Search This Blog

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN (1969)

Yoko Matsuyama returns as Blind Oichi, and this time she's in a terrific movie!

Did you ever see a movie that you didn't enjoy and found downright feeble, only to discover it had apparently made enough scratch at the box office to generate at least one sequel, but the sequel shockingly turned out to be everything the first film wished it was and more? I have wracked my brain to come up with a western-made film that was the immediate followup to a cinematic turd that turned out against all odds to be excellent and have come up with bubkes, but such is definitely the case in regard to BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN (originally released in the west as TRAPPED, THE CRIMSON BAT). A vast improvement over the turgid THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN, this film surprised the hell out of me and came from nowhere to earn a place on my personal list of favorite chambara flicks.

In this second installment (released during the same year as the inaugural entry), Yoko Matsuyama returns as Blind Oichi, the flagrant re-imagined-as-female ripoff of Daiei Pictures' popular Zatoichi, bringing a real script and lively direction with her. With the rote origin story told and her quest for vengeance concluded in the previous film, the new thrust of the character's story is that though she now fills her time as a bounty hunter and she's damned good at it, Oichi's sick of her life of endless misery and slaughter, so she seeks to abandon her blood-spattered existence and find some measure of peace, and as of roughly the middle of the film vows to never again draw her sword. An admirable goal, but this is a chambara flick so you know that her resolve and intentions will be sorely tested during the movie's running time.

When the story opens, Oichi runs afoul of a pack of lowlife yakuza louts who feel cheated when she nabs and kills a wanted man who had a high price on his head, a reward they sought for themselves. Aided by a truly sadistic and hateful woman named Oen (Kikko Matsuoka), a laughing tattooed gambling cheat who wields a blade-tipped whip made from women's hair, the crooks repeatedly attempt to set up Oichi and rip-off or kill her but each attempt ends in impotent failure, which only irks them even further.

The incredibly foul and sadistic Oen (Kikko Matsuoka). If ever there were a villain in sore need of killing, it's this crazy bitch-and-a-half.

Having previously appeared for no real narrative purpose and played by a different actress, only to disappear with no explanation during the first half of the first BLIND SWORDSWOMAN film, Oen's initial thwarting by Oichi leads the psycho bitch to become obsessed with our heroine — thus making her actually interesting this time around — and the two square off in mortal combat on a desolate beach. Oichi defeats Oen and instead of killing her opponent she shows mercy as part of her plan to change her ways, but that move proves to be a mistake as Oen poisons Oichi with a thrown barrage of venomous snakes. (Where she kept the snakes on her person without them biting and killing her is anyone's guess.)

A would-be assailant perishes by Oichi's blade in a pre-LONE WOLF AND CUB display of graphic arterial spewage. This is the kind of cinema that reveals Hollywood as the pussified suck-factory that it is nowadays.

Rescued by kindly farmers, Oichi awakens in their village and decides to begin her life anew, sans bloody violence and with a young local as her husband. Finding the rural life to her liking, Oichi settles in and proves to be a model wife, but she soon discovers that the dirt-poor farmers are being regularly shaken down for rice by the local yakuza scumbags who just so happen to be in league with Oen. It's only a matter of time until Oen susses out that Oichi survived her secret snake attack and embarks on a campaign to end her opponent's life once and for all, just for the fun of it and fully aware that Oichi has vowed never again to draw her sword. What ensues is an escalating series of trials and treachery that inevitably results in Oichi realizing that a life of happiness will forever be denied to her in a world defined by violence and the corrupt, heavily-armed strong preying upon the defenseless weak, and this installment abruptly ends during a final melee in which Oichi gives free rein to her rage, engaging the yakuza scum (about thirty of them) and Oen in a razor-edged, bloody dance of death.

Oichi prepares to mulch some human vermin.

While I outlined the basics of the film's narrative, I left out the details so you can discover BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN's ins and outs for yourself, but believe me when I say it's a gripping confection that's light years better than it has any right to be, especially in the wake of its tits-up dead cat of a predecessor. Matsuyama's performance is so alive in this installment that you'd swear she was practically a different character than that seen in THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN. We actually care about her here and want to see her impossible goal of achieving a non-violent life of an average woman's happiness come to fruition, so it's like a punch in the guts with each succeeding and insurmountable hurdle in her journey.

Oen merrily shows off her snake tattoo, the "hellish skin" of the title, scaring the living shit out of a roomful of hardened yakuza in the process.

And Kikko Matsuoka's Oen is a classic sociopath whose unhinged and reasonless evil steals and casts a pall over every scene she's in. Her signature weapon, the aforementioned whip made from women's hair, illustrates how she doesn't even give a damn about those of her own gender, and at one point she even engineers an attempted three-against-one gang rape of Oichi and laughs heartily all the while, so you know the bitch is completely fucked-up. By the time the final battle explodes, I was practically foaming at the mouth with desire to see her get what she so richly deserved and I was not disappointed in the least. Women in chambara films of that era pretty much existed to be either victims of rape and other cruelties of life or outright villains whose means of evil were widely varied and often quite imaginative, or you'd occasionally get a woman who was just as fierce with the swordplay as any of the innumerable male slayers who populated the genre. This film gives us all three of those types in the forms of Oichi's sweet femininity fused with sheer badassery, and Oen's jet black evil, so it's a win/win for the viewer.

The bottom line is that I greatly enjoyed BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN and I now want to see the remaining two films in the Blind Oichi series. However, the snag in achieving that objective is that the other two films are only available in shit-quality prints on discs apparently culled from the same Dutch VHS sources as my DVD of the first film. I'm going to try and hold out to see if the company Kurotokagi Gumi gives the remaining entries the same gorgeous treatment they gave to this film, but until then I at least have this excellent entry to tide me over. And I will definitely be returning to it again, and soon!

