Friday, 11 September 2009

Angel Guts: Red Classroom (1979)

Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Tenshi no harawata: Akai kyôshitsu) was the second of a series of half-a-dozen or so very successful movies made from the late 70s up to the early 90s and based on a manga series by Takashi Ishii. Most were made by Nikkatsu Studios.

Japanese exploitation movies can be tremendous fun, but some can be quite heavy going and even at times slightly unpleasant viewing experiences. The level of sexualised violence can be disquieting to a western audience. Angel Guts: Red Classroom is certainly not a comfortable movie to watch, and there are scenes that are disturbing, and deliberately so. If you can get past that then it’s actually an intelligent and provocative movie and one that is worth seeing. The violence does serve a purpose. It's unpleasant in the way that films like A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs are unpleasant - given the nature of the subject matter it's difficult to see how the film could escape being disturbing. If you’re not comfortable with a reasonably high level of sexualised violence you might want to avoid this one though.

Muraki is a guy who works as an editor for an erotica magazine. It’s strictly softcore stuff, but one day he sees an illegal hardcore movie that depicts a schoolgirl being raped. He becomes obsessed with the young woman in the movie. But does he want to have sex with her, or to save her? This is one of several unsettling questions raised by Angel Guts: Red Classroom, and it deliberately does not provide us with easy or unambiguous answers to any of them. He does meet her. Her name is Nami. She is working at a receptionist at a “love hotel” (a peculiarly Japanese institution that rents rooms by the hour but not necessarily for the purposes of prostitution - some are simply used by couples who live with their parents and have no other way of obtaining the privacy required for having sex). She takes him to a room, and although she has never met him before she immediately starts to undress. Is she a prostitute? This is another unanswered question.

Muraki finally convinces her he wants to talk to her. He wants to know about the movie. Was she a willing participant? She suggests that she was either not willing, or that she was initially willing but things got out of hand. But other events will cause us to have some doubts about whether Nami always tells the entire truth about her life, and her feelings. The most likely conclusion we can come to is that Nami’s life has been lived in a rather ambiguous kind of sexual/criminal half-world where the boundaries between the consensual and the non-consensual, and the legal and the illegal, are not always as clear as they should be. And that Nami herself has trouble distinguishing these boundaries. But then it’s also possible she has told the complete truth, or that she has told nothing but lies. Either way, Muraki’s life spirals out of control as his obsession grows. A complicating factor is his relationship with Yuko, a model who works for his erotica magazine. She is married, but she is as sexually obsessed by Muraki as he is by Nami.

After an abortive assignation with Nami he does not see her for three years, then their paths cross again. She is now working in a very low-class dive, and is in a destructive relationship with the bar owner. Her life seems even more out of control that it was, but we are unsure just how long she has been on this self-destructive path, and we are increasingly asked to question the extent to which she is a victim of others, or a victim of her own self-destructive tendencies. Which is not to say that the movie demonises her or presents her as an evil woman who destroys men. It doesn’t. She’s more complex than that, and the film is more complex than that.

Angel Guts: Red Classroom was one of Nikkatsu’s romanporno series of films (the name comes from the French name for an erotic novel - roman pornographique). These films saved Nikkatsu from bankruptcy and from 1971 to 1988 made up their entire output. Nikkatsu was a big studio, and this output amounted to literally hundreds of such movies. What made these movies so interesting was that Nikkatsu was prepared to allow its directors and screenwriters to have almost complete artistic control - as long as the movies contained a considerable quantity of sexual content the film-makers could do whatever they liked. This of course was also true to a large extent of European and American low-budget exploitation movies, but what made the Nikkatsu romanporno movies unique was that Nikkatsu was a major studio with all the resources that entailed. As a result the production values and technical quality of these movies are extremely high, and they were made by people who were both experienced and very serious film-makers.

Chûsei Sone, the man who helmed this entry in the series, was a visually bold and exceptionally talented director. His earlier film Naked Rashomon is wildly inventive and filled with striking images. It was also made for Nikkatsu and interestingly it’s done in a style quite different to Angel Guts: Red Classroom.

The movie raises other questions aside from those I mentioned earlier. It raises questions about voyeurism, and the voyeurism inherent in film, and questions about the differences between reality and fantasy, and reminds us that no matter how realistic a movie may be it is not reality. The opening scene shows us what appears to be a rape. Then we realise it’s a movie that a group of people are watching, so it isn’t real. But then we’re watching a movie as well, so none of it is real. So should we feel uncomfortable about watching a movie about a movie about a rape?

Don’t let the romanporno label put you off. While it contains all the ingredients required of an exploitation flick this is a movie with much higher aspirations, and it is in fact (if you’re not put off by the sexual violence) a very high quality drama of erotic obsession.

The Artsmagic DVD release includes a swag of extras, including a perceptive commentary track by Jasper Sharp and an excellent interview with Takashi Ishii who wrote both the screenplay and the original manga. Sharp (who has written several books on Japanese erotic movies) makes some bold claims for this film, even comparing it to Hitchcock, but he makes some fairly convincing arguments to back his claims.

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