You can have your girls with guns. According to Judge Bill Gibron, there is nothing quite as fetching as a fierce femme wielding a sword, as in the enjoyable Poisonous Seductress series from Japan.
It's all about spurned women, arrogant men, and butt-kicking vengeance. Hell, ya!
When someone mentions the female revenge film, they usually focus on the post-modern horror dynamic created by such craven delights as I Spit on Your Grave. Indeed, the defiling of a woman, only to have her come back superhero style and kick some violator booty is as old as the ancient Greeks. It's the traditional cautionary tale given an estrogen makeover. In some people's minds, no one did it/does it better than the Japanese. Noted for their Pinky Violence film genre (actually known as sukeban, or delinquent girl, in its native land) these films frequently focus on the so-called weaker sex doing drugs, committing crimes, and generally getting involved in the most miscreant of behaviors. In looking for a source for this style of picture, many scholars have pointed to the Poisonous Seductress Trilogy. Though today many acknowledge the clear distinction between Pinky and the adventures of pseudo samurai Ohyaku/Okatsu, Western audiences can see the rise of the pre-feminist torch carrier in these wildly entertaining period pieces. In the Poisonous Seductress Trilogy, all men are vile, are women are noble, and when one harms the other, karma calls out the sword for a little battle of the sexes mano-y-mano.
Facts of the Case
The three films here are not linked by storyline or narrative arc. The main female character is different in each (even if two share the same first name), and her travails vary from outright degradation to fighting for the family. The only bond between all of them is iconic actress Junko Miyazono. She essays each role with the perfect balance of softness and smarts, cunning, and karate skills. After watching her whoop tushy, it's not hard to see where something like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill comes from. Here is a brief synopsis of all three plots:
Female Demon Ohyaku (1968)—Actress and dancer Ohyaku has had a hard life. Her prostitute mother committed suicide by throwing herself off a bridge—with her infant daughter in her arms. Having survived, she's lived as a hired harlot, performing high-wire tricks and post-performance acts for cash. When she rejects a high-ranking official, he vows revenge. She soon falls for professional thief Shin, but is devastated when he is killed after a robbery gone bad. Tortured and then raped, Ohyaku is sent to prison. There she befriends a burly inmate, a horny warden, and his Sapphic spouse. Eventually, she returns to the real world and, with sword in hand, gets retribution on all who wronged her.
Quick Draw Okatsu (1969)—As the adopted daughter of a local dojo master, Okatsu is skilled with a blade. Unfortunately, her brother is a notorious gambler, and when he loses big to one of the local crime bosses, the favor he owes is immense. A crooked councilman wants his daddy dead, and as Okatsu saves the sniveling brat (and his pregnant girlfriend), her father is tortured and killed. She is raped, and runs away to find her sibling. Sadly, he's been the victim of a double cross, and Okatsu finds herself sold to a local whorehouse, but a rebellious young girl named Rui helps her escape. Together, they take on the men who destroyed her life, swords blazing in a show of undeniable killing skill.
Okatsu the Fugitive (1969)—When Okatsu's father uncovers corruption in the local government, he writes his findings down on a piece of paper and hides it. When the vile official implicated in the document discovers the truth, he gathers up the entire Makebe family. In front of Okatsu, he tortures her father and lets criminals ravage her mother. When neither will talk, he stabs the father. Dying, dad kills his suffering wife. Okatsu is raped, but won't reveal where the paper is. The politician relies on the girl's fiancé to turn on her. Instead, a noble ex-dojo master who now works with orphans vows to help her defeat this seething evil, one sensational sword fight at a time.
Though it may sound sexist or chauvinistic to say it, there is something very engaging about the female empowerment film. Seeing a woman dragged down and defiled by an undeserving man (or men), only to rise up and rip the testicles off the rotters is a major aesthetic aphrodisiac. It makes the cinematic short hairs tingle with unmetered anticipation—and the more exotic, the better. That's the allure of the Poisonous Seductress series, new to DVD from Synapse Films. Laying the foundation for future Japanese girl gang workouts, these amazing movies provide a kind of prurient palpability which turns the standard samurai genre that the Tokyo talent relied on into something much better—and much "broader." These are either the most pro-gal or massively misogynistic movies ever made—usually combining both ideals at the same time. Our pretty protagonists always win, but only at the expense of their pride, dignity, virtue, virginity, reputation, and overall life. Indeed, when the mandated acts of vengeance have ended and the last hateful Neanderthal is defeated, the victory is typically empty. There is no greater reward than the satisfaction of an animalistic blood lust, not the most feminine of finishing moves.
