As discussed in a previous blog I find that some of the Japanese action movies from the 60s and 70s offer a fascinating if distasteful viewing experience. A bizarre mixture of martial arts and exploitation, they are able to cover the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. I guess I am thinking of films like the Lone Wolf and Cub series* (which I actually love even though I have to forgive them for rape scenes aplenty) or the more hard core Hanzo the Razor series (which I don’t and can’t).
I have only seen a couple of pinku eiga films which, for the unitiated, are soft porn martial arts films, and I am not sure that this is the genre for me. I find all of the repeated boob shots and soft core fondling to be a bit of a bore, although, to be fair, I am not sure that I, as a middle aged woman, am representative of this genre’s intended fan demographic. The feminist in me is fairly disgusted by the exploitative use of women in these movies. But the film fan in me does, at the same time, appreciate the flair and skill with which the films are made.
There is a fight scene in Sex and Fury which encapsulates the qualities that lead to this divided stance in me as a viewer. In this particular scene, the protagonist (played by the excellent Ike Reiko) is attacked by a gang of yakuza while she is in her bath. Naked, she leaps out and grabs a sword and then proceeds to slash her way through the entire gang, first in a tatami matted room and then in a snow filled garden. The whole scene is shot in slow motion and shows copious amounts of gore.
This is a great action scene, beautifully shot and lit, with lovely art direction and nice choreography. Ike bounds about in abandon and swings her sword with the kind of athletic motion that brings to mind an A grade baseballer. Despite the brutal effect of the fountains of blood the scene looks beautiful. Actually, the spatter adds to the aesthetic effect, as the scarlet of the blood contrasts strikingly with the white of the snow (I know how pathetic that sounds – I’m cringing as I write it – but it’s true). This is an instance where these movies repel and attract at the same time.
Is the scene exploitative? Hell yeah! Ike’s naked little body is the main focus of attention in this scene and I’m quite sure that this does things to the average hot blooded male. But, perversely, the sleaziest, nastiest and psychologically murkiest aspect of this scene – naked sexy woman enacting unspeakable violence – contributes to some of the greatest beauty. It’s all in the skill of the filming and performances. The scene is shot in slow motion, surely all the better for us to inspect Ike’s naked body from every possible angle. Plenty of time to take in every slow mo flop of her boobs or every quiver of her taut little buttocks as she leaps about. And leap about she does – there is nothing coy or affected about Ike’s physical performance. It is athletic, energetic, businesslike, ferocious screen fighting. This makes the fact that we do not so much as glimpse a single millimetre of muff as amazing, and is a signifier as to just how carefully this fight was choreographed and staged (and then edited – what ended up on the cutting room floor I wonder?), and just how precisely in control of her spontaneous looking movement Ike was. The slow motion may have been employed to allow the blokes in the audience time to drool, but it also allows us time to enjoy the genuine grace of Ike’s performance. As a female, I found myself approving of how fit she looked and of how unaffected and dynamic and vigorous her movements were. Even as her nudity invites a lecherous gaze, she looks anything but helpless and vulnerable. Exploitation or not, Ike’s screen fighting makes her look like a force to be reckoned with and I liked that as much as I disliked the prurience of the scene.
As much as Ike’s naked body is the main point of focus of this scene, and as much as I suspect that this is an exercise in sexploitation, the filmmakers have not used this as an excuse to skimp on actual content and craft; and this is what makes films like this still watchable for me. As this is an action scene the content is mainly visual and kinetic; and the craft in question pertains to film making techniques such as effectively designed mise en scene, cinematography and editing.
It is the presence of this well-crafted content that sustains the viewer’s interest after the shock value of the sight of a naked woman racing about with a sword wears off. Whoever choreographed or directed this scene mixed in a variety of different stances and movements for Ike to perform, including some nice floor work in the tatami matted room as well more free ranging movement once the fight spills out into the garden. The fight has been staged so that the space afforded by the sets is gracefully used. A notable chunk of screen time is given over to footage showing just Ike’s lower legs and feet prancing through the snow as she ploughs her way through the villains. The deft placing of Ike’s little feet in this section of the scene, and the fact that the director has chosen to focus our attention on them, is another signifier that, whatever else the motives of the scene’s creators were, they still gave priority to showing precision in movement and staging and also to serving up a variety of nicely edited shots to the viewer.
This particular section of the choreography ends with an image showing Ike’s feet on either side of a man’s face as she plunges a sword through his body, causing him to spasm as he dies. Soon after this image, the fight ends with Ike jumping astride another man in a knee and elbow pumping action that leaves no room for feminine delicacy as she dispatches him. We see her buttocks and thighs lower towards his tense and spasming torso as she drives her sword down and then we see his warm and viscous bodily fluid (in this case blood) spray across her face. These 2 images, in particular, offer a moment of extreme physical intimacy between combatants in which sex and violence conjunct. It is a squirm inducing moment, and as to whether the squirming is a manifestation of horniness, squeamishness or both is best left to the viewer to decide in the privacy of their own heads.
Accompanied by a snappy lounge music soundtrack, and performed with that straight down the barrel, un-self-conscious and non-ironic performance style that is peculiar to Asian martial arts movies of this era (and which the Kill Bill films tried to ape so clumsily and self-consciously in my opinion), this fight scene epitomises the unembarrassed mixture of exploitative material chosen for its shock value with a considered, deliberate and sophisticated approach to the craft of creating great action cinema.
*I have written a blog about one of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies here