Review Date: January 19, 2008
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 11/13/2007
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
By the late 1960's, television had begun to do to Japanese cinema what it had done to American cinema a decade earlier. More and more viewers were staying home to watch TV as box office returns began to dwindle. Like their American colleagues, Japanese filmmakers fought back by offering different kids of movies told different ways, and marketed to different demographics. New subgenres like "ero-guru" (the erotic-grotesque) came into existence. One of these new categories was "pinky violence" – violent, sexually charged action movies aimed at single young men. Today’s review showcases one such film. Though the sub-genre itself is not well known outside of Japan, hopefully Synapse’s releases of it and its sequels will go a long ways towards changing that.
Ohyaku Dayu (Junko Miyazono
) is a fantastically beautiful young girl living in 18th-century century Japan. Left alone in the world after her prostitute mother committed suicide, she was taken in by a theater troupe and makes a living performing a tightrope act. But her beauty is too enticing and Ohyaku has spent her entire life being exploited by men. But when she crosses paths with a dashing young bandit named Shinkuro (Kunio Murai
), sparks fly and the two quickly fall in love. Shinkuro has hatched a plan to steal a fantastic amount of gold from the government, and Ohyaku quickly joins in. The precious metal is being transported as raw bullion to the government minting office to be made into coins. The robbery will be dangerous, but they will have the help of Shinkuro's childhood friend Hyoe, who works at the mint.
The heist is successful, but Shinkuro and Ohyaku are later betrayed by Hyoe. A group of armed men storms their hideout, capturing the two lovers and killing everyone else. As it turns out, the higher-ups at the mint knew what was going on the whole time, and the office's chief bureaucrat, the evil Lord Sengoku (Koji Nambara
), actually plans to use the gold for himself. He tortures Ohyaku until Shinkuro reveals where he hid the raw gold. Shinkuro is then executed, and Ohyaku is sent into exile at the penal colony on a nearby coastal island.
Ohyaku arrives on the island and begins laboring in its noxious gold mines, but she quickly attracts the attention of Omon (Yuriko Mishima
), the warden's wife, who finds herself attracted to her and begins putting a tattoo on her back. Soon afterwards Hyoe pays a visit to the island on official government business, and when he tries to exploit Ohyaku sexually, she decides to use her beauty as a weapon. She convinces the warden that she will marry him if he kills his wife and helps her escape. The man kills Omon, and Ohyaku kills Hyoe. But Ohyaku has another accomplice, a tough male inmate named Bunzo (Koji Sekiyama
) who has shown her kindness. Bunzo kills the warden and the two escape together to the mainland where Ohyaku has another mission - avenge Shinkuro by killing Lord Sengoku...
Produced in 1968, Female Demon Ohyaku
is the first in Toei Studios' Legends of the Poisonous Seductress
trilogy, and is in many ways the odd-man out of the series. It's hardly great art, but it is certainly great entertainment. Though its depiction of brutality and torture is not nearly as graphic as the term "pinky violence" may imply, the film still packs a strong punch and contains enough action and sex that it's easy to imagine that the film was a great crowd pleaser in late 1960's Japan. It’s a very interesting film, but what makes it so interesting is that it is so completely different from its sequels in both spirit and approach.
When looked at as a trilogy, the film’s two sequels (Quick-Draw Okatsu
and Okatsu the Fugitive
) bear a much closer resemblance to each other than they do to the first production. Despite the fact that each movie features Junko Miyazono in the lead, she plays a different character each time. In the two sequels Miyazono’s character is from a middle class background, with a respectable family. But in Female Demon Ohyaku
she plays a character who is essentially a slum dweller from the lowest margins of Japanese society. From this viewpoint comes a very different perspective on the injustices which are committed against her characters. Whether it be Lord Sengoku himself or just the corrupt prison warden, the first film is libertarian in its view that the government itself is the problem with society, and that its primary function to is perpetuate injustice. The government doesn’t care about the poor. It is significant that the noblest character in the entire film is a wise, father-like “yakuza” (mafia) boss who ultimately helps Ohyaku get her revenge. The criminal underworld is depicted not as evil, but as a way for oppressed citizens to take back the rights and property that they have been deprived of. This viewpoint stands in stark contrast with the viewpoint of the sequels, in which the problem is not the government (which offers protection and opportunity to the middle class) but that some very corrupt people have managed to weasel their way into it. In the world of the sequels the yakuza have no integrity or honor. In both films the corrupt government officials are in league with the mob, which terrorizes and exploits ordinary citizens. Surprisingly, all three films have the same principal writer, Kôji Takada.
Female Demon Ohyaku
is also far sleazier than its two sequels. Although all three films feature Miyazono’s character being victimized with acts of sexual degradation, the first film has a far edgier quality to it, despite the fact that the sex is no more graphic here than in the other two films. The stark black and white photography is very much responsible, giving the movie a rougher feel than it might have had it been shot in color like the sequels.
Because of these differences, Female Demon Ohyaku
is much better viewed as a stand-alone feature than as a part of a trilogy, and although not perfect (the story features too many clichés and the pace occasionally drags) it has all the elements that make for a satisfying, bloody and worthwhile exploitation movie.
Female Demon Ohyaku
is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The black and white image is quite good looking, though a little rough around the edges. Contrast and clarity are excellent, with beautiful, deep blacks and clean whites. Print damage is minimal aside from some highly noticeable vertical lines that pop up at regular intervals.
The film's original Japanese language soundtrack is presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono. Dialogue has a slightly raspy quality to it and there's some occasional hissing and popping, but it's not distracting. Sound effects and music are reproduced with a fair amount of clarity and fidelity.
Optional English subtitles are included.
The biggest extra here is a running commentary by Japanese film expert Chris Desjardins. It’s an informative track, although he is sometimes at a loss for words and leaves a number of quiet spots. He rarely goes in-depth into any particular subject, but the commentary is still a good primer for those who have little or no knowledge about this particular area of Japanese cinema.
The release is rounded out with trailers for all three films and some rather dense liner notes by Desjardins.
According to Don May, the Legends of the Poisonous Seductress
discs have been selling pretty badly thus far. That’s unfortunate, though not surprising (these titles were originally Panik House acquisitions, and Panik House went bust because they couldn’t get titles like this to catch on with buyers). Female Demon Ohyaku
is an entertaining slice of Japanese exploitation, and its presentation here on DVD is quite good. If you’re a fan of Japanese cinema, and want companies to continue mining the vaults of studios like Toei for more hidden gems, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.
Movie – B
Image Quality – B
Sound – B-
Supplements – B-
- Running Time – 1 hour 30 minutes
- Chapter Stops
- Japanese 2.0 Mono
- English subtitles
- 1 Disc
- Audio commentary by Japanese film expert Chris Desjardins
- Liner notes