Mondo Macabro // 1972 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 7th, 2009
Violence, bloodshed, and revenge in a shocking tale of obsessive love.
Nikkatsu Films began in the very early days of Japanese cinema but, by the 1960s, television began to devour huge chunks of profit from the industry. To make ends meet, Nikkatsu went down the same road of many failing studios: they began making violent and erotic productions. Their decision meant that the company would stay in business and, while the standards of content were more relaxed, filmmakers did not always shirk their artistic responsibilities. Director Chusei Sone (Alleycat in Heat) demonstrates just this in his poorly-titled Naked Rashomon, a film of lurid and erotic power, but also one of substantial beauty and surprising resonance in its story.
Angered by his wife's inability to conceive an heir to his throne, a Japanese nobleman takes a mistress instead. He does manage to impregnate her but when she delivers, there are twins, a boy and a girl. The son will be raised to lead the life of an aristocrat, but what of the daughter and her mother? The nobleman orders a servant to take them away and eliminate the potential of a scandal. The servant has other ideas, however, and lets them live. Nineteen years later, the girl has become a prostitute and returns to her rightful home with plans for the father who abandoned her.
Naked Rashomon is immediately, and unfairly, hindered by its title. Its only resemblance to the classic Kurosawa film is its language. The original's fragmented storytelling, the film's most distinctive feature, gives way to very linear plotting and, in general, bears absolutely no connection to its naked counterpart. It seems like an irrational, destructive decision because, based on the title, the only reason people will pick this up is to laugh at it, much like the current crop of softcore parodies of popular western films. This is too bad; Naked Rashomon is a pleasant surprise. Beyond its erotic trappings lies sensitive portrayals of troubled women taking place on lavishly produced sets.
This kind of Japanese cinema is divided into two times: the Pink Film, which is the more violent of the two types, and the Roman Porno film, the sexier and where Naked Rashomon belongs. The Roman Pornos have more of a focus of the story than the Pink Films, but are still dripping with sex and blood. Like Americans, however, the Japanese sometimes have a strange relationship with sex and violence. Anything remotely explicit in these films is obscured in odd and obtrusive ways to hide it from our eyes, yet there's no limit on the level of violence allowed. All Roman Porno has this, but Chusei Sone uses this requirement to add to his art, throwing the limitations back in the faces of censors. In a scene in the brothel before the daughter returns, we fin an aging prostitute talking sadly with her long time client. In their way, they are in love, but their situations prevent them from ever being together. Soon, they engage in joyless sex, but any naughty bits are obscured by a chair at the extreme front of the scene, clearly calling attention to itself. All of a sudden, the woman pulls out a blade, slashing her throat while her lover does the same. Blood sprays in torrents, gallons everywhere, before we fade to black. This scene hits every not required of Sone. The sex and violence quotas are more than met while, at the same time, the director exploits the censorship for artistic statement in a scene that encapsulates the sad beauty of this film. Sone deftly mixes these elements to make a very good combination of art and eroticism.
Naked Rashomon works, however, because of its treatment of the women in the story and the performances of the actresses who play them. The film is often deeply depressing and much of the action takes place at that brothel. Watching these women slog through their lives is brutal. Enslaved by class and circumstances, unable to leave until they're no longer a viable commodity, they will be discarded as soon as they have outlived their usefulness. The daughter takes something back. No matter how unseemly her methods, she has reached a breaking point. The knowledge of her past gives her the power to take the step that her sisters in the brothel cannot. They're lives have been just as hard. They've been abused and humiliated just the same and she helps to empower them by going to the extremes she does. Sone balances this nicely with the sex and violence to make a film that both revels in and comments on its lurid subject.
Mondo Macabro, in their ongoing struggle to shine light on the world's most obscure genre films, have done great justice to the fine exploitation picture. The widescreen image, from newly restored elements, looks fantastic. If it isn't reference quality, it's as close as we're going to get. The colors are brilliant without too much saturation and the blacks are deep and clear. Sone takes full advantage of the wide ratio to fill the screen with details that look great on DVD. There is some evidence of dirt and film grain, but it's rarely distracting. The mono sound doesn't fare quite as well. It is clear with little noise, but is generally a flat mix, even in mono. The extras are short, but informative. We have a half hour featurette on the director and Roman Porno films in general and a brief introduction to the film by historian Jasper Sharp. This company is consistent in their quality, and this is no different.
Naked Rashomon, given its content, is a surprisingly sensitive portrayal of troubled women and a society that forces them into chains. Chusei Sone shows an eye for erotic power and artistic style and this release shows, once again, why Mondo Macabro is among the leaders in exploitation DVD.
Shockingly innocent. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mondo Macabro
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated