Hanzo the Razor trilogy

First published by Little White Lies

The exploitation cinema of the early 1970s was, in keeping with the times in which it was made, awash with a contradictory mix of the revolutionary and the reactionary – and there are few films that illustrate this dichotomy more clearly than the Hanzo the Razor trilogy, comprising Misumi Kenji’s Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972), Masumura Yasuzo’s Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (1973), and Inoue Yoshio’s Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? (1974), and all adapted from the manga of Koike Kazuo (whose Lone Wolf & Cub comics would also inspire the Baby Cart series, remixed for the West as visceral cult classic Shogun Assassin).

Katsu Shintaro (of Zatoichi fame) plays Hanzo Itami, a low-ranking officer under the Tokugawa Shogunate – but the accompanying funk soundtrack makes it clear that these period pieces are also engaging with the concerns of more modern times. Sure enough, Hanzo is the archetypal ’70s rebel. Insubordinate to every authority, he always pursues his investigations to the upper echelons of power, revealing the corruption and hypocrisy at their very heart; while Hanzo’s raids on temples, not to mention his regular use of Buddhist statues as punching bags, marks him out as a literal iconoclast.

This redoubtable crimefighter seems to embody the very spirit of the ’70s counterculture, interrogating all the traditional lynchpins of his society – but at the same time, Hanzo is a comic parody of ’70s ‘hardmen’ like Dirty Harry and Shaft, using his over-sized penis to torture female captives who, try as they might, inevitably melt before the invasive thrust of his questioning. He is also handy with the sort of weapons that are more conventionally associated with the chanbara genre, but we are never allowed to forget that all these are mere extensions of his steely manhood.

In what is one of several stock sequences in all three films, Hanzo exposes his unwieldy member to a series of torturous exercises designed to toughen it up, so that later his female victims will first beg him to stop, and then beg him not to. In these films, you see, ‘no’ really means ‘yes’, women actually enjoy being raped, and nothing penetrates the truth of the matter like a massive dong. And therein lies the contradiction: Hanzo may be an earnest champion of the dispossessed and a fearlessly physical critic of the status quo – but his full-frontal assault on the patriarchal order is also overtly phallocentric.

These three adventures are mere variants on a single plot, with only the names of the antagonists (and of the director) changing. More outrageous than funny, the Hanzo trilogy is an unruly mix of bloody violence, soft porn and political intrigue, with a hero whose intentions are (largely) admirable, but whose modus operandi will repel any but the most hardened misogynists. Only the ’70s could have erected a monstrosity so mesmerisingly abhorrent.

Anton Bitel