Sunday, January 18, 2009

DVD Review: Shuji Kataoka's "S&M Hunter"

S&M Hunter. 1986. Written and directed by Shuji Kataoka, based on an original story by Yoki Haruno. Produced by Daisuke Asakura. Cinematography by Toshio Shimura. Edited by Shoji Sakai. Music by Takashi Akutagawa.

Cast: Shiro Shimomoto (S&M Hunter), Hiromi Saotome (Meg), Ayu Kiyokawa (Machi), Bunmei Tobayama (Joe), Akira Fukuda (Jack), Noami Sugishita (Maria), Yoshie Mogami, Utako Sarashina ("The Bombers" Girls), Yutaka Ikejima (S&M Dungeon Master).

Shuji Kataoka’s 1986 “pink film” S&M Hunter is a mesmerizing, subversive, and gleefully offensive film which the word “twisted” doesn’t even begin to describe. The film is one of the inaugural releases from Pink Eiga, a new DVD label dedicated to this genre, and if the descriptions and trailers to be found on their site are any indication, we are in store for some intriguingly strange films to look forward to. Pink film, for those not in the know, is a genre of Japanese softcore pornography shot on 35 millimeter with very tight budgets and limited shooting schedules (generally a week), and usually are about an hour or so long, exhibited in theaters on triple bills. The genre dates back to at least the early 1960’s, and the first examples were released by small independent studios, and such was the case until the 1970’s when major film studios, most notably Toei and Nikkatsu, entered the genre to combat the loss of their audiences to television and Hollywood films. Sex films were at that time practically the only sector guaranteed sizeable audiences and steady profits. Nikkatsu Studios in the 1970’s introduced the pink film subgenre roman porno, which had generally higher production values than regular pink films. While many pink film directors remained in the genre their entire careers, others, such as Hideo Nakata and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, used it as a launching pad to mainstream careers. Pink films and roman porno afforded directors great freedom in style and subject matter, as long as they supplied the standardized number of sex scenes and stayed within their budgets. Some directors such as Ryuichi Hiroki (Vibrator, It’s Only Talk, Love on Sunday) and Takahisa Zeze (Moon Child, A Gap in the Skin) move back and forth between pink and mainstream features. And then there are the cases of Koji Wakamatsu (Go Go Second Time Virgin, United Red Army) and Masao Adachi (The Prisoner), who were less interested in the pink film genre per se than its usefulness to express very radical politics in ways that would have not been possible in other commercial genres. Pink films continue to be produced and exhibited in Japan, although of course the audiences are much smaller after the advent of home video and the Internet.

S&M Hunter was the middle section of a trilogy (which also included S&M Hunter Begins [1995] and S&M Hunter Chronicles – The Legend of the Yakuza [1986]) featuring the titular hero (Shiro Shimomoto), a self-described “generous sadist” who wields his ropes like a Western movie gunslinger, using these ropes to conquer women and tie them up in ever elaborate and extreme ways. This film exhibits the economy of narrative structure and visual inventiveness that is a hallmark of such films. Also, its taboo-breaking philosophy, tongue planted firmly in cheek, is a crucial part of this film’s eccentric charm. Visual inventiveness is a must in pink films, since despite their subversive nature they ironically must adhere to their own special taboos, namely the legal prohibition against visible genitalia and public hair. When filming sex scenes, pink film directors must devise ways to shield the naughty bits of their actors from the camera lens, usually with some sort of physical obstruction or a strategically placed beam of light:
(BTW, some of the images below are most definitely NSFW. As if you needed me to tell you that.)

Here, Kataoka fractures screen space by using a mirror:

Kataoka is very fond of compositions that place frames within the larger frame:

The film wastes no time in getting down to the perversions. It begins with a S&M dungeon master (Yutaka Ikejima) introducing a client, Joe (Bunmei Tobayama) to his sex menu, demonstrating what is on offer, and featuring himself in successive tableaux, highlighting the film’s willingness to suspend spatial and narrative sense in its striving for maximum sexploitation:

Note the cross in the background of the first still. A perverted form of Catholicism is vigorously practiced here, with the S&M Hunter, the Dungeon Master and the willowy sex slave Maria (Noami Sugishita) donning clerical outfits:

The S&M Hunter is enlisted to free Joe’s boyfriend Jack (Akira Fukuda) from the clutches of the Bombers, a tough female gang, led by Machi (Ayu Kiyokawa), who have kidnapped Jack and forced him to be their sex slave.

The S&M Hunter frees Jack by infiltrating the Bombers’ lair and using his ropes to entrap the gang, and later seducing Machi with his rope handling skill:

The film takes the form of a western, culminating in a showdown with his nemesis Meg (Hiromi Saotome), who has joined the Bombers in order to gain revenge for enslaving her, and who had blinded him in one eye (presumably in the previous film). Kataoka uses the standard Western film visual style in the latter stages of the film, in the final showdown between the S&M Hunter and Meg:

Also, Kataoka includes this shot reminiscent of John Ford’s doorway framing in The Searchers:

The shot of Machi through the wagon wheel above also recalls iconic Western film imagery.

The film also traffics in taboo imagery with abandon, the most extreme example occurring when Meg, apropos of nothing, dons Nazi gear in preparation for her battle with her enemy:

A battle she decisively loses, when in the final, outrageous, “can you top this” sequence, Meg is hoisted from a 200-ft crane, a scene which gained instant notoriety and anticipated a real-life stunt the following year in which actress Hiromi Saotome, a S&M performer as well as a prolific pink film actress, had herself hung naked upside down in front of the Harajuku train station in Tokyo:

S&M Hunter, in its compact one-hour running time, is a blast, its single-minded emphasis on copious sex scenes that top each other in extreme outrageousness steamrollering such sacred cows as religion and political correctness in the process. The film takes full advantage of the elasticity that the pink film genre allows in playing with visual and narrative forms, lending it a fascination well beyond its prurient qualities.

S&M Hunter can be purchased from the Pink Eiga website, where you can find trailers and other info on their future releases. Here’s hoping that in this precarious economy, that this company can stick around long enough to release the rest of the films they are promising.

You can find the full, uncensored trailer here.

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