer volume of scenes excised at the behest of politician Ichiko Kamichika, who had been romantically linked to Ôsugi and was the inspiration for one of the film’s characters (although her name was changed). In the director’s cut, the balance between past and present segments is heavily skewed towards the former, with the 60s scenes acting more as a framing device rather than a storyline of equal weight. In the theatrical cut, there is a greater sense of equilibrium but on the flipside this also creates a split in dramatic focus.

But the one constant between the two versions is that Yoshida insists that you do your homework, making the film less accessible to those not familiar with the historical context or its reference to contemporary Japanese counterculture. Something that can be enjoyed by all, however, is the film’s ravishing and often indulgent style, with Yoshida making full use of his scoped monochrome framing by regularly trapping his actors in the corners and edges of shots, slicing up their bodies or eye lines in interesting ways, or isolating them within doorways or window openings. Symbolism is also rife, leading to sublime imagery such as an extreme wide shot of the 1920s characters traversing along a seemingly abandoned modern Tokyo motorway, the use of reflections – in mirrors, water etc. – to instigate transitions between the two time periods, and the 60s students re-enacting the deaths of famous martyrs – most notably Jesus on the cross.

Like many films from the Japanese New Wave, Eros + Massacre requires a certain degree of awareness of the socio-political concerns of the time for full comprehension, but the rewards are massive for those willing to put in the work; not to mention that it’s exquisitely presented and, in spite of its difficulties, perhaps still stands as Japan’s quintessential arthouse film. Yoshida would continue his intersecting of the themes of political and romantic radicalism in his loosely related follow-up works Heroic Purgatory (1971) and Coup d’état (1973), which also feature in Arrow’s box-set.

Mark Player

A Snake of June

A Snake of June
A Snake of June

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 28 September 2015

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Cast: Asuka Kurosawa, Yûji Kôtari, Shinya Tsukamoto, Fuwa Mansaku

Japan 2002

77 mins

Following on from the wonderful Blu-ray releases of Kotoko, the first two Tetsuo films, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, Third Window Films continues its fruitful relationship with cult Japanese filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto with a high-definition remaster of his erotically charged reverie A Snake of June.

Set during the incessant downpour of Japan’s rainy season, and cast in an oppressive, yet somewhat sensual, blue-tinted monochrome hue (an aspect of the film that has received a poor showing in previous home video releases), A Snake of June is a revitalised reworking of Tsukamoto’s typical story dynamic, which revolves around a couple’s status quo being disrupted by a strange interloper. Rinko (Asuka Kurosawa), a counsellor for a hospital’s mental health call centre, is in an amicable although distant marriage with Shigehiko (novelist and occasional actor Yûji Kôtari), an overweight, balding salaryman who is more interested in obsessively scrubbing the floors and sinks of their angular apartment than in intimacy. Behaving more like good friends than lovers, they often find themselves sleeping separately. Rinko’s private acts of secret self-pleasure are caught on camera by Iguchi (played by Tsukamoto himself), a cancer sufferer who had once phoned Rinko’s call centre with thoughts of suicide. To thank Rinko for convincing him to live, Iguchi wants to return the favour by getting Rinko to open up and fully embrace her sexual curiosity, as evidenced by his voyeurism, and offers the negatives on the condition that she completes a set of public sexual tasks. Wanting to keep the scandal a secret from Shigehiko, Rinko reluctantly goes along with Iguchi’s strange form of blackmailing. What follows is a journey of carnal reawakening, for both husband and wife.

Upon cursory inspection, Tsukamoto appears to be channelling the tropes of Japan’s long-running and not always illustrious pinku eiga (softcore sex films) industry, where sexual blackmail, public humiliation and frigid women overcoming their inhibitions are common sights. Yet, despite its subject matter, this is not exploitation but a Tsukamoto film through and through, and it is as considered and thoughtful as any of his gems from the 1990s. What’s particularly refreshing is that it feels in A Snake of June that Tsukamoto finally feels comfortable with dealing with themes of carnality, desire and the flesh in a way that is both candid and honest. He had definitely been courting these ideas for a while. Tetsuo was just as much about erupting sexual impulse as it was about erupting scrap metal, and trichotomic sexual mind games were central to Tokyo Fist and the lamentably underseen Gemini (1999). But with A Snake of June, the metal transformations, the hyperbolic bruises and the colourful dirt and rags are shed, revealing a body that is pure.

