Friday, 12 June 2009

Naked Rashomon (1972)

The first thing to note about Chusei Sone’s Naked Rashomon is that it has absolutely no connection whatsoever with Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The title seems to have been chosen simply because it sounded like a cool title. Be that as it may it’s an interesting tale of revenge and of people trapped by the past.

By the beginning of the 1970s the advent of television had pushed many Japanese film studios to the brink of bankruptcy, including the oldest of them all, Nikkatsu (founded in 1912). Nikkatsu’s response was to introduce their “roman porno” series, and to concentrate exclusively on these films. This turned out to be a very successful move and Nikkatsu are still around although the “roman porno” series ended in the late 80s. Most people think the “roman” is short for romantic, but it’s actually derived from the French term for erotic novels, “roman pornographique.” In fact the sexual content in these movies is relatively tame.

Since they were produced by a major studio with all the resources that entails these films do not have the slightly home-made rather amateurish look so often associated with exploitation movies. They’re glossy and extremely well made with high production values, and they were made by people who took film-making very seriously. The acting is more than adequate and the approach of many of the directors was quite self-consciously arty. For many directors the genre provided a golden opportunity since Nikkatsu gave them complete artistic freedom as long as they included plenty of sex.

Naked Rashomon opens in 1913. Lord Katsuragawa, a powerful political figure, desperately needs a son to consolidate the family’s future power an influence, but his wife is unable to bear children. He solves the problem by impregnating Shino, the prostitute girlfriend of his bodyguard Todo, and claiming the child as his own. Shino however gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Todo is ordered to dispose of mother and daughter but instead hides them away in a remote part of the country. Nineteen years later the dying Shino contacts Todo and asks him to take over the care of the daughter, Kyoko.

Things become somewhat confusing after this, with the action switching back and forth between the two time periods, but I’m fairly sure this was a deliberate choice by director Chusei Sone. The protagonists are hopelessly entrapped by the events of 1913 and they therefore exist as much in the past as in the present. Kyoko is obsessed with the idea of re-living her mother’s life by becoming a prostitute herself, and by devoting herself to plans for revenge. Shino’s son is equally unable to escape the consequences of those past events, although he doesn’t realise it. Todo is haunted by the shadow of 1913 as well, and by his doomed efforts to make some atonement and to undo the harm that was done. The obsession with the past (neatly symbolised by two almost identical photographs taken 19 years apart) has produced a distorted reality for the people concerned, and this is reflected in the slightly dream-like quality of the movie.

As you expect with a Mondo Macabro release there are plenty of extras. The documentary of the roman porno genre is interesting. This is a genre that has not only been completely unknown to western audiences but it’s also only just being rediscovered in Japan where it’s building up a considerable following among young women movie fans. Which isn’t surprising, since like so much of Japanese exploitation cinema it’s very woman-focused, and it mixes complex female characters with lots of sex, a combination unfortunately rather rare in modern erotica. There are trailers for more Nikkatsu movies soon to be released by Mondo Macabro, all of which look very tempting. I think Watcher in the Attic is a better introduction to this particular sub-genre but Naked Rashomon is still very much worth getting.

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