Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め, Yasuzo Masumura, 1973)

Hanzo the Razor the Snare posterYasuzo Masumura had spent the majority of his career at Daiei, but following the studio’s bankruptcy, he found himself out on his own as a freelance director for hire. That is perhaps how he came to direct this improbable entry in his filmography on the second of a trilogy of exploitation leading jidaigeki films for Toho. Essentially a vanity project for former Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu who both produces and stars in the series, Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (御用牙 かみそり半蔵地獄責め , Goyokiba: Kamisori Hanzo Jigoku Zeme) is another tale of the well endowed hero of the Edo era protecting ordinary people from elite corruption, but Masumura, providing the script himself, bends it to his own will whilst maintaining the essential house style.

Hanzo (Shintaro Katsu) chases a pair of crooks right into the path of treasury officer Okubo. As expected, the lord and his retainers kick off but Hanzo won’t back down, shouting loudly about honour and justice much to his lord’s displeasure. Eventually Hanzo takes the two crooks into custody and they tell him exactly what’s happened to them this evening – they snuck over from the next village to steal some rice from the watermill but they found a dead girl in there and so they were running away in terror. Hanzo investigates and finds the partially clothed body still lying in the mill untouched but when he takes a closer look it seems the girl wasn’t exactly murdered but has died all alone after a botched abortion. Realising she smells of the incense from a local temple, Hanzo gets on the case but once again ends up uncovering a large scale government conspiracy.

Though it might not immediately seem so, Masumura’s key themes are a perfect fit for the world of Hanzo. In his early contemporary films such as Giants & Toys and Black Test Car, Masumura had painted a grim view of post-war society in which systemic corruption, personal greed, and selfishness had destroyed any possibility of well functioning human relationships. It was Masumura’s belief that true freedom and individuality was not possible within a conformist society such as Japan’s but this need for personal expression was possible through sexuality. Sex is both a need and a trap as Masumura’s (often) heroines chase their freedom through what essentially amounts to an illicit secret, using and manipulating the men around them in order to improve their otherwise dire lack of agency.

Hanzo’s investigation takes him into an oddly female world of intrigue in which a buddhist nun has been duped into becoming a middle-woman in a government backed scheme pimping innocent local girls to the highest bidder among a gang of wealthy local merchants. Hanzo berates the parents of the murdered girl for not having kept a better eye on her, but these misused women are left with no other recourse than the shady protection of others inhabiting the same world of corrupt transactions such as the local shamaness who has developed a “new method of abortion” just as Hanzo has developed a “new method of torture” which involves a bizarrely sexualised ritual in which both parties must be fully naked before she enacts penetration with her various instruments. Hanzo first tries more usual torture methods on the nun before indulging in his trademark tactic of trapping her in a net to be raised and lowered onto his oversize penis which he keeps in top notch by beating it with a stick and ramming it into a bag of rough uncooked rice.

Unlike the first film, the women are less ready to fall for Hanzo’s giant member. The nun complains loudly that her Buddhist vows of chastity are being violated while Hanzo’s later rape of the woman who runs the local mint is a much more violent affair. Hanzo grapples with her legs as she struggles, gasping as he opens his loincloth and reveals his surprisingly large appendage, once again playing into the fallacy that all women harbour some kind of rape fantasy. Hanzo has done this, he claims, to “calm her down”, because he could sense her sexual frustration and desperate need for male contact. To be fair to Hanzo, he does appear to be correct in his reading of the woman’s behaviour as she sheds her anxiety and becomes a firm devotee of the cult of Hanzo.

Meanwhile, political concerns bubble in the background as the main conspiracy revolves around consistent currency devaluations which are placing a stranglehold on the fortunes of the poor while their overlords, who are supposed to be protecting them, spend vast sums on claiming the virginity of innocent young girls. Hanzo may be a rapist himself (though he makes it clear that he derives no pleasure from his actions and only gives pleasure to the women involved), but he draws the line at the misuse of innocents, saving a little girl about to be violated by the master criminal Hamajima (Kei Sato) in a daring confrontation in which he boldly brings his own coffin, just in case.

Masumura broadly sticks to the Toho house style, but gone is the camp comedy of the first instalment with its giggly gossipers and humorous shots of Hanzo’s permanently erect penis. Instead he opts for an increase in sleazy voyeurism, filling the screen with female nudity whilst neatly implicating the male audience who enjoy such objectification by shooting from secretive angles as his collection of dirty old men crowd round a two way mirror to watch the lucky winner torture and abuse the soft young flesh they’ve just been bidding on. Like Sword of Justice, The Snare also ends with a slightly extraneous coda in which Hanzo settles a dispute with another official by means of a duel he would rather not have fought. Walking off bravely into the darkness, Hanzo utters only the word “idiot” for a man who wasted his life on petty samurai pride. Hanzo has better things to do, protecting the common man from just such men who place hypocritical ideas of pride and honour above general human decency in their need for domination through fear and violence over his own tenet of unrestrained pleasure.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

Snapshot-2015-11-17 at 11_12_15 PM-1889818228One of the foremost avant-garde filmmakers of the New Wave era (though he detested this term which, in fairness, is a retrospective and often arbitrary label), Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida has remained largely unseen in the West. Some of this is his own fault – fiercely independent, Yoshida nevertheless found himself working with ATG after leaving Shochiku but the relationship was an unusual one and often far from easy. All but the latest film in Arrow’s Kiju Yoshida boxset, Coup d’Etat, were completed more or less independently and only distributed though ATG and as such not truly “ATG” films. Though it bears many of the hallmarks of a late ‘60s ATG movie, Eros + Massacre (エロス+虐殺, Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu) is one such effort and the one which helped to make Yoshida’s name even if it was only seen in an abridged version.

