In the opening moments of Yasuzô Masumura’s Irezumi (1966), we witness a man drug a woman, then design and ink a spider tattoo on her back. As he works on the floor, bent over her, her only reaction is to moan and writhe just slightly. Her noises imply pain, but, under other circumstances sound terribly close to pleasure. Upon its conclusion, the audience is shown the full design, seemingly alive and moving as the woman stretches her muscles. That tattooist proclaims that the golden-orb spider on her back will allow her to draw power from the men she consumes, imbuing her with the strength to survive this encounter and, perhaps, never be subjugated again. It’s an extended scene of profound discomfort, intimate yet not explicitly sexual in nature, as the tattooist expresses no sexual desire for the woman, only interested in her skin and the great work he can place upon it. Inspired by the short story Shisei (The Tattooer) from author Jun’ichirô Tanizaki, Masumura presents a tale exploring the shifting dynamic between men and women, one in which women hold all the cards while men try to keep up. Long before Promising Young Woman (2020) or I Spit on Your Grave (1978), this female-centric revenge tale, newly restored from Arrow Video, should serve as a warning to all men who perceive others as sexual objects they can possess: those you look down upon may just be your end.
Forbidden lovers Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) and Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) abscond in the night while her parents/his masters are away so that they might start a new life together as a married couple. However, they place their trust in the wrong people as the two are separated with Otsuya being sold off as a geisha. Forced into sexual servitude and branded with a spider tattoo, Otsuya becomes Somekichi, desired by all who see her but kept by none. With nothing more than her wits, Somekichi executes a plan to get revenge on those who have taken advantage and abused her; a plan interrupted when Shinsuke finds her, trying to reunite with the woman he loves. Is Otsuya truly gone? Is vengeance all that matters? Is everything done in service of revenge or is it to feed the spider?
In another first-time release out of Japan, Arrow brings us a second Masumura release that showcases just how advanced Japanese cinema was in terms of exploring complex themes of gender, class, sexuality, and more compared to the same period in American cinema. Heck, we’re still so rooted in Hayes Code mentality, that a story like Irezumi would likely think that upping the violence and including actual nudity would make a modern version somehow more challenging. It’s the holding back that makes Irezumi as enthralling as it is. It leaves space for the audience to wonder about whether this is a supernatural tale masked as a thriller or if it’s something darker, an investigation into how survival can prove transformative to those who already possess an aspect of strength. For instance, Otsuya is presented quite quickly as a character who takes action, opting to forge her own path rather than wait. This is why she seems to be dragging her lover, the soft-spoken and fearful Shinsuke, to run away. He’s terrified of upsetting his master and ruining his chances of becoming a full-fledged apprentice and all she wants is to be with him, something they can’t have given their different stations. Early on, Kaneto Shindô’s (Postcard) adaptation of the short story places Otsuya as someone who won’t allow others to maintain a hold upon her. So when she is kidnapped and forced to endure the tattoo, as well as become a geisha, we are not shown her struggling, we are shown her immediate pivot toward it. She accepts it and bends her new circumstance to her will. In only two months’ time, the amount it takes for Shinsuke to find her again, she’s the most sought-after geisha in her house, so much so that she can afford her own lodgings and servants. If she wasn’t before, she is now, as newly christened Somekichi, just like the spider on her back, setting traps for others, so that she might prosper at the cost of everything these men want from her. It’s a story made claustrophobic from cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s (Rashomon/Yojimbo) camera positioning, using space and depth inside the frame to decrease visible space, instilling a sense of tension and pressure even where there is plenty of room for the characters to move about. Like our introduction to Shinsuke, who’s shown behind the desk of the pawn shop, which is itself positioned behind a piece of decorative furniture. Shinsuke is trapped long before they run away, before his life is threatened, before he eventually becomes Somekichi’s reluctant muscle. The entire film is like this, allowing the dialogue to land like a double-edge sword, laying and setting traps with each line delivery. Growing ever closer to answering the question as to whether the rumored golden-orb spider is the true beast or if it’s Otsuya herself. Personally, the true monster isn’t the spider or the woman behind the series of murders, but the men who thought themselves deserving and free to possess another against their will. In this way, Irzumi is truly a tragedy as everyone is destined for a painful end, even the most innocent.
