Judge William Lee likes to dip his toes in the exotic sleaze.
"Once you know the truth, all you'll do is kill some tall blue-eyed guys."—Taki
Japan's oldest film studio decided in 1971 to concentrate all of its production efforts to making soft-core sex films. Thus began Nikkatsu's Roman Porno era of movies. Film scholar Jasper Sharp describes in his liner notes the various waves of filmmakers that worked with the studio. Some were former assistants that got their break to direct, others were trained up during this period and made their mark as the next generation of Roman Porno directors. Then there were the directors already working with the studio before the drastic change in production philosophy. In the early days of Nikkatsu's new output, these established filmmakers had to modify their style in accordance with the studio's new direction. Yukihiro Sawada's first feature film, 1972's Sex Hunter: Wet Target, can clearly be seen as an example of that transitional stage. It is a dark and violent crime movie with generously lengthy sex scenes. The trailer uses the phrase "action porno" to describe the film and that's not too far from the truth. It's certainly more descriptive than the film's nonsensical title.
Okamoto (Jôji Sawada, using the screen name George Harrison) is in prison when he learns that his sister was gang-raped by drunken American soldiers. Her naked body was discovered hanging from the gate of a shrine. After his release from prison two years later, Okamoto sets out looking for answers about his sister's fate and he wants vengeance against the soldiers. With the help of Taki (Akira Takahashi), a drug dealer and pimp, he might get satisfaction.
Sex Hunter: Wet Target bears closer resemblance to film noir than titillating exploitation flicks. Okamoto is a conflicted anti-hero living in a world of compromised morals. The only way to survive in this reality is to get your hands dirty and Okamoto certainly does that. He performs in a live sex show to get closer to Etsuko (Hiroko Isayama), a stripper seemingly still in shock from surviving the attack that claimed his sister's life. He also commits rape in his pursuit of revenge. Okamoto has further shortcomings even as an action hero. He gives as good as he gets but he's never the clear winner in a fight. When Taki calls him a coward and berates him for botching a kill, he looks even more pathetic.
Working from a screenplay by Atsushi Yamatoya (Branded to Kill), Yukihiro Sawada is after bigger fish with this movie than simply a tour of sex and violence. The film's negative attitude toward the U.S. presence in Japan is an obvious point of controversy. The script makes a point of the fact Okamoto can't get justice through official channels because GIs have virtual immunity from their transgressions. Okamoto's mixed ancestry is also repeatedly remarked on as characters refer to him as "mulatto" and his exotic looks are part of the reason to cast him in the sex show. There's a parallel between Japanese prejudice against Okamoto and the Americans' against an Afro-American character. The Japanese aren't let off the hook either for their profiteering from the GIs' indulgences. The seedy nightclub where Okamoto works is happy to trade its employees' respect for greenbacks.
Reflecting the dark attitude of the story, the look of the movie makes deliberate use of low lighting and deep shadows. In an early flashback scene, I was worried to see dark hair color disappear into the background but later moments really show off the careful lighting design that maintains a striking distinction between light and dark. The overall contrast walks a fine line between heavy shadows and inky darkness, leaving no room for subtle shades of blackness. An extended unbroken shot where a brawl between Okamoto and Taki moves through several rooms is magnificent in how it looks realistically dim without sacrificing the action in the shadows. The movie would probably look great in black and white except that the rich colors would be lost and that's another plus on this DVD. In respect to sharpness and image clarity, Impulse Pictures again does a fine job with this disc. The only glitch with the video are several instances where black frames appear as though footage was missing. The anamorphic widescreen picture is presented in an uncommon 2.15:1 aspect ratio. I don't know if this is cropped down from another format but the compositions look fine throughout. The two-channel mono sound is a perfectly adequate mixing of dialogue and music plus some loud sound effects when needed.
Jasper Sharp provides a dense two-page essay in an inserted booklet. His writing has a more academic approach this time as he situates Sawada's movie in the context of Nikkatsu's new direction. He also places the story's critical stance on U.S. bases in Japan in relation to other films.
This early entry in the Nikkatsu erotic films line is a surprisingly rough crime story. The lengthy sex scenes are mostly confined to the nude acts in the nightclub and the flashbacks to the gang rape so they won't serve up the titillating thrills that some will expect from this series. Still, it's a pretty involving story set in the seedy part of town and it's told with considerable economy. It's definitely worth including in the Nikkatsu collection as an example of how varied the films of this period were.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Impulse Pictures
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