Granted, some of Tsukamoto’s fetishistic undertones do remain. The flexible, snake-like metal phallus that dances out from Iguchi’s cancerous stomach is a very deliberate callback to Tetsuo’s nightmare sequence of emasculation and sodomy. A scene where Shigehiko finds himself attending a sex-snuff show where the audience members are bound and forced to watch through a funnelled peephole over the face is an equally surreal highlight. But there is a sense of a greater thesis at work, with Tsukamoto dedicating time to both sides of the relationship’s reawakening – as demonstrated by the use of Mars and Venus gender symbols to apportion the narrative – although Rinko’s perspective ultimately wins out.

Speaking of perspective, Tsukamoto ensures that we adopt the role of voyeur as well by shooting on long lenses, isolating characters within the film’s antiquated 1.33:1 framing ratio, catching the glances of anonymous passers-by, and often having the camera peek from around corners, over walls and through windows. It reinforces the idea of the camera as a tool for penetration, both penetration of privacy and in a more sexual sense, as a taker of nude photographs philosophises at the film’s start: ‘A small camera won’t do. It has to be a big one with a flash. Otherwise you can’t make her come.’ This is put into practice later on when a horny Rinko poses and masturbates in the rain, while Iguchi, armed with a big-lensed camera, snaps away. The light from the flash gun whips across her bare flesh in volleys of ecstasy; the tinted downpour cleansing her of her fears. Tsukamoto shoots and cuts the scene like an instance of passionate lovemaking, with even Iguchi slumped back in his car after the shoot, as if spent; his use of a small, flash-less camera afterwards resembles a moment of post-coital tenderness.

A Snake of June is certainly a blue movie in more ways than one, but those looking for a no-nonsense skin flick may be disappointed. The film is a far more subtle affair, largely eschewing the show-stopping propulsion or overwrought angst that has characterised earlier Tsukamoto work, yet still intense in its own way, with a pleasant dash of mechanical weirdness. It may not be as well-known as his 1990s work, but A Snake of June shows Tsukamoto at the height of his authorial powers.

Mark Player

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Format: DVD + Blu-ray (R1)

Release date: 18 November 2014

Distributor: Music Box Films

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Based on the novel by: Kanae Minato

Cast: Masaaki Akahori, Manatsu Kimura, Kyôko Koizumi

Original title: Shokuzai

Japan 2012

300 mins

Like Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions (2010) and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Snow White Murder Case (2014), Penance is based on a novel by bestselling crime writer Kanae Minato. Unlike those works, it was originally shown as a TV miniseries before being released to film festivals as a five-hour feature film, and now on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray. Many of Minato’s works recount the circumstances around a murder, as experienced by the perpetrators, the victims, the witnesses, and those around them. Although the various adaptations of her novels have that much in common, they take very different approaches to the material.

As the film opens we are introduced to Emili Adachi, a new girl at a country school in Ueda. She makes friends with a group of girls impressed by her lovely home and her glamorous mother Asako (Kyôko Koizumi). The five girls are playing after school when they are approached by a man, who asks one of them to help him with his work. While the others wait nervously, Emili is taken into the school gym and murdered. They find her body on the gym floor and alert the police, but are too traumatized or scared to provide any helpful information. Angered by their silence, Asako tells the four girls that they must pay a penance for their part in Emili’s death and their failure to help catch the killer, but only she can release them from that penance.

From there we move to 15 years later, with each of the girls grown up but manifesting their trauma in different ways. Sae (Yū Aoi) has become intensely scared of men and adult sexuality, shutting down her body’s transition into maturity. Now a teacher, Maki (Eiko Koike, 2LDK) is a strict disciplinarian spurred on by well-concealed rage. Akiko (Sakura Ando) has escaped into a world of childish make-believe, supported by her patronizing and enabling family. The last of the four is Yuka (Chizuru Ikewaki), the only one who rejected Asako’s conditions, saying that she would do as she pleased. She believes that her sexual manipulation and callous brutality are indicators of strength and independence, but in reality she’s as psychically and spiritually broken as her friends. Each of the four girls is given their own episode, with the fifth and final hour dedicated to Asako’s pursuit of the killer.

