Director/Coscreenwriter: Norifumi Suzuki
By Roderick Heath
In the late 1960s, Japanese cinema artisans, like many around the world, were driven to court youth markets and shake up the gentility of traditional cinema as cultural mores altered rapidly. But the Japanese film industry, unlike western ones, which mostly maintained a rigorous separation of mainstream and exploitation cinema, saw at least for a time a much bolder sea-change. Once-hidebound studios like Toei and fresh young filmmakers ranging from eager hacks to artistic guerrillas turned increasingly to tales of violence and sexuality. This gave birth to what has been generally memorialised as the “Pink” cinema, and one substratum of this, “Pinky Violence” films, has found some belated popularity outside Japan for it sheer, outrageously enthusiastic indulgence and correlation of soft-core sex and sadism of a variety that few Western filmmakers ever felt comfortable blending. Norifumi Suzuki’s Furyô anego den is certainly a prime example of that kinky new wave, but it demands attention for being one of the most visually and conceptually arresting films of the early 1970s, a bizarre, twisted, pop-art, even poetic, blood-and-skin action flick.
Like Toshiyo Fujita’s Lady Snowblood of the same year, (and, like that film, another influence on Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1, 2003), it’s about a vengeance-seeking heroine whose art with a katana blade matches her streetwise wits in contending with monolithic corruption. But where Lady Snowblood is tough, semi-realistic, and structurally ironic, Sex and Fury is flashy and self-consciously pop in its stylisation, blurring into surrealism on occasion. Commencing with a title sequence that evokes, to my eye, the effects of a lot of hipster Eurocinema of the previous decade, including the James Bond films, Suzuki’s film suggests an effort to try to find a new export market, including, as its narrative does, not only visual shout-outs to foreign cultural phenomena but also a prominent Western character in the story. Suzuki’s almost abstract visual patterns kick off in a pretitle sequence in which a young girl, Kyoko Kazai, a picture-perfect specimen of Japanese girlhood swathed in an elegant kimono and balanced preciously on clogs, walks with her genial police detective father along a covered walkway framed by red trestles. When the girl loses her ball, she chases it, and whilst her back is turned, her father is set upon by lurking assassins who riddle him with stab wounds.
Cut to 20 years later, and the girl has grown into a pickpocket and brutally talented warrior calling herself Ochô Inoshika (Reiko Ike). Ochô is the most admired member of a gang of whores and pickpockets led by Ochô’s adoptive mother Ogin (Akemi Negishi). She becomes enmeshed in a larger power game when young radical Shunosuke (Tadashi Naruse) attempts to kill plutocrat Kurokawa, who is capping off a rise to unrivaled power and prestige through his business machinations and as the head Seishinkai political faction. Shunosuke’s attack fails, and he flees, wounded, only to run literally into Ochô. She tends him before passing him on to his fellow radicals, reflexively stealing his fob watch in which she find the photo of a beautiful European woman.
Ochô is still searching for her father’s murderers, working from the only clue he left her, three hanafuda gambling tiles displaying a deer, a boar, and a butterfly that he clutched as he lay dying. She has traveled to the town of Kanazawa to look to gambling kingpin Inamura for help in tracking down her father’s assassins and witnesses a violent spectacle in which a man is caught cheating and is summarily murdered by Inamura’s agents. He dies in Ochô’s arms, sputtering claims that he’s been set up and begging her to take his money and save his sister Yuki from being sold in a brothel. But before Ochô can leave the gambling house, she’s set upon by Inamura’s thugs whilst she is bathing, prompting Ochô to spring out of the tub and tear pell-mell through the attacking force like a provoked demon.
