Irezumi (1966)

Irezumi first published by Film4

Summary: In this elegant proto-feminist shocker from Yasuzo Masumura, a woman forced into prostitution wreaks her spidery revenge.

Review: Two years after their immaculately perverse melodrama Manji (1964), Yasuzo Masumura (Red Angel, Blind Beast) and Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, The Naked Island) were drawn to work together again on another lurid tale of moral ruin with an unfashionably powerful woman at its core. The result was Masumura’s Irezumi, or ‘tattoo’, adapted by Shindo from the 1910 novella of the same name by Junchiro Tanizaki.

When we first encounter Otsuya (Ayako Wakao), she is bound and helpless at the mercy of tattoo artist Seikichi (Gako Yamamoto), who subdues her with chloroform before needling a vampiric face into her exposed back. Yet any viewer supposing at this point that the film’s heroine is to be some meek victim constantly submitting to male domination will quickly find their prejudices confounded. Here director Masumura, much like his proxy artist Seikichi, is not so much marking Otsuya with a newly imposed identity as uncovering and validating the emblem of her essential nature – a female spider that bleeds its male lovers dry. 

Flash back to a few weeks earlier, and apprentice pawnbroker Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) is eloping with his boss’s daughter Otsuya. She claims to have been seduced by him, but his timidity combined with her sexual forwardness suggest otherwise. The pair take refuge at a floating inn, but the corrupt innkeeper Gonji (Fujio Suga) and his jealous wife (Reiko Fujiwara) have Otsuya abducted and sold on to Tokubei (Asao Uchida), for whom she, now newly tattooed, works as a geisha

Japan’s classical directors like Kenji Mizoguchi and Mikio Narusa made films dealing with the miseries of life as a prostitute, but Irezumi is different. Even before she falls into Gonji and Tokubei’s hands, Otsuya claims to like walking barefoot because it is “elegant like a geisha“, and she takes to her new life as though she were born to it, quickly rising to the very top of her game and winning herself independence (albeit of a disreputable sort). Exploiting her own charms and her different suitors’ weakness, she spins a web of vengeance in which her enemies, and even her friends, will all become entrapped – while an ashen-faced Seikichi watches from the sidelines, horrified, like Japan’s answer to Viktor Frankenstein, at the monster that he has created.

Otsuya, played to haughty perfection by Wakao, is very much a figure of the 1960s, where sex and violence were concealed (however half-heartedly) beneath a more staid veneer of tradition and respectability. Yet even if this femme fatale fails to bare her breasts to camera at every excuse, to gouge, stab and maul her way through all comers in an explosion of blood red, or to live up to any of the other excesses that characterised the ‘pinky violence’ genre of the Seventies, one suspects that without her murderous machinations to lead the way, the feminine icons of cinematic vengeance – Meiko Kaji’s Female Convict Scorpion and Lady Snowblood, and Reiko Ike’s tattooed Ocho Inoshika, not to mention Uma Thurman’s Bride – might never have been spawned. 

“Between man and woman it’s a fight to the death”, declares Otsuya’s lover Serizawa (Kei Sato). It remains an open question whether “man-eater” Otsuya is a champion of the emerging feminist values of the sixties, or a monstrous embodiment of more deep-seated male misogynies – or both. Her rapacity and viciousness, however, only reflect the similar behaviours of the men she encounters, and if she will get her inevitable come-uppance in the end, so too will they. As Serizawa observes, Otsuya’s dangerous toughness and duplicity are precisely the sources of her peculiar desirability, and this makes Irezumi a refreshing, if slightly baffling, contribution to the battle of the sexes, as well as a beautifully shot celebration of Japan’s seediest underbelly. 

Verdict: Like the tattoo after which it is named, Irezumi is flesh and blood made art – and left a lasting impression on Japanese female revenge narratives.

© Anton Bitel