Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sleepy Eyes of Death Vol. 1

Just got an advance copy of this four-disk box of samurai madness and mayhem. This is one of the finest samurai series ever (12 films starring the great Raizo Ichikawa), filled with action, intrigue and a certain cynical swagger. And best of all, the accompanying booklet features two reviews from yours truly (taken from my first book, Stray Dogs & Lone Wolves: The Samurai Film Handbook).

Raizo Ichikawa plays Nemuri Kyoshiro, a half-breed ronin who digs the ladies and has no patience with the machinations of evil men. His daddy was a renegade Portugese priest who defiled his Japanese mother in a black mass. Understandibly, he's got issues with Christianity (as well as a thick head of red hair). A homeless wanderer, he's forever winding down that windy way toward whatever labyrinthine entanglement might await. He's proud and caustic and known for his existential bon mots. Sometimes, he lets his sword do the talking ...

I really can't recommend this series enough. When I first became aware of it, only the first half-dozen installments were available (on out-of-print VHS tapes from AnimEigo). I scoured the internet to get them, it took years. Then, gradually, the rest of the series became available on gray market DVDs. (I should mention that Raizo died during the making these films, and there were a couple more made afterwards, starring a then-raw Hiroki Matsukata.) Now, at last, perhaps due in part to my efforts (?), AnimEigo has begun to release the series on DVD. I couldn't be happier.

So run, don't walk, to your online or local DVD retail outlet and scoop up this fantastic box set. You won't be disapointed.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peppermint Candy

Director Lee Chang-dong made Peppermint Candy in 1999 and, in common with many a Korean film of the period, it positively shakes with rage. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 had had a two-fold effect: While it undeniably left many a Korean citizen in the shit financially, it opened doors for filmmakers. To quote myself in Asia Shock, "Big corporations pulled out of the movie biz, private investors came in, and a new atmosphere of creative freedom and artistic daring nurtured the birth of a new wave of phenomenal South Korean films." [p. 17-18] That's how it is in this crazy world: Turmoil leads to creativity. Remember Orson Welles' famous speech in The Third Man? "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- and they produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Peppermint Candy opens with the suicide of a disillusioned man (he stands before an oncoming train with predictable results). We then look on as his life flashes before his eyes ... backwards (just like they say it does in all the esoteric books). Bear in mind this is a full year before Christoper Nolan's Memento. Was something in the air, or did Nolan just steal the idea outright?

Actually, the flashback sequences only cover the last twenty years of the man's life, from 1979 to 1999, but nevertheless serve as an historical and cultural through-line for the repression and upheaval of Korean life during this period. Fresh out of high school, he's in the army, hunting down political dissidents. Then he's a cop, interrogating suspects using enhanced interrogation techniques we're all familiar with by now (hint: you're naked, handcuffed, and your head is in a bathtub full of water). Then he's a business owner, but not for long ...

And through it all, he is haunted by the memory of his first love, a sweet young thing who worked for a confectioner making ... wait for it ... peppermint candies. Because of the backwards narrative, we first encounter her on her death bed, only to meet her younger incarnation much later -- an emotionally powerful scene.

This is the second Lee Chang-dong film I've reviewed -- a link to the other review can be found here. He's a remarkable filmmaker, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Entrails of a Beautiful Woman

Back in 1986, Nikkatsu released a pair of notorious films, Entrails of a Virgin and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman, through their Roman X adult video label (an ignoble successor to the once-great Roman Porno line of erotic films of the '70s). I reviewed Entrails of a Virgin in Asia Shock, but never got around to screening the other one until yesterday. (I suppose it's a testament to the repellant nature of these films that one was enough to hold me for several years.)

Both films feature a plethora of sleazy sex scenes, probing the outer boundaries of anyone's concept of "softcore pornography." But what makes these films truly stand out is the presence of a "sex monster," a creature seemingly conjured by the perveted lusts of the various human characters, a hideous consequence of thier crazed rutting. In Virgin, the creature is a demon who grows ever more powerful (and tumescent) as he stalks the horny members of a photo shoot holed up in a farmhouse overnight. In the less-sexy and far more violent Beautiful Woman, it is a violated woman who becomes the beast, a six-foot hermaphroditic monstrosity seemingly turned inside out. When the big, red, gooey thing decides to defile a cruel yakuza wife, it grows a mutated member most closely resembling the baby alien from Alien (in flagrante, the little fella behaves in much the same way as he did with poor John Hurt).