Luckily, Toei Studios found the perfect actress to circumvent all the unsavory symbolism. No sword-wielding action star every looked more fetching, more fierce, or more focused than Junko Miyazono. Only 25 years old when the first film was made, she was required to carry an entire samurai styled spectacle on her dainty, almost petite frame. Yet when she picks up a piece of iron, she wields it with a skill few could match—and she looks damn good doing it. Capable of keeping her self respect even when being bullied and manhandled by outrageous villains, she symbolizes the true spirit of the Poisonous Seductress series. For all its "dames are dangerous" elements, what the various storylines deal with thematically is the notion of corruption exposed and punished, and justice meted out on a face-to-face level. The period setting helps avoid modern machinations like police, commons sense, and laws, while the somewhat liberated woman stands in stark contrast to feudal Japan's reality. It makes for an interesting combination, one that helps us over the frequently melodramatic, somewhat repetitive nature of these films.
Female Demon Ohyaku is the best of the bunch. Shot in stark black-and-white, and overflowing with mood and atmosphere, it is the bloodiest, most brazen film in the faux franchise. We get decapitations with torrents of grue, brutality measured out in minutes, not moments, and more scandalous sex than any mid-'60s audience—Japanese or Western—was ready to handle. Indeed, the moment we are introduced to the prison warden's bi-curious wife, all bets are off. She and Ohyaku share some wonderful sensual tension, and their tattoo sessions spark with carnal kinetic energy. Even better, their sole love scene (shot in suggestion and inference only) seals the sordid deal. Everything else that happens—the seductions, the slaughter, the sly bits of cultural satire—are merely icing on a cruel and calculated cake. Similar in sensibility to the exploitation movies of the era then making their way across the globe, except with more class and tawdry tact, Female Demon Ohyaku prepares us for what promises to be two more installments of sleazy Eastern thrills. Oddly enough, they never come.
Instead, Quick Draw Okatsu takes the character—or at least the character type—and turns her in a totally different direction. Instead of one woman battling a cabal of bad men, this film finds evil and underhandedness every step of the way. Okatsu's brother is a spineless, obsessive gambler, a family friend turns out to be an unapologetic white slaver, and seeming allies easily sell out their friends for a handful of cash or a promise of power. Unlike the first film, which used the unlikely romance between Ohyaku and Shin to give the character an emotional lock to unhinge, everything here is about family, obligation, and dishonor. And then there's little Riu. Clearly brought in to add further spice to Miyazono's already obvious allure, our mini-skirted sidekick is barely explained, seemingly invincible, and a mistress of coincidence. Whenever our heroine needs help, this potent pixie shows up and takes names. The only true bond established is woman to woman, and when the narrative no longer needs her, Riu is ridden out on a metaphysical rail. You can feel the formulaic elements creeping in here, dynamics drawn from audience reaction, critical response, and the changing façade of Japanese cinema. Though there are some sensational experimental shots (including a single take moment viewed from outside the local whorehouse), we start to feel like Okatsu is more product than parable.
Okatsu the Fugitive confirms this fact. What we have here is a literal remake of Quick Draw, with a noble dojo instructor taking the place of Riu and a condemning document replacing jealousy and greed. The title character is much less involved here—her parents die, her rape is only suggested, and the rest of the film finds her battling forces inside her own life to learn the truth and take on her tormentors. Indeed, she's a passive player, stumbling into situations which allow her to triumph more than struggling to secure her vengeance. The moments with the ex-dojo leader don't result in the prerequisite romance, and we never get the impression that Okatsu is as determined as other variations of her character. Clearly, this was a case of Toei delivering to audiences what they had responded to before, but that doesn't mean the exploitation and schlock are as conspicuous. It's obvious why no further films were attempted in this otherwise successful series. Directors and writers had proven that the female revenge flick could only go so far before it began to cannibalize itself. Okatsu the Fugitive has its moments, but overall, it pales in comparison to the fine film that started the fad.