At first glance it might seem that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is not the most likely candidate to handle a miniseries adaptation of a bestselling crime novel, but there are precedents in his output. Over the years Kurosawa has produced work for television on a number of occasions, most notably with Séance (Kōrei, 2000), his reworking of Bryan Forbes’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Several of his films demonstrate a familiarity with the formal mechanics of thrillers and crime dramas, including his international breakthrough Cure (1997) and the twin revenge movies Serpent’s Path (Hebi no michi) and Eyes of the Spider (Kumo no hitomi), both released in 1998.

By the end of the first hour, it has become apparent that Kurosawa’s gloomy, minimalist style suits the material perfectly. The same sense of impending dread that helped to make Pulse (Kairo, 2001) one of the most effective Japanese horror films of its time follows the five women in Penance and makes it impossible to look away until each arc reaches its conclusion. This is no vague, metaphysical dread, but a real, tangible one that reflects the inescapable fates of the characters as all of the girls’ lives descend into violence and horror.

There may be no real ghosts in Penance, but throughout the stories Asako lingers on the edges of the girls’ lives, saying little but watching until the end, her black clothes and high heels as distinctive as the kimonos and traditional hairstyles worn by the yūrei (vengeful spirits) of the traditional Japanese kaidan (ghost stories). She’s not there to exact vengeance, but serves as a constant reminder of the way in which the girls’ fates are bound up with Emili’s, and the karmic retribution that awaits them.

In the final hour Asako changes from ever-present phantom to victim, detective and guilty party, as her role in the events of the past is explored. It’s not much of a criticism to say that this final episode doesn’t match the standards of the earlier chapters, as the necessity of providing solutions to the central mystery takes over and Penance becomes a more traditional crime story. In an era when a two-hour running time can seem increasingly indulgent, Kurosawa has created a five-hour film that doesn’t drag for a second, maintaining its momentum throughout. It can also be viewed as a five-part miniseries, but it’s to the director’s credit that Penance remains perfectly accessible in its full-length format.

Jim Harper



Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 August 2014

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Kim Ki-duk

Writer: Kim Ki-duk

Cast: Jo Jae-hyeon, Seo Young-ju, Lee Eun-woo

South Korea 2013

88 mins

Kim Ki-duk’s disquieting and hyperbolic castration/incest melodrama Moebius caused a stir in the Korean media last summer after it was issued the rare ‘Restricted’ rating by the Korean Media Rating Board, the highest certification they bestow. Although this episode with the censors demonstrated that the controversial Korean auteur still refuses to soften his approach even as he continues to trudge into middle age, it also led to an uncharacteristic instance of compromise. Films with a Restricted rating can only be screened in specially licensed theatres (much like the BBFC’s R18 certificate), but since no such theatres operate in South Korea, Moebius was effectively banned from domestic release. After numerous failed re-submissions, two and a half minutes of problem footage featuring incest had to be removed to meet the KMRB’s requirements for the slightly less harsh ‘Teenager Restricted’ (i.e. 18 or over) to guarantee wide release. This prompted angry calls of censorship and artistic suppression from fellow directors and the Korean film industry elite.

Moebius is released in the UK on DVD and VOD on 13 October 2014.

But even in its cut version, Moebius remains a dark and thoroughly depraved odyssey of sexual desire that strongly plays to Kim’s preoccupation towards unusual, psychosexually informed chamber pieces. This loosely Oedipal tale focuses on a dysfunctional family: Mother (Lee Eun-woo) has turned to drink as Father (Jo Jae-hyeon) regularly fraternises with a woman who runs a local convenience shop (intriguingly, also played by Lee). Caught in the middle is their teenage Son (Seo Young-ju). Seeing Father and Mistress dining together in a romantic restaurant, Mother is sent over the edge of sanity. Later that evening, she enters the bedroom brandishing a knife; her intention is to emasculate her husband by severing his penis. He wakes up and manages to stop her. Still angry, Mother takes out her male hatred on the Son, using the same strategy (successfully this time) before disappearing off into the night.

