Tuesday, 27 March 2012
Sex & Fury
(Norifumi Suzuki, 1973)
Thus far in this series we’ve been looking at films with a contemporary setting, but there were also quite a few pinky violence-affiliated films with a period setting - attempts to incorporate the 'violent female action' sub-genre into the more traditional confines of the ninkyo (‘chivalry’) films pioneered by Toei during the ‘50s and ‘60s, presumably with the aim of rejuvenating the latter genre’s fading box office appeal.
Of the three films I’d consider a rough ‘holy trinity’ of these kinds of cross-overs, two - Toshiya Fujita’s ‘Lady Snowblood’ and Teruo Ishii’s startling ‘Blind Woman’s Curse’ – are very much borderline entries that I’d be reluctant to place under the ‘pinky violence’ banner. The third though – ‘Sex & Fury’ – certainly makes no bones about its alignment to the genre, as the reliably manic Norifumi Suzuki drags all the chaos and sleaze of his girl gang and WIP films back in time, with (needless to say) hugely entertaining results, working with what looks to have been an unusually lavish budget to create a movie that's basically the closest thing the world will ever see to a Pinky Violence Historical Epic.
As distinct from feudal era Samurai films, ninkyo movies are usually set in the Meiji era, which began with the end of Japan’s isolation from the wider world in 1868 and officially ended in 1912. A period of vast social change and political turmoil, the Meiji era can (in filmic terms at least) be roughly equated to Japan’s own ‘Wild West’, with the heroes of these movies – gamblers and gangsters attempting to uphold the traditional virtues of chivalry in the face of strife, corruption and malign foreign intervention – perhaps veeery roughly equating to the last-real-men-in-a-doomed-world heroes of a Leone or Peckinpah western.
I mention this background simply because it plays into ‘Sex & Fury’ to a considerable extent. Our tale begins in 1886 (or Meiji year 16) with a young Ocho seeing her father (a police detective) killed by yakuza. (Funny isn’t it how so many PV films feature daughters avenging their fathers, a fairly rare turn of events in Western revenge films?) He dies clutching a handful of hanafuna playing cards, providing the transition in to a wonderfully stylised opening sequence that sees Ocho, now grown up into the shape of Reiko Ike, tattooed and wielding a short-sword, striking combat poses amid a brightly-lit pop-art fantasia that reproduces the imagery from the bloody cards on a huge scale – a pretty striking visual device that immediately marks out ‘Sex & Fury’ as something a bit grander in ambition than your average PV flick.
This impression is underscored by the fact that the credits are immediately followed by a lightning fast history lesson, with captions and still photographs giving us the skinny on significant Meiji era events, including the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars, leading all the way up to 1905 (Meiji 38). “Now is a civilised era of enlightenment”, the on-screen text concludes, on what we already know is going to be a blackly ironic note.
An independent woman par excellence, the grown-up Ocho seems to be doing alright for herself pursuing her interests as a gambler, sword-fighter and compulsive pick-pocket, but fate swiftly takes a hand when she steps in to aid the escape of an apparently crazed anarchist who has just tried to assassinate a big-shot politician named Kurokawa. (Very much a ‘modern’ sort of chap, he is seen engaging in internationalist power-broking in baronial, Western style surroundings.)
After Ocho subsequently witnesses an entirely unconnected (or is it..?) murder at a gambling house she frequents, the boss of the house apparently dispatches a gang of armed men to take her down, leading directly to what is almost certainly the film’s overall highlight, an absolutely breathtaking sequence that sees our heroine leaping nude from the bath and slaughtering about a dozen warriors in glorious slo mo – as the snow falls on the ornamental garden outside, naturally. I’ll admit that even on my second viewing I wasn’t *entirely* sure what’s supposed to be going on here plot-wise, but who cares frankly – the sight of Reiko Ike, blood-soaked, tattooed and naked, performing acrobatic leaps and dives as she severs limbs and slices throats surely has to be one of the quintessential images of all Japanese exploitation cinema.
It’s an exhilarating bit of filmmaking, inexplicably accompanied by a jaunty tune that sounds like something off a Herb Alpert album, and the crazy echo on the sword swoosh sound effects alone blows my mind. Aside from anything else, it’s a testament to the professionalism of the film’s editors, technicians and fight choreographers that they managed to cut together a five minute, multi-angle sequence in which a naked woman spins around a room fighting multiple assailants, without once breaking Japanese cinema’s pubic hair embargo. And if the rest of ‘Sex & Fury’ never quite manages to top this scene, well, it’s certainly not for want of trying. Unexpectedly throwing in a sequence that outdoes the finale of 90% of action movies in the opening fifteen minutes sets the bar pretty high for the subsequent seventy five.