Together, one can clearly identify the factors that make and break the Poisonous Seductress series. The first, and most obvious, is the shift from monochrome to color. Granted, Female Demon needs black-and-white to magnify its melodramatic angst. In color, the film would feel phony. What saves Quick Draw is the buckets of blood. Eyes are gouged out, throats garroted, and limbs hacked as evil doers fall under Okatsu's blade. Yet by Fugitive, the pigments become problematic. They no longer add any redolent red dynamics, and the countryside seems cheap compared to the ornate studio sets used in many of the battle sequences. Indeed, aside from the adding of unnecessary sidekicks, the biggest problem with these films is their inconsistent aesthetics. Clearly, it's the result of Nobuo Nakagawa stepping in as director for the last two films. Female Demon has a dark, foreboding quality that comes from the choices made by Yoshihiro Ishikawa (famous for his Ghost Cat films). Had he handled all the installments here (instead of letting his mentor Nakagawa take over) we'd have a much more satisfying set of motion pictures.
Then there are the horribly corrupt men at the center of each story. In true chick-flick fashion, these boorish oafs lack a single significant redeemable quality. While they argue that they themselves are corrupted by money and power, they sure have a heck of a time while enjoying their personal failings. Most are mere vengeance fodder, made as reprehensible as possible to get patrons cheering for their demise. A little more dimension would have made the Poisonous Seductress films more timeless. Today, they are clearly of their era. Still, they are enjoyable little romps, replete with everything that makes a gratuitous grindhouse like offering sizzle with sleaze. Of the three, the first film is definitely deserving of a place in every exploitation fan's inventory. Where one goes from there depends on how much they love Miyazono and if they can handle the shift from seediness to standard action thrills. The swordplay will definitely make fans of the format happy, and when combined with the hints of irony and local color, it makes for a multi-layered experience. While some will see them as dated and dull, the Poisonous Seductress Trilogy remains a great deal of male fantasy fun.
Synapse Films should be applauded for bringing these cinematic rarities to the digital format, especially after seeing the stellar transfers they offer. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen images are sensational—colorful, sharp, loaded with contrasts, and crammed with details. Naturally, the monochrome Female Demon looks best, with Quick Draw and Fugitive a close second. The Japanese Dolby Digital mono mixes are also very good. There is no hiss, lots of amplified orchestrations, and the English subtitles are easy to read and very conversational. Thank God there's not a single sloppy dub track available. As for added content, genre expert Chris D. writes liner notes for each film, and offers audio commentary on only two of the three films (Female Demon and Quick Draw). He's loaded with information, but lethargic in the delivery. Sometimes, it sounds like he can barely stay awake to speak. Finally, the last two discs offer a Nobuo Nakagawa poster gallery and biography. It's nice, but not film-specific enough. Indeed, the only drawback to the content here is that there's not more of it dealing specifically with the series, or focusing on actress Miyazono. She deserves a moment to speak for herself and her lingering legacy.
A quick trip over to the IMDb finds actress Junko Miyazono apparently MIA since a 1969 appearance on a TV show entitled Playgirl. The fact is, she's been active in her native land, making numerous appearances on the broadcast medium. If there was any justice, Quentin Tarantino would have found a way to work her into his Poisonous Seductress homage and revitalize her lagging Western fortunes. She deserves to be a motion-picture myth, not a filmic footnote. Anyone who sees her in Female Demon Ohyaku, Quick Draw Okatsu, or Okatsu the Fugitive will completely understand why. Clearly iconic, just not in ways that make movie buffs beg for their reinvention, these films are fine examples of exploitation and tradition bound and bronzed. There was never anything like them, and there never will be again. They stand at the heart of Japan's post-modern aesthetic while representing everything said stratagem would try to avoid. No matter your take on this material, one thing's for sure—you too will be seduced by the toxic enticement of these wonderful artistic artifacts.
Not guilty. While only one of the movies is a masterpiece, the other two remain imminently watchable. Well worth your time.
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Scales of Justice, Female Demon Ohyaku
Perp Profile, Female Demon Ohyaku
Distinguishing Marks, Female Demon Ohyaku
• Liner Notes by Noted Genre Expert Chris D.
Scales of Justice, Okatsu The Fugitive
Perp Profile, Okatsu The Fugitive
Distinguishing Marks, Okatsu The Fugitive
• Liner Notes by Noted Genre Expert Chris D.
Scales of Justice, Quick Draw Okatsu
Perp Profile, Quick Draw Okatsu
Distinguishing Marks, Quick Draw Okatsu
• Liner Notes by Noted Genre Expert Chris D.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.