Following the incident, the Son tries to carry on as normal, but a group of kids from his school get wind of his embarrassing disability and start bullying him. Guilt-ridden, the Father takes to the internet and conducts research on penis transplant surgeries. Desperate for his Son to have a normal sex life, his search also unearths a bizarre alternative method of sexual stimulation that doesn’t require a phallus. Meanwhile, the Son develops a fraught relationship with the store owner, unaware that she is partly the reason for his mutilation and, after an unusual turn of events, he also begins having strange, sexual feelings towards his own estranged Mother.

When films deal with themes of castration, the act typically functions as a shocking end point to an intensely emotional, impassioned or horrifying episode – Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) or, more recently, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) for instance. What’s interesting about Moebius is that the film deals primarily with the aftermath, where the surviving victim has to come to terms with the literal loss of his manhood in a society where men still choose to define masculinity by penile prowess. Kim’s work has featured genital mutilation before (The Isle (2000) made use of fishing hooks to wince-inducing effect) but here it is presented as part of a grander thesis, with the film wanting to offer something more than merely showing gross things for our bemusement. The casting of Lee as both wife and mistress, mother and lover, strongly alludes to Kim’s ambitions in this regard, blurring the boundaries of the Son’s and Father’s desires.

Like Kim’s earlier work 3-Iron (2004), Moebius contains no spoken dialogue between its characters. It’s a narrative device that works well for the subject matter, sparing the actors from potentially undermining the story with unnecessary conversation, which could very well have sent the proceedings past the point of acceptable ludicrousness. The film already walks a very fine line between the horrific and hilarious, and there are moments where you may find yourself laughing for reasons Kim had not intended. Like with other Kim films, basic character logic is often thrown to the wind for the sake of artistic statement. A group of horny young men coerce the Son into raping the store owner, which, of course, he can’t do but instead pretends in order to save face. Apprehended by the police, the Son is unnecessarily embarrassed by his Father in the communal holding cell when the latter yanks the Son’s trousers down to show that he doesn’t have the physical capacity for rape, much to the amusement of the other rapists, when a more discrete approach could have easily been arranged. Incidentally, the mutilation never seems to be reported to the authorities, and when the deranged mother returns to the homestead after what must have been weeks of idly roaming the streets, she’s allowed back in without any resistance from the Father or Son.

Another aspect that threatens to derail the film is the sex substitute discovered by the Father involving the vigorous rubbing of the skin with a stone (and, later on, the rhythmic jostling of a knife in a wound), where pain macabrely functions as pleasure. The idea of a new copulation paradigm beyond standard coitus methods is evocative of David Cronenberg’s equally controversial Crash (1996), which features an audacious moment where James Spader’s budding car-crash fetishist treats the yonic wound on the thigh of Rosanna Arquette’s character as a new sexual orifice. Like Crash, Moebius could easily (and unfairly) be dismissed as vulgar, morally bankrupt pseudo-porn, designed to titillate and scandalise. Instead, the film is a startling, Freudian nightmare that, despite its faults, somehow manages to be funny, repulsive and strangely compelling all at the same time. Whether or not you’re able to buy into its bizarre gender politics or dubious plotting, Moebius is still potent filmmaking from a still potent filmmaker.