This brain-boggling scene would justify the film’s canonisation on its own. Anticipating and rendering rather timid the nude fight scene in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Ochô, naked as the day she was born save for the elegant sprawl of tattoos on her chest and back, springs, twists, leaps, and rolls in contending with the assassins, blood spray steadily decorating her body in variegated patterns, and her own deep delight in dealing out death all too plain on her face. She is, all at once, an object of fetish, a study in motion, a dream of vengeance, and a cultural artifact as boldly revealing and reveling in the strength of the female body as any on record. Technically noteworthy is an extended shot that concentrates merely on Ochô’s legs after she dashes out of the house and does battle in a snow-covered courtyard, watching her dancerlike motions, feet dabbing at the snow, severed limbs and spitting blood dropping like rain around her. Ochô survives this battle, makes contact with both her sisters in crime and with Shunosuke, and then tries to buy Yuki (Rie Saotome). But Yuki, being kept in the whorehouse of scar-faced pimp Kizugen, has caught the eye of construction magnate Iwakura, who declares, “Deflowering virgins is my specialty.” Iwakura’s determined to keep hold of Yuki, however, leads him to propose a novel solution: he wants Ochô to play cards for Yuki, against Christina (Cristina Lindberg), a British dancer who’s also a famous gambler. They’re keenly contrasted types, Ochô with her traditional dress, Christina doll-like in her Victorian hoop skirts, and yet both possess streetwise cunning and cool self-control when it comes to their contest.
The contest between Ochô and Christina comes at a swanky function given by Iwakura’s industrialist partner Kurokawa, with Western guests present, including the stern Guinness (Mark Darling), an American businessman who’s conniving with and undermining Kurokawa to gain control over the Japanese government. Christina is actually his agent, whom he’s planning to use as a honey trap to infiltrate Kurokawa’s household. When Shunosuke and other radicals storm the ball to try again to kill Kurokawa, Christina shoots each of the intruders, but cannot shoot Shunosuke—he’s her former lover and the reason why she agreed to become Guinness’s pawn, the only way she could get into Japan. Shunosuke escapes, and a shaken Christina loses her card game with Ochô. Ochô compounds Christina’s humiliation by stealing her revolver, which brings a harsh punishment from Guinness. And yet Ochô, Shunosuke, and Christina all find themselves on a collision course with Kurokawa’s cabal, and soon enough Ochô discovers that Kurokawa and Iwakura sport tattoos on their backs corresponding to the boar and deer: their current prosperity is rooted in their assassination of her father, who was investigating one of their scams.
The film is saddled with some poor humour provided by the dopey student Kanichi who’s a kind of mascot for the pickpockets, prompting a dim scene in which he presents the women a strange new invention he stole from a woman—a condom. The most significant problem, however, with Sex and Fury is that whilst it doles out both title items liberally, there’s too much of the sex…no, seriously. The middle third bogs down with a proliferation of fan service: Yuki being raped by Iwakura; Christina being sexually bullied by Guinness; Iwakura drooling over Ochô; Iwakura sleeping with Kurokawa’s wife; Christina subjecting herself to a lesbian partnership with Kurokawa’s serving girl to excite the onlooking tycoon. It does all, however, relate to the film’s peculiar texture: the victimhood of the women plays as an inverted assault on the classic “fallen women” dramas of Mizoguchi. Apart from the innocent Yuki, the female characters, particularly Ochô and Christina, put up with gross subjugations in their silently relentless efforts to gain their desired objects.
A crucial apex comes when Ochô saves her fellow hustlers from torture by Iwakura’s thugs by agreeing to sleep with the sexually gluttonous villain, but gains her vengeance by coating her skin with a poisonous paste that sends Iwakura, who has licked her body, into contortions of agony before expiring. The old association of sex and death and the image of the femme fatale have rarely been as concisely codified as it is in this moment. Yet there’s a further twist to this sexualised warfare: Ochô is still to uncover the dread secret at the heart of her life’s enigma—her mother was Kurokawa’s wife, the possessor of the butterfly tattoo that is only revealed under a shower’s hot stream. She was a whore Kurokawa ordered to marry Ochô’s father to keep an eye on him, and then arranged his killing. Kurokawa’s wife’s efforts to appeal to her long-lost daughter are met with Ochô’s horrified derision, and when Kurokawa catches her trying to free Ochô, he strangles her, shutting this grotesque family tragedy down. In spite of the stalling proliferation of skin scenes, Sex and Fury’s a great pulp genre yarn infused with a near-surreal visual rapture in a mixture that perpetually eludes most Western filmmakers.