Structurally complex, Eros + Massacre mixes the world of the Taisho anarchists, Osugi Sakae and Ito Noe, with the contemporary Tokyo of the sixties through the prism of two modern students who are running a research project into the events surrounding their ultimate assassination during the panic after the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Eiko is a sexually liberated modern woman who engages in casual prostitution and her boyfriend, Wada, is a sexually impotent young man with a traumatic past and habit of playing with fire. The vision we see of the Taisho era is filtered through the perceptions of Eiko and Wada and, in fact, we start to see them as living with us in a real sense as Ito wanders around modern Tokyo, observing the fruits of her struggle and in one notable episode being interviewed by Eiko.

The film exists in two distinct versions – this is less to do with any kind of censorship, either commercial or political, than a legal or possibly moral issue. The fact is, the other of Osugi’s mistresses, Kamichika Ichiko, was still alive at the time the film was completed and had also become a serving politician. Unhappy with her portrayal in the film and unwilling to have a potentially embarrassing event from her previous life dragged back into the spotlight, she threatened to sue and Yoshida voluntarily decided to recut the film to remove many of her scenes as well as renaming the character to distance her from her real life counterpart. The shorter version of the film is the one which helped make Yoshida’s reputation and though nothing in the shorter version is not in the longer one, this version feels a little less “avant-garde” in tone than the intended full cut of the film.

Yoshida often gives way to surreal incidents such as the clash between the Taisho era followers of Osugi and a group of young rugby players tussling over the white wrapped remains of Osugi, the expressionist scene in which the mistress, Itsuko, clutches at a knife hovering in mid air causing the screen to fill with blood raining down from above or the repeated stabbings of Osugi each re-imagined in differing scenarios. His framing is always beautifully idiosyncratic as he makes use of the edges of the frames, disembodying his actors or dividing them with walls and windows. There is no sense of conventional narrative as timelines blur into each other becoming evermore indistinct and the dialogue is often elliptical or poetic rather than offering naturalistic content. Nevertheless, the shorter version retains fewer of these flourishes than are present in the original cut of the film.

Eiko is interested in Osugi because of his free love philosophy rather than any other political aim. Other than their interest in sexual politics, Eiko and Wada do not appear to be particularly politically active in any other way. Osugi’s ideas of total freedom do not even go down very well with his comrades who don’t approve of the way he treats his various women and his disingenuous denial that there is any discord between his band of concubines seems wilfully naive. Osugi’s treatment of the three women in his life – his wife, Yasuko, mistress Itsuko (who is financially supporting both Osugi and his wife despite Osugi’s advocacy of free love insisting on financial independence of all parties), and now his latest lover Noe, is extremely self-centred and unfair. As the first to live in this unorthodox fashion, it’s unsurprising that the arrangement comes in for criticism from all quarters. Yoshida posits that it was Osugi’s free love lifestyle that eventually lead to his shock execution during the chaos following the Great Kanto earthquake as his modern ideals threatened the very idea of the traditional family and ultimately the state itself.

By contrast, Eiko’s modern sexuality appears merely an attempt to ward of her sense of ennui. Where for Osugi sex was a political action (or so he would have it), for Eiko it’s a means of trying and failing to add some kind of meaning to her life. Eiko and Wada are not committed to any kind of rebellious action – they’re simply bored. They literally play with fire without understanding its consequences. Yoshida’s other central tenet is that youth is not beautiful – it is destructive. By implication, Eiko and Wada’s selfish pursuit of personal freedom and the modern commodification of desire is nothing more than willful self destruction.

Yoshida has stated that his primary idea for the film is how to bring about a revolution and to ask the question of what it is that needs to change. Osugi is shown up as a hypocrite whose ideals are imperfect and self centred, though his eventual murder is dictated by his refusal to conform. The fact that he envisioned a different future, wished to live in a different way, was sufficient enough to necessitate his death. The modern couple misuse their own freedom and are willing to watch the world burn just to feel the heat. They are incapable of effecting real social change because their focus is always inwards rather than a dedication to the betterment of all mankind. Confounding, intriguing and beautifully shot Eros + Massacre is far from easy to digest but is an essential entry in the history of Japanese avant-garde cinema.


Available now in the UK as part of Arrow Films’ Kiju Yoshida: Love + Anarchism box set.

Reviews of the other movies in the set: