"Unlike animals, human beings require more than progeny: they require progeny who remember them. To overcome mortality we create culture, a dialogue among generations that links the dead with the yet unborn. Even the Neanderthals buried their dead with grave-gifts, a token of belief of life beyond the grave. Whether or not we pray to a personal god or confess a particular religion, the existential question remains the same. Without the hope of immortality we cannot bear mortality. Cultures that have lost the hope of immortality also lose the will to live. Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the perception of immortality." - David P. Goldman
Review Date: March 4, 2010
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 7/29/2008
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
At first glance, Dr. Saeko Mikami (Michiko Sakyō
) seems like the model of a modern woman. A highly respected OBGYN in postwar Japan, Saeko runs a successful clinic along with her assistant, a nurse named Keiko (Naomi Tani
). But this apparently happy doctor harbors a deep and shameful secret – when she was sixteen she was gang raped by a group of men who impregnated her, and gave her syphilis. Ever since then she has hated all men and uses her spare time to take revenge on them. At night she likes to troll the streets, picking up men and seducing them. Then, while they sleep, she makes a small incision into their body and rubs a cotton swab infected with syphilis over it. Then she disappears, never to see them again.
Feeling under increasing strain with her practice, Saeko decides to hire on another hand and chooses Dr. Takao Watanabi (Akihiko Kanbara
), a professor of medicine looking for more interesting work. Suave and urbane, the new doctor immediately charms all the women at the clinic, including Saeko, though she doesn’t acknowledge it. But Saeko has been feeling nauseous lately and realizes that her last syphilis victim has gotten her pregnant. Desperate to be rid of the fetus growing inside of her she waits until the clinic is closed and then performs an abortion on herself, passing out at the end. The next morning Dr. Watanabi shows up for work and discovers her passed out. Realizing what happened, he assures her that her secret is safe with him. He even refuses money from Saeko as a thank you.
Saeko and Watanabi realize their attraction to each other and have a passionate love affair. Their romance is not even interrupted when a former victim of Saeko tracks her down and tries to blackmail her, causing her to kill him in self defense. The two doctors are married soon and live a seemingly happy life, but the guilt of killing the man haunts Saeko and she starts drinking and passing out each night. Curious about the chemical properties of her alcohol she does laboratory tests and discovers something shocking – it’s been laced with a powerful sedative. No one could have put it in there except her husband, but why is he drugging the woman he says he loves?
Human beings like to placate themselves with notions of immortality. Everyone in their youth believes deep down that they will be the first human to live forever. Facing one's mortality is an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience, so much so that we would rather look away when our sick and aging loved ones are forced to do it. The only routes that we have to anything resembling eternal life on Earth is through this mixture of history, religion and art we call culture. William Shakespeare may have died hundreds of years ago, but as long as his plays survive, and especially as long as they are read, performed, adapted and analyzed, then he has effectively cheated death.
Movies are an even more literal way to immortality. Shakespeare's plays and poems have survived, but other things relating to his legacy have disappeared. We may know the names of some of the actors who performed his works when they were new, but their exact images, their talent as thespians and the sound of their voices have all been lost to the ages. We know that men built sets for his plays, but those are gone. We know that actors wore costumes, but even if we have some general idea what they looked like, their exact details have vanished. Scholars are not even necessarily sure that the popular image of Shakespeare's physical appearance is truly accurate. But movies capture everything. The survival of a movie insures a type of immortality not just for the writer, but for everyone whose contributions can be seen or heard onscreen. The loss of a movie can be so much more of a loss for culture than the loss of an individual manuscript because you lose more pieces of more people.