Mark Player

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Blind Woman’s Curse

Blind Womans Curse
Blind Woman's Curse

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 31 March 2014

Distributor: Arrow Video

Director: Teruo Ishii

Writers: Chûsei Sone, Teruo Ishii

Original title: Kaidan nobori ryû

Cast: Meiko Kaji, Hoki Tokuda, Makoto Satô, Tôru Abe, Tatsumi Hijikata

Japan 1970

85 mins

Initially conceived as the third entry in Nikkatsu’s Rising Dragon series of films, Teruo Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse (Kaidan nobori ryû, aka The Tattooed Swordswoman, 1970) ended up being a very different beast from its predecessors. What was to be a relatively straightforward and somewhat sexed-up ninkyo (yakuza chivalry) flick quickly turned into a kaidan eiga hybrid featuring a bakeneko (a supernatural cat), a change instigated at the behest of studio execs whilst filming was in progress. Not content to merely acquiesce, Ishii took things even further by including elements of ero-guro, the erotic grotesque, a pre-war art and literary movement focusing on sexual and corporeal corruption, destruction and decadence. As censorship continued to relax throughout the 1960s and 70s, ero-guro enjoyed something of a renaissance on the silver screen, as studios were needing new, sensationalist ways to keep people in theatres. This on the fly inclusion of seemingly unrelated elements, coupled with Ishii’s predilection towards an eccentric, iconoclastic filmmaking style, has meant that Blind Woman’s Curse has garnered a reputation for being the most nonsensical and outlandish offering by the Japanese ‘King of Cult’.

In her first major leading role, Meiko Kaji plays Akemi Tachibana, leader of the Tachibana gang. During an opening credits fight scene with an enemy gang, she zones in on the rival boss with sword unsheathed but, in the throes of combat, accidentally slashes the eyes of her target’s young sister (Hoki Tokuda), rendering the poor girl blind. Spending the next three years in prison, Akemi returns to the fold in time to take on a new threat, the Dobashi clan, who are intent on advancing on Tachibana turf. A third gang, led by the peculiar Aozora (Ryôhei Uchida) – wearing a curious combination of bowler hat, yellow waistcoat and red fundoshi (loincloth) – is introduced to further complicate the gangland politics of the story.

But in the background of all this, Akio, the blind girl from the opening scene, has also returned and is seeking revenge. She picks off members of Akemi’s retinue, flaying the dragon tattoos that distinguish the gang off their backs, with the aid of two unlikely accomplices: Ushimatsu (played by Butoh dance founder Tatsumi Hijikata), a hunchback companion from the travelling circus where she performs a knife-throwing act; and a black cat, which mysteriously appeared the day she lost her eyesight, keenly lapping up the blood from her wound. Ishii blends this all together into a volatile cocktail that is in part violent, spooky, irrational, intentionally humorous, unintentionally humorous, and borderline hallucinogenic.

Although the film makes more sense than it is often given credit for (but not by much), Blind Woman’s Curse is indeed a wildly uneven work, one that ebbs and flows depending on which mode it’s in, but therein lies a certain appeal. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the film lie in its ero-guro midsection. The circus entrance is adorned with semi-naked dancers and an old man cooking up a wok of wax limbs, and a performance inside involves simulated coitus between a young woman and a dog wrapped in a Japanese military flag. Delving further into the oneiric is a feverish butoh sequence performed by Hijikata, which plays more like an intermission segment than as a scene of any narrative purpose. But it’s when the film turns toward the grotesque and dreamlike that Ishii appears to be most at home. He had just that previous year helmed the delirious Edogawa Rampo mishmash Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), also featuring Hijikata, which possibly makes for a more appropriate companion piece to Blind Woman’s Curse than either of the other Rising Dragon films.

Ishii compensates for the film’s lack of coherence by conjuring a hodgepodge of gaudy yet stimulating visuals. The Fujicolor process lends a garish, funhouse quality to the cinematography, which is further embellished by some of the film’s production design. The Dobashi headquarters is fashioned from perspective-confounding mirrors, cages, trap doors, hidden rooms and torture chambers. The Tachibana, by contrast, operate from a more traditional abode, but this and the nearby market square, which forms part of their territory, offer plenty of design flourishes to feast upon. Ishii is also enterprising when it comes to camera technique. The rain-swept opening credits scene utilises slow motion to emphasise the tumbling of bodies and spurts of blood from blades (presumably) too quick for regular motion to do justice to them. Conversely, other parts of the same sequence are freeze-framed, presenting tableaux of death-in-progress that gleefully mingle the hanging blood sprays with the red kanji that lists the culprits behind this work of madness.

Even though she is regularly sidelined to facilitate the film’s many strands, it was Kaji who perhaps saw the greatest dividend from her involvement (both as lead actress and singer of the film’s theme song), as she would quickly become the queen of this kind of exploitation-soaked cinema throughout the 1970s. Her iconic, murderous glare, would go on to emblemise cult hits such as the Female Prisoner series (1972-73) and, most famously, Lady Snowblood (1973) and its 1974 sequel. For Kaji and/or Ishii fans, or for admirers of this particularly sensationalist period of Japanese cinema, Blind Woman’s Curse will likely sate your thirst. Just prepare to be puzzled whilst you imbibe.

