Saturday, 6 February 2010

Slave Widow (1967)

After reading Jasper Sharp’s book Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema I’m starting to explore the strange and wondrous world of the Japanese pink film (pinku eiga). I’ve seen quite a few of Nikkatsu’s “roman porno” films and Toei’s “pinky violence” films, but Slave Widow (Dorei mibojin) was my first exposure to a true pink film, made outside the major studio system.

Directed by Mamoru Watanabe for Chuo Eiga in 1967, this movie is not at all what you might expect from such a genre. If you’re anticipating anything remotely similar to the US or European sexploitation films of the 60s and 70s you’re going to be very surprised indeed. For one thing Japanese censorship was incredibly strict on sexual matters (and still is compared to most countries) so the sex and nudity content is very very tame indeed. Even more surprising, the tone of the movie owes more to Bergman than to your average skin flick.

Pink films in fact have quite a considerable degree of critical respectability in Japan (and increasingly so outside of Japan as well). Plenty of highly acclaimed mainstream directors started their careers in this genre, and most of them feel no embarrassment whatsoever about this. And it’s by no means unknown for actors or actresses in pink movies to pick up major acting awards. With the censors permitting so little sex and nudity the writers, directors and actors have to put much more emphasis on plot, characterisation and atmosphere.

Slave Widow is in essence a romantic tragedy. Mrs Fuji’s husband dies of a heart attack, leaving behind nothing but debts. Lots of them. The good news is that a wealthy businessman. Mr Kito is prepared to take over those debts. The bad news is that he’s become a wealthy businessman by being exceptionally ruthless, and he intends to extract a high price for covering those debts - Mrs Fuji will have to become his mistress. Or it might be more correct to say, one of his mistresses.

Mrs Fuji is shocked and appalled, but she is even more shocked and appalled when she starts to enjoy the sex. That’s all well and good, but things get complicated when Mr Kito’s son falls in love with her, and she realises she’s in love with him as well. Of curse it’ inevitable that things are not going to end well.

While the plot is fairly slight, it’s the execution that’s impressive. Moody black-and-white cinematography, some gloomy but oddly beautiful scenery (including a lake that will play an important part in the story), good acting and skillful direction - this is all much more art-house than grind-house. The obvious equivalent in the American sexploitation genre would of course be Joe Sarno’s films, but Slave Widow has a distinctly European art-movie feel to it (but then it could be argued that Sarno’s films have a touch of that as well).

The European flavour is combined with much more traditional Japanese elements. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as being a kaidan (one of those haunting Japanese ghost stories or weird tales that provide the subject matter for so many great Japanese movies) there’s definitely a hint of that genre.

The story is very much told from the woman’s perspective, and like so many Japanese exploitation movies there’s a definite political edge to the film. While one of the characters at one stage describes Mrs Fuji as a vampire that isn’t really the view that the film takes of her at all. My feeling was more that the movie was criticising this kind of moral judgment and condemning the sexual double standards that allowed Mr Kito to remain a respectable figure in society despite his harem of mistresses while reviling the woman for indulging her sexual appetites.

While the sex is extremely tame it’s also, in a subtle way, quite erotic. This is a sensitive and moving film, and it demonstrates why so many Japanese directors have been attracted to the pink film - it’s a genre that allows them a great deal of freedom to make interesting and often very personal films.

Cinema Epoch’s DVD release isn’t especially impressive. There’s a certain amount of print damage, and there are no extras. On the other hand they should be given credit for making such obscure movies available to us at all, and the film is certainly quite watchable. Only a very small proportion of the pink films of the 60s still survive, so it’s pretty exciting to find any of them on DVD with English sub-titles.

I recommend this movie very highly.

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