I'm not talking about this subject arbitrarily. There is a reason why I bring this up, why I opened this review with the quote from David Goldman. It applies to Madame O
because it's an example of how the contributions of many people have been, mostly through sheer luck, preserved. When I first got this disc and put it into my DVD player I felt confused. I had not looked too closely at the packaging and I was bewildered as to why I couldn't find a menu option for selecting the original Japanese language track. Finally I read the liner notes and realized what was going on - as far as anyone knew, the original Japanese version with its soundtrack no longer existed.
came at a point in time when the Japanese film industry was changing. Over a decade earlier the growing presence of television in American households had hurt the film business. But Japan had been set back economically by World War II and it wasn't until the 1960's that there were enough Japanese households with a TV set for it to dramatically hurt the country's film industry. But once that moment came Japanese studios had to learn the same lesson Hollywood had in the 50's by putting content on movie screens that consumers couldn't get on their TV screens.
A sub-genre called eroduction
- sexually provocative skin flicks, more or less - sprang up. But the films were typically independent productions made on shoestring budgets. They were not archived in studio vaults like a Godzilla film might be at Toho or a Gamera film at Daiei. Consequently, most of them have been lost. Madame O
would probably have been lost as well if it had not been for the fact that Radley Metzger's company, Audubon Films, bought it for American distribution and saved it through all these years.
For a cheap film that was probably shot in under two weeks, Madame O
has a polished look to it that is surprising. The use of widescreen compositions adds some needed visual breathing room to a story that is mostly set in Seiko's house and clinic, and the use of color film stock at important moments is adds to the visual interest of the piece. It's visual interest that is badly needed to distract from a rather ho-hum script of romantic betrayal and murder (it's quite easy to predict that Dr. Watanabi is going to betray Seiko, and since there are no other characters except Keiko for him to betray her with, it's easy to deduce what's going to happen).
And yet, there's no reason to be especially harsh on Madame O
. It is what it is, and that's a low budget movie that for every reason should be much worse than it actually is. It's never less than enjoyable (in a sleazy way, of course) and contains some fleeting artistic touches that give it a sort of rare beauty on occasion. It was never intended to be watched in a person's home some forty years after it was made. The simple fact that the producers didn't bother holding onto prints of this and other eroduction
films shows that they didn't anticipate there ever being a desire to see this kind of film after its initial release. It was a piece of disposable culture, but its digital preservation assures that those who made it have gained a type of immortality they probably never expected.
You may very well be saying to yourself, "Hmmm, almost lost film...probably looks pretty bad, doesn't it?"
Not really. In fact, while Synapse's transfer of Madame O
is not the greatest restoration I've ever seen for a film of this age, it is more than acceptable and even beautiful at some points. First of all the color footage looks breathtaking. It's sharp, crisp and beautifully saturated, almost like Technicolor. The color scenes literally pop off the screen.
The black and white scenes - which make up the majority of the movie - don't fare quite as well. Most of the print damage is during the black and white scenes, and while there are only a few examples of major damage, there are lots and lots of small scratches, specks and vertical lines littered throughout the presentation. Black levels range from deep and true to very grayish. Most of the black and white scenes are sharp and clear, but there are a small number of shots that appear badly out of focus.
The English dubbed soundtrack is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono. A very thin layer of background noise accompanies most of the movie, but you get used to it very quickly and it's not distracting. Music, sound effects and especially dialogue are well reproduced without any major problems.
There are not a whole lot of extras here, nor should we expect a whole lot of extras. Synapse has included the film’s original American theatrical trailer, which features black and white moments from the movie tinted in different colors in an apparent attempt to make it look like an all-color film, and liner notes from Jasper Sharp, who talks about the eroduction
genre and explains why so few of the films from it have survived. It’s a short but informative piece that really added to my appreciation of this film’s existence.
The lucky survival of Madame O
will give exploitation fans a rare glimpse into a world of filmmaking from which, sadly, there are few surviving mementos. While no classic, the film is surprisingly polished in many respects and remains engaging, even in its dubbed version. Synapse has given this movie an imperfect but satisfying presentation that will satisfy most viewers. If you’re interested in Asian exploitation you should definitely check this one out.
Movie – C+
Image Quality – B
Sound – C+
Supplements – C
- Running Time – 1 hour 21 minutes
- Color and B&W
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English 2.0 Mono