Suzuki’s direction of Ochô and Christina’s card game is a little suite of increasingly intense close-ups, Christina’s forehead sporting drizzling sweat as her mind fills with intense sensual memories of her affair with Shunosuke, whilst the two equal/opposite women try to stare each other down over their cards. Later, when Iwakura’s men capture Ochô’s fellows in the pickpocket gang, they tie them up and beat them in a fun fair parlour, where psychedelic light effects whir and a projector shows propaganda paintings and photographs from the Sino-Russian War, explicitly linking the gangsters’ abuse of the women’s bodies to the predations of the imperialist triumph. It’s in the last half-hour when the film really hits its stride, as Ochô and Shunosuke team up to try to assassinate Kurokawa, attacking him on a train, but having to contend with his team of guarding thugs, which includes, most bizarrely, a team of flick-knife-wielding nuns who press Ochô into a corner whilst Shunosuke fights Kizugen and falls from the train. Christina, outraged to realise that Ochô was trying to kill Kurokawa with her stolen gun, knocks Ochô out with it and later, with apparent enthusiasm, whips a bound and prostrate Ochô in the basement chapel of Kurokawa’s mansion with a colossal, art-nouveau stained-glass portrait of Jesus in the background. Ochô writhes under the thrashing a buckskin-clad Christina delivers, whilst Kurokawa, his wife, and his platoon of nuns watch in indulgent dispassion.
Such a delirious blend of religion, fetish, politics, and the compulsory plot-enabling brutalisation of a hero who will resurge with rampant, justified ferocity inherent in this scene is hard to top, but Suzuki does manage it, in a scene in which Christina ventures out to meet Shunosuke on the docks after receiving a message purportedly from him. Realising they’ve been fooled into coming together, the two can’t escape the hail of bullets sent their way by a gloating Guinness. Despite Christina’s way with her gun and Shunosuke’s efforts with a sword, they both finish up riddled with bullets, prompting Suzuki’s most amazing, emotive visuals as Christina, blood pumping from her chest, throws her head back, her hair swimming in a lustrous wash, before she collapses, hazily gazing at a Union Jack flying over the dock through a pall of glittering snowflakes. She and Shunosuke die holding bloodied hands, but not before Guinness, near to deliver a coup de grace, receives a katana blade in the gut from Christina with her next-to-dying breath. It’s an operatic scene of violence and loss that would have made Sergio Leone proud. Meanwhile, Ochô manages through her resourcefulness to escape her bonds and rips her way through Kurokawa’s associates and bodyguards with unstoppable force, receiving sword gashes and bullet wounds, but still coming on with unremitting rage until she’s skewered the villain with her blade.
The very final scene is suspiciously similar to that in Lady Snowblood, with Ochô tumbling through the snow, badly, but not fatally wounded, except here the flakes transform into gambling tiles as a motif that suggests that Ochô’s life has been and will always be dominated by the perversity of chance and the symbolic taunts of the deer, the boar, and the butterfly. But despite the verboten generic niche it occupies, Sex and Fury demands respect for its stylistic and thematic boldness. Above all, fearless actress Reiko Ike could well be the most genuinely convincing female action hero I’ve ever seen in a film. Perhaps sword-fighting in the nude makes that an easy conquest, but Ike’s physical keenness and portrayal of athletic killer instinct is something else, especially in the finale as her eyes grow wider with bloodlust as she hacks her way through opponent after opponent until her body begins to give in to all her wounds. When it comes to a Swedish actress delivering English dialogue written by Japanese filmmakers in character as a Englishwoman, Lindberg is as awkward as you’d expect, but her physical performance is actually very good, and her status as a cult figure of Swedish cinema is readily understandable. Director Suzuki’s apparent talent, much like that of the closest European comparison I can make, Jesús Franco, was likewise lost as the film industry pushed further toward outright porn and horror, but he did receive a lifetime achievement award at the Yokohama Film Festival in 1985. l