Wednesday, April 13, 2011
BLIND SWORDSWOMAN: HELLISH SKIN (1969)
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.
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!