Pink Films Vol. 5 & 6 is an curiously described release. Believe the cover and it comprises Women Hell Song (1970) and Underwater Love (2011). See the back and you realise it’s those two films and Forbidden Techniques (1966), a film added as an extra and only in a German dub and English subtitles. The oddity here is as much because Third Window previously released Underwater Love, so anyone skimming information might pass it by if they have that film.
If I’m making a big deal of this it’s because I ordered this one sight unseen and if I’d realised the films weren't as advertised I’d have thought twice. I’d tried to watch Underwater Love before and it had gotten right on my tits and I didn’t even finish it.
This would have been a shame because bloody hell, Women Hell Song is worth the price of the Blu-ray itself. Not just that but it’s very possibly the best film across all the volumes, beating even the two features on Pink Films Vol. 1 & 2.
Women Hell Song
Okayo (Katori Tamaki) is a Yakuza on the run, caught by sadistic policeman Honda. Sold by Honda to Ginji the Viper, who plans her no small amount of harm, Okayo is then rescued by a mysterious saviour, finds love with him and then religion. Okayo, marked by the tattoo on her back of Benten, begins to travel, only to meet a young woman, Osayo, being sold by her father to pay his debts. Okayo conspires to help Osayo escape her bondage, having been sold to the now powerful Honda. Meanwhile Okayo finds herself attracted to Seigaku, who might just be the man who saved her years before…
As stories go it is like most, pretty so-so on paper but the power of the film is apparent right from the first moments. Mainly shot in often beautifully framed black and white it belies its limited budget. As Okayo escapes from Honda it’s visually gorgeous and curiously feels a million miles away from what you imagine as a pink film; the images of her escape would not be out of place in a polished chanbara picture. If anything it sets the tone, because though there are unpleasant scenes that you’d expect of sexual assault and some nudity throughout, how these are treated is frequently unusual. Director, Mamoru Watanabe, filming an opening sexual assault on Okayo, uses the camera not to linger on flesh but provide a sense of struggle and Okayo’s own punch-drunk senses. Where it could easily have been filmed with leering men – Ginji the Viper is no angel but he’s no raving caricature – and lots of shots of lingering nudity, it keeps the titillation to a minimum and the film focuses more on Okayo’s defiance and emotional state. You feel what really matters to Watanabe is illustrating Okayo’s strengths rather than her preceived weaknesses as a woman.
One thing that caught my attention early on was also how Okayo’s past was dimly referred to. She was someone or other's mistress and has committed something or other crime, but there’s no sense of her past that marks her as a pure hero or villain. Yes, she admits to having killed, but we don’t know in what context, why, or even if her life has given her little choice. The passing brilliance of this means that we can create our own vision of Okayo’s past: I chose to frame her as a character like the young woman she will later meet who is being sold and has to find a way to survive and even thrive in a world that sees her as nothing other than a commodity, and so any violence, any crimes of hers, means she is as much the victim as she is the perpetrator. The way young Osayo is treated I felt like the director likely felt the same as me, and was hinting at what has led Okayo to this point. The fact the young woman being sold has a name eerily close to Okayo’s own seemed to confirm this. Then when we witness what happens to Osayo you only feel that these men that buy and sell are vicious, pathetic, self-serving and the worst kinds of criminal -in escaping them most crimes would be almost forgivable. The women earn your sympathy, the men your contempt yet it’s never too over the top as some films can be and never falls close to cartoonishness.
Women Hell Song also introduces elements of a ghost story and in some of the early scenes Okayo has a curiously feline capacity that would not be out of place in Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, in place of the avenging daughter who sails through the ghostly fog. The film provides other reasons for suggesting that Okayo may or may not really be alive, and the ambiguity certainly provides the film with a specific mysteriousness that also makes you question if she is manipulating the men’s sense of who she might be, when really nothing more than flesh and blood. As well as ghost story comparisons, Okayo’s self-composure seems to mark her out like a Spaghetti Western hero – self-reliant, unflustered – even when accosted on a lonely road with a knife you feel as though she is the one in control. Either that or she's like some avenging angel that knows it cannot be harmed. She often feels part Lady Snowblood part Zatoichi. She fights like both and definitely gambles with the same skill as Zatoichi. Okayo in this incarnation is comfortable in almost any circumstance, even if her tattooed back is described as leaving her unable to meet the eyes of others. I’m not sure if we’re meant to be considering this false modesty, considering she has that almost ghostly imperviousness I associate with Maiko Kaji at her most defiant in the Female Prisoner 701 Scorpion movies.
Like many of the previous films though, the star Tamaki Katori appeared in the first pink film. Intriguingly most of scenes that contain sexualised nudity are shot in colour, one imagines to please those who are hoping to see a sex film, as they’d otherwise be disappointed. The first is faintly ludicrous, almost comic; the second feels more that it wishes to evoke romantic eroticism; the third is a rape that again takes no pleasure in what is occurring, instead the director is more intent on visually expressing the emotions of Osayo.
