Synapse // 1967 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // July 25th, 2008
Dedicated to medicine...and the cold-blooded destruction of men!
A classic piece of Asian cult cinema from the late 1960s, Synapse Films brings Madame O to DVD dressed up like a sleazy rape-revenge thriller. The text on the back cover threatens that this movie will "paralyze audiences with gore, nudity and shocking violence." Gore-hounds may be disappointed to hear that this movie doesn't quite live up to that promise and I retained all motor skills while watching it. Nevertheless, it is a riveting and atmospheric crime story presented in black and white with occasional (and mysterious) scenes of color.
By day, Seiko is a successful doctor running her own clinic catering to maternity patients. By night, she prowls the bar scene looking for horny men. After she has sex with them, she uses the tools of her trade to infect her victims with syphilis. Years ago Seiko suffered a gang rape that left her pregnant and infected with syphilis. Now her hatred for men is so powerful she even takes pleasure from tying the tubes of one of her patients without informing the husband -- anything to frustrate the desires of men.
Seiko's life changes with the arrival of a new doctor at the clinic. Sensitive and trustworthy -- he agrees to protect her secret after he witnesses her disposing of a victim's body -- it isn't long before he becomes her husband. But when Seiko develops a drinking problem, her Madame O persona threatens to disrupt her newfound domestic bliss.
A new sub-genre of Japanese cinema emerged during the 1960s called eroduction, a boom of low-budget, independently-produced exploitation films. Heavy on sex and sensationalism, the genre later became known as the Pink Film, these movies were abundant in their day but treated as disposable product. Very few have survived and so it is a minor miracle that Zoku akutokui -- Joi-hen has been resurrected on DVD. Exported to the U.S. market, the English-dubbed Madame O has been recovered from the Audubon Films vault. While the movie is not in top form, it is a nicely preserved walk on the dark side of 1960s Japan.
The DVD packaging, perhaps unnecessarily, oversells the sleaze factor. There is some nudity but it isn't excessive; and the violence occurs mostly off-screen. Rather than a forerunner to Japanese soft-core sex films, Madame O bears a closer resemblance to 1950s American crime dramas. The black and white cinematography does a lot to create a cold, stark and suspenseful atmosphere.
Michiko Sakyo (also credited as Michiko Aoyama) is strong in the title role. Her modern Japanese woman, with a good portion of traditional reserve, is a quiet exterior that hides a considerable amount of pent up rage. The cool manner with which she infects her victims shows no hint of remorse yet she manages to come off sympathetic rather than repulsive. In this version of the movie we have only the English-language dub as the soundtrack and consequently the (uncredited) American voice actor is inseparable from the physical performance we see on screen. The slightly reserved, matter-of-fact drawl that is Seiko's narration works quite well. The character comes across as a wounded but logical person and that goes a long way to help us understand, if not approve of, her actions.
Overall, the voice work is quite good on this dubbed version of the movie. The timing of the dialogue and the emotional tones fit just right. The only voice that has a little more attitude is that of one of Seiko's victims who returns to blackmail her. Even for that character, the voice is a good match with the actor's physical performance and not just a campy reading of the script. It is also a fairly quiet movie and some scenes in the first act feel longer due to the stretches of near-silence. There is also a reliance on Seiko's narration to provide exposition that covers a lot of action in a short span of time. Seiko's marriage to the new doctor, her reduced responsibilities at the clinic and growing reliance on alcohol are told to us instead of shown, for example. This may be an invention of the English script or it could just have been a creative decision on the filmmakers' part to not stage those moments. The mono soundtrack, laced with occasional jazzy riffs, is passable.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is mostly black and white but there are a few color scenes, though the reason for switching from the black and white to color is open to interpretation. Some moments of violence and sex (including the flashback to Seiko's rape) are filmed in color but then there are a few other random scenes in color too. I'm at a loss to suggest a reason for presenting scenes in different film formats. The image exhibits minor scratches and stray specks throughout. There is also a subtle variance in the brightness level that makes it appear as though a light is flickering behind the image. While these imperfections are noticeable, they are not entirely distracting. There is good detail in the picture and the color scenes look warm and natural. I prefer the monochrome photography that masks the budgetary constraints of the production and instead lends it a timeless quality that suits the dark subject matter. In that respect, the imperfections of the image give the movie a slightly dirty texture that is suited to a beat up film print you might see at a midnight screening. That's not to excuse the shortcomings of the video, just to offer a way of looking at it so those defects complement rather than hinder the experience.
The sole extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer prepared for its U.S. run under the Audubon Films banner. Like an artifact recovered from a time capsule, it is a breathlessly sleazy advertisement that really makes an effort to sell the rape and violence angle. Also noteworthy is the informative liner notes by Jasper Sharp (co-editor of the specialist Japanese film website Midnight Eye) that provide an introduction to the eroduction genre and a brief biography of director Seiichi Fukuda. Sharp also points out that this movie is a follow-up to Fukuda's earlier Vice Doctor (a.k.a. Vicious Doctor on IMDb) film starring a different actress as the murderous medic.
It is hard to guess what possible extras may still exist in relation to Madame O. What we have on this DVD is essentially a bare bones edition of the U.S. theatrical version. Jasper Sharp's liner notes, however, really open the door to what could have been included here. It is nice to see this slice of imported exploitation cinema preserved but a little more effort to put it in context would have really made this a quality disc. Assuming that the original Japanese trailer is nowhere to be found, what about trailers for other Pink Films or other Audubon imports? Surely someone has squirreled away some posters from the era. Without that background, Synapse Films risks disappointing some horror fans who may be expecting something else based on the sensational summary used on the DVD packaging.
The liner notes say that the original version of this movie no longer exists and so we must make do with the English-dubbed version. That's easier to accept given the good voice work exhibited on this disc. The sex and violence may not have the same impact on viewers today as it once did, but the accomplished direction and strong performances still make it an effectively dark crime thriller.
A cool killer that has infected our hearts, Madame O is free to go. Stern looks are directed at Synapse Films who are acknowledged for resurrecting this strange case but we believe you could have done more.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* U.S. Theatrical Trailer
* Liner Notes