By the time we’ve got our breath back and poured a stiff drink, an ambitious and convoluted tale has already begun to unfold, honouring the film’s historical setting with a real Dickensian sprawl of intersecting storylines, packed with intrigue and melodrama to beat the band.
First off, it turns out that the anarchist whose life Ocho saved is desperately in love with a foreign spy named Christina. Not only “the foremost female gambler from a Western country”, but also apparently “the most popular dancer in the stormy city of London, England”, Christina is played by none other than Scandinavian sexploitation goddess Christina Lindberg. Unable to even speak the same language, it seems its love at first sight for these two, prompting all manner of star-crossed shenanigans, set against some pretty complex political machinations. Christina’s ‘handler’ is a chap named Guinness, an Englishman and guest of Kurokawa who secretly aims to bring Japan under the influence of the British Empire by means of “starting a second opium war in this barbaric country”.
As an aside, can anyone help me ID the actor who plays Guinness? IMDB has him down as one ‘Mark Darling’ in his only screen appearance, but I’m SURE I’ve seen the guy in a few Euro-horror movies and such. Anyone care to jog my memory?
Like any good pinky violence heroine, Ocho has her own gang of loyal female buddies, time in the form of a sisterhood of fellow orphan pick-pockets who operate as part of a kind of benevolent Bill Sykes / Fagin type operation overseen by the big-hearted lady who describes herself as their adopted mother. Then there’s a sub-plot about Ocho taking up the cause of a dying gambler who was trying to raise money to stop his sister is being sold into slavery. Oh, and of course she’s also trying to identify the coded yakuza animal tattoos that identify her father’s killers, in order to wreak the necessary vengeance upon them.
So seriously, there’s all kindsa shit going on, all realised on the kind of scale that Western exploitation flicks of the same period barely even attempted. Suzuki certainly doesn’t skimp on the sex or the fury either though, happily rocketing through his usual line-up of OTT set-pieces, this time taking in a battle with switchblade-wielding nuns onboard an express train to Osaka, and Lindberg in a cow-girl outfit whipping a chained Ike to the accompaniment of spookshow organ music in a weird Christian chapel / torture chamber straight out of ‘School of the Holy Beast’ (what is WITH this guy’s thing for cowgirl outfits and Xtian imagery anyway..?). One particularly eye-popping / credulity-stretching scene even features Ocho’s pick-pocket friends being tied to the ceiling and beaten with sticks in a darkened room that looks like one of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable concerts, prints of Japanese military exploits projected on the wall overlaid with psychedelic lighting and flashing strobes.
Plenty of the usual rapey unpleasantness is also in evidence of course, but even several lengthy (semi-consensual) sex scenes don’t slacken the pace – they’re excitingly shot with kinetic camerawork and some winningly kinky details (the bit where Ocho kills a vengeance-recipient by smearing her body with poisoned perfume is worthy of Jess Franco’s fevered imaginings). Many things ‘Sex & Fury’ may be, but it’s NEVER boring, the beautiful, lively photography full of fast cutting, crash zooms and focus shifts, detailed close-ups and solid blocks of bright colour, reminiscent of both Jack Hill’s better exploitation efforts and the technicolor frenzies of Seijun Suzuki’s ‘Toyko Drifter’.
As with many of Norifumi Suzuki’s films, ‘packed with incident’ scarcely does the maximalist approach on display here justice. To all intents and purposes, it’s a‘70s exploitation fan’s wet dream come true, a rollercoaster ride through everything that made that decade’s popular cinema so wild and vibrant, and a directorial high wire act that serves up enough sex and fury to satisfy the audience’s appetites ten times over, with vast swathes of barbed socio-political commentary, historical melodrama and pop art visual excess thrown in for good measure – the kind of densely-packed, rip-roaring 90 minute entertainment that shows up today’s slack-ass multiplex directors for the time-wasting clowns they are. God bless you Norifumi, you freakin’ maniac.
Surprisingly, about the one thing this movie doesn’t manage to cram in is an enka ballad, so instead here’s a nice English language voice-over segment in which Christina Lindberg discusses the sad lot of a female spy.