Cinema Retro's Dean Brierly takes a look at an offbeat Japanese film series new to DVD.
As film attendance in the United States declined dramatically
in the 1950s due to television’s increasing popularity, the Hollywood Empire
struck back with a wave of widescreen Technicolor spectaculars to lure
audiences back into theaters. When a similar small vs. big screen scenario
played out in Japan in the late sixties and early seventies, major studios like
Nikkatsu, Daiei and Toei staved off financial disaster by co-opting the “pink
film,” a type of softcore porn previously the domain of small, independent
studios. The big outfits raised the pink film into the mainstream via higher
production values, compelling narratives and superior direction, a formula that
proved potent both from a commercial and critical perspective.
Original Japanese poster for Quick Draw Okatsu (Photo: Dean Brierly collection)
From the pink film was spawned a wild subgenre that came to
be known as “pinky violence,” in which studios amped up the sex and violence
quotient of the female swordplay, women in prison and girl gang film. All
featured tough, independent heroines equally comfortable wielding their
sexuality as meting out lethal retribution. These highly stylized films
brilliantly walked a mind-bending tightrope between sleazy exploitation and
female empowerment. There are few equivalents to these kinds of films in
Western cinema, outside of such early seventies Pam Grier vehicles like Coffy
and Foxy Brown. The pinky violence influence also lives on in such
Quentin Tarantino epics as Kill Bill and Death Proof.
Toei’s late-sixties “Legends of the Poisonous Seductress”
trilogy, recently brought to DVD by Synapse Films (in association with Panik
House Entertainment), was in the vanguard of the pinky violence movement.
Although not as sexually explicit as later films in the genre, they did boast a
more intense eroticism than Japanese audiences were used to, along with
head-turning doses of ultra-gory violence. And while most pinky violence films
were set in contemporary Japan, the Poisonous Seductress trilogy unfolds during
the Sengoku, or warring states period (between the 15th to 17th centuries),
familiar to viewers of such Kurosawa epics as Seven Samurai. The period
setting, with its political context of intrigue and upheaval, contributes to
the films’ unique atmosphere and provides a down-to-earth contrast to their
over-the-top visual aesthetic.
This particular trilogy is also unusual in that the films
are not linked sequentially and that in each outing star Junko Miyazono plays a
different character. Each of the film’s narratives, however, set Miyazono off
on a violent revenge quest after being forced to watch loved ones tortured to
death while undergoing sexual violation by a depraved, power-hungry magistrate.
The rape scenes, while disturbing, are invariably filmed with restraint. The
torture sequences, however, are gleefully depicted in full horrific
The films are all take place in the feudal period, so
there’s also plenty of swordplay on show. The blade-on-blade action is expertly
choreographed, and Miyazono slices and dices her way through dozens of bad guys
with considerable panache. Miyazono was a gifted if underrated actress, and is
a big reason for the films’ success. In addition to her commanding onscreen
presence, she conveys a fundamental humanity no matter how bloody her vengeance
Original Japanese release poster for Female Demon Ohyaku. (Photo: Dean Brierly collection)
In Female Demon Ohyaku (1968), the series’ first
film, Miyazono plays a somewhat disreputable tightrope artist who supplements
her income by posing as a prostitute to separate fools from their money. Such a
charmed life can’t last forever, however, and things quickly go downhill when
she falls for a dashing thief and helps him hijack a government gold shipment.
Personal betrayal leads to Ohyaku’s capture by a corrupt political official,
followed in short order by torture, rape and banishment to the evocatively
named SadoIsland penal colony. Ohyaku somehow
repels the advances of the depraved inmates while using her sexual wiles to
manipulate various warders into helping her escape. Once free, she sets out to
stick it to The Man in her inimitable bloodthirsty style. Filmed in stark black
and white, Female Demon Ohyaku is arguably the strongest entry in the
series, with bravura performances from Miyazono and the supporting cast,
brilliantly staged swordplay, and an unsettling Grand Guignol atmosphere.
Quick Draw Okatsu (1969) serves up much more of the
same in richly saturated color (the better to enjoy the unrestrained
bloodletting) and with an enhanced revenge quotient. This time around Miyazono
plays Okatsu, the beautiful, sword-savvy daughter of a fencing-school master.
When Shiozaki, the local political jackal, comes sniffing around to ask for
hand in marriage, Okatsu’s father bluntly refuses him. Shiozaki, who’s
otherwise engaged in fleecing the local farmers, promptly connives to saddle
Okatsu’s brother with a massive gambling debt so her father will be forced to
sanction the unholy union. When he still won’t play ball, Shiozaki consigns him
to a harrowing fate while taking his pleasure from a reluctant Okatsu. She
later escapes with the aid of Rui, an enigmatic female drifter who’s equally skilled
with a sword—and who runs around in a period-defying mini-skirt! Having escaped
the frying pan, Okatsu is dropped into the fire, being drugged and sold into
prostitution by the sleazeball couple that murdered her brother. It’s now way
past time for some Big Payback, so Okatsu and Rui begin carving their way
through Shiozaki’s lackeys until Okatsu finally corners the craven coward and
serves him his just deserts.
Miyazono again plays a character named Okatsu in the final
installment, Okatsu the Fugitive (1969), as the devoted daughter of
parents who are put to death for refusing to release a document that could send
a venal merchant to prison. Okatsu’s father undergoes a diabolical water
torture (one that resonates with uncomfortable currency) before going to meet
his maker. Her mother is also maltreated and dispatched to the afterlife.
Okatsu suffers numerous trials of her own as her vendetta plunges her into a
criminal netherworld where treachery is the only constant. She eventually
enlists the aid of a virtuous and virtuoso young samurai to set things right.
Once again, there’s enough hack-and-slash action to satisfy even the most jaded
swordplay fan. And while the presence of a group of calculatedly cute orphans
threatens to inject an unwelcome note of sentimentality, the climactic showdown
above a bottomless drowning pool, in which Okatsu pushes her demon of revenge
persona to its furthest limits, ends the film on a most satisfying and
Kudos to Synapse (synapse-films.com) and Panik House
(panikhouse.com) for making these seminal films available in pristine,
razor-sharp transfers that bring all the cruelty and carnage to life in
eye-popping glory. Like a sake-fueled excursion into a forbidden world, the
“Legends of the Poisonous Seductress” trilogy is the perfect cinematic
pick-me-up for thrill-thirsty cinephiles.