Saturday, 30 January 2010

Immortal Love (1972)

Immortal Love (Seidan botan-dôrô, also released as Hellish Love) is a 1972 Japanese erotic ghost story. Or rather it’s a very traditional Japanese ghost story, spiced up with some added sexiness. Either way it’s not a bad little film.

By the beginning of the 70s all the major Japanese studios were in desperate straits, with television having reduced cinema attendances by more than three-quarters. Nikkatsu’s response was to abandon all other projects and to concentrate entirely on a new range of films, their Roman Porno genre. It should be explained that this has nothing whatever to do with the Romans, and very little to do with pornography. Some people believe the name was a shortened form of “romantic pornography” but the most popular explanation seems to be that it derived from the French term for an erotic novel, the roman pornographique. Both explanations make some sense, since these movies were envisaged as sexy films with class.

What made this new genre particularly interesting was that Nikkatsu gave its writers and directors absolute artistic freedom, as long as their films contained at least five sex scenes. And this wasn’t just artistic freedom, this was artistic freedom with the resources of a major studio to draw on, and with thoroughly experience and well-trained film crews, so although budgets were fairly low these movies had quite high production values and a very professional look to them. And even the requirement for sex scenes was no problem, since it gave the film-makers the opportunity to deal with grown-up subject matter.

In fact the sex and nudity in these productions is very tame indeed by comparison with European movies of that era, or even with British and American movies. Japanese censorship remained outrageously strict until very recently. The sexual content of most of these movies would hardly suffice to earn them a PG rating today. But the movies themselves proved to be remarkably interesting.

Immortal Love was directed by Chûsei Sone, who went on to make some interesting projects before suddenly disappearing from the industry in the late 80s.

A penniless samurai ekes out a living by making umbrellas. He falls in love with a young woman, but her father violently opposes their love affair. The young samurai returns from journey to find the house of his lady love deserted. She tells him they were forced to move to another village, but he later discovers that this new village is in fact a cemetery. His girlfriend is in fact a ghost. But while she may be dead, her love has not died. She comes to him that night, and they make love.

Making love with a ghost is apparently a somewhat dangerous thing to do, at least assuming that you’re hoping to remain in the land of the living. He tries to avoid any further ghostly erotic encounters, but her spirit is determined and resourceful and the charms he uses to repel the dead prove to be of no avail.

There are several sub-plots, one involving his servant and his girlfriend, both good-natured enough but exceptionally avaricious, and not above accepting money from visitors from the spirit world. There’s also another member of the ghostly young woman’s former household, a female with somewhat homicidal tendencies.

This is very understated horror, totally lacking in gore. This, combined with the very restrained nature of the sex scenes, may cause some horror fans to find it a little on the bland side. But Japanese ghost stories don’t really seem to be about scaring the daylights out of the reader (or the viewer). They’re essentially just tales of the supernatural, which may be horrific, or romantic, or erotic, or just plain weird. The ghosts are not necessarily evil.

If you accept this movie as a low-key old-fashioned ghost story you’ll find much to enjoy. It has a subtle atmosphere of the uncanny that works extremely well, and it’s an effective if unconventional love story as well.

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