I can't, in all honesty, offer any good reason to see Entrails of a Beautiful Woman. But then, who needs a good reason?

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Nothing is what it seems in this low-budget, "it was all a dream ... or was it?" shocker from 2004 starring the charismatic Koichi Sato (memorable for his portrayal of deadly, real-life Shinsengumi member Hajime Saito in the previous year's When the Last Sword is Drawn).

Infection is required viewing for fledgling filmmakers looking to break into the horror genre. The hospital "location" appears to be the dingy sub-basement of some old government building, and the set designer did little to spruce it up. As it happens, the grime on the walls serves to heighten a sense of looming dread. Think about it: a dirty hospital. That's the last place you'd want to spend any time, particularly if you were sick. Using little more than lighting, lots of fake blood and viscous green goo, as well as the abilities of his talented cast, director Masayuki Ochiai (Shutter, Parasite Eve) creates an aura of claustrophobic menace in a run-down hospital where low morale, incompetence and exhaustion lead inexorably to malpractice, contagion and insanity.

Did I mention there are ghosts? A crazy old granny runs around the wards seeing them in mirrors, but is she really crazy? Those swings in the park out front seem to be swinging themselves ...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Female Demon Ohyaku

Let's get something straight right up front: "Ohyaku" is bad romanization. What's the H doing in there? That's not how you render Japanese into English (there are conventions for such things). The proper spelling would be "Oyaku." However, the O is most likely an honorific, so it would more properly be "O-Yaku." So there.

Anyhow, this is a pretty good flick if you enjoy bloody revenge, Toei exploitation-style, in a jidai-geki setting. O-Yaku (Junko Miyazono) is an acrobat desired by many a horny old samurai and her boss keeps arranging these after-show meetings with them. But our O-Yaku's no whore, and lets these guys know it in no uncertain terms. One creepy fellow, a government official, takes her rejection particularly badly and ends up torturing her, beheading her lover with a guillotine, and finally shipping her off to Sado Island to work in the mines (while trying to fend off scores of male prisoners). Now she's out for revenge, and boy does she get it.

Junko Miyazono went on to star in Nobuo Nakagawa's even more ferocious Quick-Draw Okatsu the following year, a film I review in my forthcoming book Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion (which ships from the printers June 17th and will appear in retail outlets a few weeks thereafter). She's also good in Hideo Gosha's Samurai Wolf as a blind biwa-playing boss of a courier service (that one's in the book too). So I guess what I'm saying is I think you should buy my book.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Assault! Jack the Ripper

Looking for something exciting, professionally made and downright shocking? You can't go far wrong with Assault! Jack the Ripper. This thrill-killer thriller is filled with thrilling kills and killing thrills, although Jack the Ripper is nowhere in sight (this being 1970s Japan). In his place is a mild-mannered pastry chef who inadvertently discovers that murdering women with his bitchy waitress girlfriend gets them both very hot. His weapon of choice? You guessed it, a cake knife. As we soon learn, it's far more brutal murdering a woman with a dull knife (particularly when thrust into her nether region and slowly dragged upwards, as is the killer's wont). After awhile our moody young anti-hero forgets about his girlfriend and goes solo, slicing up women from all walks of life. He even does a Richard Speck on a bunch of nurses. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is getting rather perturbed, being left out of all the fun. Will she play it cool, or wind up another body on the pile? You'll find out ...

The film was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe, whose Black Tight Killers you might have seen. He worked at Nikkatsu as an AD under Seijun Suzuki before going solo in the 60s. He worked with Meiko Kaji on the Stray Cat Rock series and directed one of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Grudge Song. Hasebe was eventually pressed into service on Nikkatsu's Roman Porno line, where he made a string of disturbing rape films and, of course, Assault, Jack the Ripper.

A tip o' the hat to the good folks at Mondo Macabro for releasing this forgotten gem of violent pink madness (along with bonus features to help get viewers up to speed on this 70s-era sub-genre of sexy, frequently transgressive film).