Clocking in at a brisk 75 minutes, the film tells its story with economy and another beautiful example of why though initially sceptical of what the pink films in these releases might be, to always keep an open mind. I’m sure there are plenty of tatty ones out there. Women Hell Song most certainly is not one of them.
Next up, Kan Mukai, director of Blue Film Woman provides us with Forbidden Techniques, a film that opens with an explanation of why the film is in a German dub, though it’s pretty obvious: no one can find another copy of the print or the Japanese soundtrack. Sounds awful right? Wrong. Perhaps because continental Europe has a greater history of dubbing films it’s curiously unobtrusive as the film opens and a drunk clomps onto a station platform, and slurs at a man sat on bench. The man on the bench happens to be a boxer, Eriguchi. Left in peace by the drunk, Eriguchi meets a bathhouse woman, Naomi, and Eriguchi tells her the story of Kaori, the woman who has caused him to lose his faith as a boxer.
What hits you as hard as the opening credits, where Eriguchi pummels the punch bags in a startlingly enticing and atmospheric opening, is how the films feels entirely like it should be a European film. Maybe this is also why the German dub doesn’t seem to matter. And if anything it is a film that really struck me that if it had been French it might, like Gushing Prayer in the first set, be considered a missing arthouse classic. It’s not radical in the way that film is but as Forbidden Techniques plays out in a series of intimate one on ones, it becomes a claustrophobic film, focussing on emotions and our character’s psychology. Again, there is very little nudity and though a lot what you’d term sex scenes each have a specific tone to them, and exist to express the character’s (especially Eriguchi ‘s) emotional state, whether romantic eroticism or distress or other. So that again if one is after a tonne of tits you won’t get it from Forbidden Techniques, instead you are more likely to witness angst and anguish. The film seems more interested in being visually and psychologically interesting as it is the sex (if anything the sex is by the by). The fight scenes seem to have as much, if not more, care taken of them than those when Eriguchi is with either Kaori or Naomi. Certainly the key fight that is shown in some detail is both visceral and focusses on Eriguchi’s mental state. It’s also economically filmed, in a wonderful way. Clearly with a budget of not much more than a fiver, Mukai uses some stock crowd footage and a washed out image of a boxing arena with a crowd so you can see nothing of the boxers while setting up the scene as being in a proper boxing auditorium with roaring crowd. Then the fight begins and a fight it really is; it is surprisingly brutal, again the camera is up close and personal so that you can see and feel very violent blow. It’s also shot so that you see only the ring, the background where clearly they hadn’t money for extras is blacked out, emphasising the sense of nothing existing outside the fight, nothing except Kaori that is. This visual economy is arresting and you could argue it is economy raised to artistry. The opening note to the film calls it beautiful, not a word that you immediately link to pink films, but often Forbidden Techniques really does manage to be beautiful, luxuriating in rain streaked streets, glistening on the screen. This is as good as restoration can hope to provide in black and white.
I have no idea what influenced Mukai – if anything! - but the film structurally and thematically feels exactly like a Film Noir. Eriguchi describes his past with Kaori, a biter who likes a fighter, to Naomi after they go to a hotel. The relationship of Eriguchi and Kaori recalls Burt Lancaster having Ava Gardner under his skin in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (one of my favourite Film Noir) – another film with a boxer whose obsession with a woman causes his downfall. Also, the way in which the film structurally progresses, with Eriguchi and Naomi’s evolving relationship intercut with scenes from Eriguchi’s past so that everything slowly unravels, is pure Film Noir structure, leading up to [spoilers redacted].
Casting Shusaku Muto as Eriguchi also works in the film’s favour because there is a little of Alain Delon about him. He has the same slightly detached yet haunted look about him that leaves his face suggesting more about his past then his character would ever be able to speak with words. As much as the film feels very European it also felt like it combined the precariousness of a boxer’s success and the griminess of the business shown in a film like Robert Wise’s 1949 boxing flick, The Set-Up then smashed into the emotional power plays and violence of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tokyo Fist. Maybe that’s just me, I sometimes make curious comparisons that come to mind, though the violence in Forbidden Techniques frequently had the intensity of that in Tsukamoto’s film –and of course Third Window also release a lot of Tsukamoto’s films, another reason it comes to mind. (Though still waiting for a release of Tetsuo: The Bullet Man on Blu-ray to replace my US DVD version – just saying… no pressure…)
Forbidden Techniques also has one virtue in common with Women Hell Song. Both are short films, about 70 odd minutes. Both would struggle to continue their narratives any longer and so bow out at just the right time. It’s a virtue in films like these that don’t have the time or luxury to reshoot scenes or have expansive shooting schedules that those restrictions provoke creativity and innovation; as the outspoken, great and occasionally nutty as fuck William Friedkin put it: given enough time and money anyone can make a good film. But only a few people can take a small budget, a limited cast and resources and make something remarkable and both Women Hell Song and Forbidden Techniques manage that, even if the former just about comes out as the better of the two films.