So let’s talk restoration.
According to the liner notes included with the review copy, the film was restored in 4K from the original 35mm negative and is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with mono sound. Kadokawa Pictures handled the restoration with additional work performed by Arrow Films at R3Store Studios in London. What we receive is, frankly, one of the most beautiful restorations I’ve seen in some time. It’s not that the images within the frame are vibrant, so much as they possess a vigorousness whether capturing something terrible or wonderful. I recently had the chance to review the 4K UHD 50th anniversary edition of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and this film from 1966 looked almost better. The HDR in Willy certainly assisted in bringing out the vibrancy in the fantastical Wonka Factory, yet, even without the HDR, the Miyagawa‘s cinematography captures the imagination. Miyagawa not only made each scene appear entirely natural in terms of coloring and lighting despite being shot on a sound stage, but his framing created additional depth and tension. On more than one occasion, the actions on screen caused squirming in my seat due to the degree to which I was so enraptured by the visual presentation of the performances and their respective circumstances. Impressively, though the sound is strictly mono, the minimal scoring and dialogue come through crisp and clear. There were no hissing, clipping, or any other noticeable imperfections in the audio quality.
As with other Arrow restorations, this one comes with select special features to further enhance the feature experience. First-pressing copies include a booklet with two lengthy essays from writers Thomas Lamarre and Asian cinema scholar Daisuke Miyaio. Lamarre’s “In Praise of Uncanny Attachment: Masumura and Tanizaki” offers both an in-depth look at writer Jun’ichirô Tanizaki’s career and where Masumura’s work intersects and why. Miyaio’s “Red, White, and Black: Kazuo Miyagawa’s Cinematography in Irezumi” explores the cinematographers career in total, offering perspective on the technical approach applied within the film. The only two Masumura films I’ve seen — Giants & Toys (1958) and Irezumi — are thanks to Arrow’s restorations and the accompanying materials. Neither releases contain essays which overlap, rather they combine to enhance the overall appreciation for the director’s work. While this release includes the usual original theatrical trailer and image gallery, there are also two brief featurettes, both newly recorded, to offer viewers a deeper dive into Irezumi. The first comes from Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (9:51), with the second from Miyao (13:04). Whether you’ve coming to Irezumi fresh or with prior experience, both of these brief video featurettes will expand upon the film, offering greater understanding of Irezumi’s connection to Masumura’s work as a whole, as well as to the period in which the film was made. It’s not just the technical aspects which are examined, but the themes and significance to the era. Personally, I found Irezumi to be far ahead of its time and viewing the accompanying videos confirms it.
Coming to Masumura’s work via Giants & Toys, the tension and thrills of Irezumi feels like watching an entirely different direction. The elements exploring Japanese culture are certainly there, as are Masumura’s views on strong women (wonderfully presented in Giants), but with Irezumi, instead of examining the loss of bushido as a culture, the director investigates classism, gender roles, and sexual revolution. It’s quite a shock, but one worth experiencing. Thanks to Arrow Video, now audiences outside of Japan can for the first time.
Irezumi Special Features
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Thomas Lamarre and Daisuke Miyao
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a new 4K scan
- Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio
- Brand new audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser
- Newly filmed introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (9:51)
- Out of the Darkness, a brand new visual essay by Asian cinema scholar Daisuke Miyao (13:04)
- Original Trailer
- Optional English subtitles
- Image Gallery (manual slide; 0:47)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
Available on Blu-ray June 22nd, 2021.
For more information or to purchase your own copy, head to MVD Entertainment Group’s Irezumi website.
Categories: Films To Watch, Home Release, Recommendation
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