Packaging image from the Kurotokagi Gumi company's recent DVD release.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (1969)


One of the hazards of being a fan and collector of the kinds of movies I'm into is the fact that I sometimes get lucky and find a flick I've always been looking for, something hard to find that from all reports should not exist on DVD, and I snap up the film in question, realizing (often correctly) that I will never find that film again. And sometimes, once said film is acquired, knowing that it's in my possession and unlikely to migrate, I put the film aside to watch somewhere at a future date. Consequently I have a decent-sized stack of movies that have been sitting here in the Vault gathering moss for what is in some cases years, and I'm slowly making my way through them. One such case in point is THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN (aka CRIMSON BAT, THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN), a DVD that I found over four years ago during my time working at the barbecue joint. I bought it, brought it home and watched maybe ten minutes of it before turning it off to save it for another day because it turned out to be a poor-quality dubbed "gray market" transfer from a somewhat-worn Dutch VHS copy, complete with Dutch subtitles. I've endured films and TV shows whose visual quality was dodgy at best due to their rarity, so I could have handled sitting through THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN at the time, but I just wasn't in the mood, plus I did not expect to obtain such a shoddy specimen from my favorite wholly-reputable video store. Now, over four years later, I finally sat through it and it frankly was a disappointment. Curiosty and genre completism only goes so far, and even after having been aware of this film for twenty-some-odd years, it just wasn't worth the wait.

THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN is an old school chambara film from the genre's glory days, cranked out by Shochiku as a blatant cash-in on Daiei Pictures' long-running and highly successful Zatoichi series. In case you aren't up on your classic chambara flicks, the Zatoichi series depicted the adventures of Ichi, a wandering masseur and low-life gambler who possessed sword skills that were staggering in scope and made all the more impressive because the man was utterly blind. In total there are twenty-six films in the original series featuring the character as played by the incomparable Shintaro Katsu (plus a television series), so it was inevitable that someone would eventually rip them off. There have been several such clones since the late-1960's, but to the best of my knowledge THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN was the first to not only do so with apparently zero trace of shame, but it was also the first to recast the Zatoichi template in female form.

Yoko Matsuyama as the distaff Zatoichi, Blind Oichi.

In the first of four swiftly-made features released from 1969 through 1970, we meet Oichi (Yoko Matsuyama), a poised young woman who was abandoned during childhood by her prostitute mother (who was running away to make a new start with her lover). While searching for her fleeing mother in a terrible rainstorm, lightning strikes a tree near young Oichi, causing a large branch to fall on her and render her unconscious, and when she awakens she is permanently blind. (It is not made clear if she was blinded by the close proximity of the lightning strike or by suffering a head injury from the collapsing branch.) From there the girl is raised by a kindly old man who, unbeknownst to her, was once part of a gang of criminals whose leader has risen to prominence and seeks to eliminate all those who knew him back in the days. The old man raises Oichi until she's around eighteen years of age, at which point the old man is horribly murdered by his former crony and his gang, and Oichi finds herself rescued from them by a kindly ronin who sees in her graceful movements the makings of a natural sword master. The ronin trains Oichi in the ways of the sword for the next two years or so and she reveals herself to be a prodigy, mastering the weapon to a lethal degree and developing an unerring talent with her red-lacquered cane sword. Thus armed, Oichi is ready to embark on the requisite quest for vengeance, and possibly locate her long-absent mother in the process. Oh, and she also falls in love with the ronin, who splits once he's aware of her romantic interest, feeling she'd be better off without him. Needless to say, she's devastated.

The rest of the film is about as rote as one from this genre can be and its plot points are enacted with as little genuine interest for the viewer as possible. The narrative also leaps back and forth in time to establish much of the back-story, but it's accomplished in such a confusing way that it at times seems as though the film's reels have been strung together at random by an editor who's necked far too much saké. When the film's several plot threads are finally resolved, the results just aren't that interesting and when the identity of the main villain is revealed, we have no idea who the guy is anyway, so we just don't care. And, as previously mentioned, the film's chief goal was to ape the Zatoichi films, going so far as to re-stage tropes common to that series and even have a stumbling blind masseur show up to be abused by assorted yakuza assholes in a seedy gambling parlor. It's actually quite embarrassing. Scenes of Zatoichi getting the upper hand on crooked gamblers by using his heightened senses and slashing the shit out of all and sundry turn up in damned near every film the character's in, so the use of that trope in this outright ripoff is truly egregious and an example of the film's overall bankruptcy of originality.

Yoko Matsuyama is rather bland as Oichi and her face remains expressionless throughout the majority of the narrative, giving her a doll-like demeanor that makes her quite hard to empathize with. The film's dubbing also does no favors for the story, and I wish I'd been able to see it in the original Japanese with subtitles. The voices in the dub that I saw were all recognizable as actors familiar to anyone who's seen the many Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks dubbed for U.S. distribution in the west from the beginning of the "chopsocky" boom of the 1970's 'til it fizzled out in the early-1980's, when those films found a second life as part of World Northal's syndicated DRIVE-IN MOVIE television package, and their rather exaggerated delivery did not work for a film as typically Japanese-style somber as this one.

Of real interest only to chambara completists and even then not really recommended, I suggest that those who are interested in THE BLIND SWORDSWOMAN wait until a company like Kurotokagi Gumi issues a remastered version with subtitles. They recently put out a gorgeous edition of the series' second installment, BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN, and that is a film worth seeing. (More on that shortly.)