This returns me to the strange description on the cover of the Blu-ray I opened with, as not just is Forbidden Techniques noted on the back as an extra, the splash screen on the Blu-ray has Vol 5 as Women Hell Song, Vol 6 as Forbidden Techniques but the extra is Underwater Love.
Ah, Underwater Love.
This time I managed to actually watch the film’s full yet admittedly still brief 85 minutes. Apparently shot in five and a half days and using one take only with the great Christopher Doyle behind the camera. The opening shot of the water is lovely as you would expect of Doyle, but many of the images to follow are not so sumptuous. The title of the film describes it as a pink musical, I think it would be better described as a pink film with a few songs, as to my mind the musical numbers were not integrated holistically into the film’s narrative enough for it to truly be a musical. Anyway…
Fish factory worker, Asuka, rescues a fish, throwing it into the local river only for it to be eaten by a kappa. Oops. The kappa also happens to be the reincarnation of dead school friend, Aoki. Unfortunate really, as Kappa-Aoki starts hanging around Asuka’s place, working at the fish factory and just as she’s agreed to marry the fish factory manager, Hajime.
To be blunt, the film just doesn’t do it for me. I’m sure there are people out there who will really enjoy it but I found myself sighing a lot as the film unfurled; much rolling of eyes was also in action. A lot of this came from the film’s obvious limitations: its short shoot and limited budget. But really the main issue for me was Kappa-Aoki, who is played with such loathsome charmlessness it left me wanting to reach into the screen and strangle him. I just found the Kappa-Aoki profoundly irritating. As we learn, unsurprisingly, that Kappa-Aoki liked Asuka when they were at school and that she may herself have feelings for Kappa-Aoki, suspension of disbelief was impossible. If I were Asuka or, well, anyone, I’d just want to slap the tosser and tell him to sod off. All Yoshiro Umezawa does as Aoki is make this continuing and irritating shrug of a gesture and talk in a dreary monotone that saps the soul and devastates the will to live. Curiously, kappa we meet later make the same gesture (and accompanying sound) and they are far, far less irritating – in fact not irritating at all. It felt to me like the actor had just turned up, read a line while wearing a kappa suit and just really, really wanted to go home and be done with the film. His lack of interest radiates out of costume, through the screen and… enough said.
It’s a real shame as even though I don’t think it’s a true musical, the first song and dance routine that spontaneously breaks out in the fish factory is full of vigorous energy and a pervasive sense of fun. It also highlights the film’s great strength: Sawa Masaki as Asuka. Somehow you get the feeling the actor is the opposite of Umezawa and was having a whale of a time. She gives it her all whether this is bouncing around to a musical number, writhing around in the obligatory sex scenes – this is a pink film after all – or wading through water to find the anal pearl (don’t ask!). She brings life to the film and energy to the musical numbers and really holds the film together, whereas Umezawa threatens to kill it deader than a dead thing on a motorway having been repeatedly run over by heavy lorries laden with fish. Noticeably the one number that Umezawa gets is as limp as a month’s old stick of celery or a wizened cucumber that Kappa-Aoki so likes to chomp upon.
Did I say that Umezawa as Kappa-Aoki is irritating as hell? If so did I also mention that Masaki as the the thirty-something Asuka has real charm and energy?
By the time I finally pushed myself to watch Underwater Love, I’d already seen Women Hell Song twice and had just finished watching Forbidden Techniques just minutes before, so matching up to these films those up was always going to be tough. I like the idea, and how director Shinji Imaoka wants to try and subvert the pink film, but even with Christopher Doyle behind the camera he just cannot quite pull it off; but it’s nevertheless an intriguing film. I just wish Kappa-Aoki wasn’t played by such a gormless, fun-sapping nom.
As we have three films, you have to say scoring them as a whole is difficult, as Underwater Love for me brings down the rating. Women Hell Song gets a standing-ovation worthy 9; Forbidden Techniques doesn’t finish as strongly as it starts, but it starts so strongly it threatened to eclipse Women Hello Song so a take a bow with an 8; Underwater Love gets a generous 5, for ambition in trying something new, for Masaki’s spirited performance, and for Doyle’s always well-shot, if sporadically excellent, camera work.
Considered in the context of the three boxsets, Pink Films Vol.5 & 6 manages the surprising feat of surpassing Vol. 1 & 2. It’s a superbly strong finish, yes let down a little by Underwater Love but that at least provides an intriguing glimpse of where the pink film can and perhaps should go with a little more care and attention. Moreover, consider your average punter isn’t going to rush out to buy or watch these films (even if they really should) further kudos to Third Window for releasing these films – and to German distributor Rapid Eye Movies responsible for the original release. (Oh and as well as Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, I’ve not heard about a UK release of Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell – I’ve not seen it. I mean I know it’s not all about me, but really, it is all about me.).
In a word: recommended.