Mark Player

Tokyo Fist

Tokyo Fist 1
Tokyo Fist

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 25 November 2013

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writers: Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Hisashi Saito

Cast: Kaori Fujii, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Kôji Tsukamoto

Japan 1995

87 mins

UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films continue with their releasing of titles by Japanese filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto. His 1995 cult classic, Tokyo Fist, has been digitally restored from the film’s original negative, supervised and approved by the man himself.

Tokyo Fist represents the turning point from the macabre genre cinema that launched Tsukamoto’s career to films that are invariably described as being more ‘grounded’ and ‘mature’, a traditionally shaky prospect for many directors in this situation. However, the belligerent confidence of Tsukamoto’s vision for Tokyo Fist is such that not only is the evolution a success but that the film arguably remains his most viscerally compelling after nearly 20 years.

Tsukamoto plays Tsuda, a chronically fatigued insurance salesman who trundles around Tokyo’s bustling, high-rise metropolis in a state of near-catatonia, reciting his product pitches to equally disinterested customers. By chance he bumps into Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto – Shin’ya’s real-life younger brother), an old school friend who is now a semi-professional boxer. Kojima continues to insinuate himself in Tsuda’s home life and makes advances towards his fiancée Hizuru (Kaori Fujii). Aggravated by Tsuda’s increasing jealously and intrigued by Kojima’s physicality, Hizuru packs her bags, prompting Tsuda to start his own boxing training regime so that he can reassert his dominance.

Despite its shift away from genre, Tokyo Fist still adheres to the basic template of Tsukamoto’s earlier Tetsuo films. A weak salaryman loses his partner due to a third party complicating their precarious lifestyle, and both the salaryman and the antagonist undergo a process of transformation, with their own changes encouraging further changes in the other. Tsuda begins this process as a soft and innocuous man but gets increasingly more violent and focused; Kojima, on the other hand, starts as the aggressor but slowly slips into undisciplined cowardice. Once again, there is a corporeal aspect to these metamorphoses, but rather than metal erupting from the flesh, pulpy, larger-than-life bruises begin to cover the boxers’ faces as they square off against each other, or, in Tsuda’s case, the city itself. In one scene, he repeatedly slams his head into a concrete motorway support pillar in delirious submission. The results border on the comical (then again, the ridiculous macabre of Tetsuo is not without humour either), but these hyperbolic wounds strongly suggest the idea of violence as mutation, contorting the countenance of each character beyond recognition as rage takes hold. Tsukamoto would continue to ruminate on issues of rage and revenge in Bullet Ballet (1998), but in far starker and more stripped down manner.

Let’s not forget Fujii’s role in all this as the woman who plays the two men against each other. She embarks on her own process of transformation by modifying her body with tattoos, piercings and steel bars as an extension of her rebellion. It’s an interesting continuation of Tsukamoto’s metal fetishist character from Tetsuo, although the film introduces many nuances to the director’s canon, accomplishing an invigorating fusion of both old and new sensibilities.

What is perhaps most commendable about Tokyo Fist is that it reveals Tsukamoto’s growing knack for finding subtlety and emotional texture, all while retaining – or rather, revising – his trademark corybantic camerawork, quick pacing and impressionistic narrative structuring. The film expertly captures that sense of male jealousy and emasculated frustration that comes when losing to a romantic rival. This is partly due to the performances by Tsukamoto, proving him to be a legitimately decent (and quite underrated) screen presence, and his brother, Koji, a non-actor chosen for his real-life boxing experience (although the contribution of story co-creator Hisashi Saito should not be underestimated).

It is the personal nature of the production that allows the film to be as passionate and energetic as it is, coupled with Tsukamoto’s ability to stitch together various visual fragments that act as complementary, almost kaleidoscopic leitmotifs: the regular training montages; brief shots of both Tsuda and Kojima staring into the mirror, only for the proverbial abyss to stare back at them just as hard; and Tsuda’s need to consume a post-training energy drink from a vending machine, a crutch he requires less and less as his strength builds. The anger and intensity are both palpable and, later on, pummelling. Tokyo Fist is a viewing experience that will leave you exhausted, but in the best possible way.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet and Tetsuo are also available on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/b) from Third Window Films.

Mark Player

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Bullet Ballet

Bullet Ballet 2
Bullet Ballet

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 30 December 2013

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Cast: Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Kirina Mano, Takahiro Murase, Tatsuya Nakamura

Japan 1998

87 mins

Although it has the kind of title that puts you in mind of the gunplay heroics of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, Bullet Ballet (1998) is the latest Shin’ya Tsukamoto release from UK Asian film distributor Third Window Films, complete with a new HD transfer supervised by the cult Japanese director himself.

Goda (Tsukamoto) is a thirty-something TV ad director who returns to his Tokyo apartment one evening to find that his fiancée has committed suicide for no discernible reason. But rather than dwelling exclusively on the enigma of ‘why’, Goda’s mournful obsession soon turns to the practicality of ‘how’ and he tries to acquire the same model handgun – a .38 ‘Chief’s Special’ – that his fiancée used to end her life. However, due to Japan’s strict gun control laws, Goda settles with trying to build his own and becomes embroiled with the Tokyo underbelly, where anarchic young thugs run wild. He homes in on a particular group who have mugged and humiliated him in the past. His obsession with destruction turns into a desire for revenge.

Bullet Ballet returns to the punchy monochrome look that helped make Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo (1989) film feel like a nightmarish fever-dream caught on celluloid. The style embellishes the béton brut of Tokyo’s alleyways, underpasses and stoic apartment blocks, but also feels apropos to Goda’s stark mindset as he embarks on his odyssey of rage and self-destruction. These are typical themes in Tsukamoto’s filmmaking, where the protagonists – often emotionally deadened white-collar slaves – reacquaint themselves with their primal humanity, previously thought to have been lost to the crushing modernity of the sprawling metropolis. As in Tokyo Fist (1995), anger is the key to reconnection. However, Bullet Ballet sheds the last remnants of the fantasy violence that characterised Tsukamoto’s early work and still lingered in Tokyo Fist, leaving us with a film that is forged from grain, grit and lack of compromise.

What also sets Bullet Ballet apart from Tsukamoto’s other films is that his typical viewpoint of the repressed salaryman shares the stage with characters from delinquent youth culture, in particular the reckless Chisato (Kirina Mano), a tough young woman with a death wish, and gang leader Goto (Takahiro Murase), whose newly acquired day job causes the rest of the gang to question his street cred. The disenfranchised, no-future attitude of these petty criminals feels not only like a tipping of the hat to the early punk films of Sogo Ishii (a big influence on Tsukamoto), but also taps into the general pessimism of Japan’s out-of-shape economy during the 1990s. Tsukamoto has always been aware of his surroundings, but this seems to be the first time that he is drawing directly from the zeitgeist. Like New York City in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Tokyo is rotting away from the inside and is quickly becoming a playground for anarchy and mayhem. ‘In dreams you can kill people and never get caught. Tokyo is one big dream,’ says the drug-dealing patriarch Idei (Tatsuya Nakamura) to Goto, who has been coerced into shooting a stranger of his choosing in order to regain his honour.

Bullet Ballet is an exhilarating descent into this decaying urban labyrinth and the result is as brilliantly intense as you would expect from a Tsukamoto film. He frames his generational conflict within a fluid, jangly editing structure, reminiscent of the nouvelle vague, that cuts to the quick. But although the film nihilistically depicts a society seemingly on the brink of collapse, and boasts the tough and brutish aesthetic palette of a multi-storey car park, there is a delicate beauty waiting to be found amidst the ugliness. It is especially true in the film’s strangely edifying closing moments, where escape and embrace become an ethereal blur.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist and Tetsuo are also available on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/b) from Third Window Films.

Mark Player

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Drug War

Drug War
Drug War

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu

Cast: Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung

Original title: Du zhan

China, Hong Kong 2012

107 mins

Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.

Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.

The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.

For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.

Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.

It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.

Richard Badley

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