Female Demon Ohyaku Review
Having been raised an orphan after the suicide of her mother, Ohyaku Dayu (Junko Miyazono) has grown up to find that fate has dealt her a similar hand of abuse and financial hardship. Making a living as an trapeze artist, thanks to a theatre troupe, she entertains pervy men with her silky smooth skills (and legs) while they attempt to win her as a prize during fierce bidding sessions. In addition she carries out moonlight swindles with the help of her sidekick Genji, so that she may help others of equal or lesser standing than herself.
When an important bureaucrat at the mint named Sengoku (Koji Nambara) personally requests for Ohyaku to come see him, she soon becomes privy to yet more male lusting when he informs her that he wants her all to himself. Shunning his unperturbed and aggressive advances, she’s ultimately rescued by a young man named Shinkuro (Kunio Murai) - a former official vassal, now reduced to common thief. Ohyaku and Shinkuro quickly form a loving bond when they learn that each other wish to take down greedy bureaucrats who don’t care about the poor, and whose only concern is in furthering their own career prospects. Shinkuro hatches a plan to rob the mint, a plan which is soon relayed to the Yakuza Boss of Otawa (Tomisaburo Wakayama), who warns Shinkuro out of respect not to go through with such a dangerous scheme. With their lives on the line they go through with the plan, but unbeknownst to Shinkuro there lies a betrayer in the midst - his old friend an accountant to the mint Hyoe Sakaki. Shinkuro and Ohyaku are eventually caught and tortured, until Shinkuro finally breaks and reveals the location of the hidden gold to spare the life of his beloved. It’s enough to save her life, but Shinkuro is cruelly killed, leaving Ohyaku to be raped and humiliated by Sengoku, before she’s shipped out to Sado Island. But with revenge on her mind, not even the poisonous gold mines and frustrated inmates will prevent Ohyaku from exacting punishment toward those who have taken her virtue.
Director Yoshihiro Ishikawa had earned himself a brief feature film directorial run having studied under horror maestro Nobuo Nakagawa as an A.D over at Shin-toho during the latter part of the fifties. Additionally it was during this time that he notably penned screenplays for several of Nakagawa’s features such as Kenpei to Yurei, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki [Mansion of the Ghost Cat] and more famously the ghostly tale Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan. Shin-toho was clearly showing signs of a financial struggle during this period though and as such Ishikawa’s output never expanded much beyond; similarly, however, his contemporary Nobuo Nakagawa only ever directed six features himself for the company before it folded circa 1960, paving the way for Toei to open up and involve itself in revitalising the dwindling cinema era with its unique and explorative brand of stylised action cinema and dirty exploitation. After his Shin-toho debut in 1960 with Kaibyo Otamaga-Ike [The Ghost Cat of Otamaga], Yoshihiro Ishikawa all but disappeared from the movie scene until the latter part of the sixties when he was drafted in to helm the first part of a proposed trilogy owing itself to the popular Chanbara genre: Yoen Dokufu-den Hannya no Ohyaku. The collective trilogy now commonly referred to as Legends of the Poisonous Seductress in the west would wear its influences proudly on its sleeve, mixing up samurai thrills and suspenseful horror, whilst tackling taboo areas and making broad statements about Japan’s political and social woes. Oddly enough Ishikawa would only direct the first film, leaving his peer Nobuo Nakagawa to continue the tale later on. I say “oddly“, because Female Demon Ohyaku is a gloriously fun little entry that undoubtedly helped to mould a genre which would soon become a cult in itself.
The plot you won’t find any more routine than here, but with Toei generally sticking to formulas that they knew worked it’s not wholly surprising. However, Ishikawa masterfully bypasses the somewhat generic narrative by supplying an abundance of quirky characteristics, overflowing amounts of emotional turmoil, manipulative drama and good old fashioned high-end theatrics. His stylish decision to shoot in black and white (the next two films heading into colour territory) draws out Ohyaku’s misery, drenching its hidden horrors through stark contrasts and warped shadows, thus seeing it emulate some of the more profound entries from the early to mid-sixties from auteurs such as Kaneto Shindo, while its outwardly aggressive stance and defiance toward conventional film making places it alongside the vibrant works of Teruo Ishii and Seijun Suzuki, of whom had already established amazing techniques throughout the decade. Of course Nakagawa’s influence isn’t far off either. And like such visual masters Ishikawa proves himself an equal force as he stages his action confidently, precisely and very gruesomely. Although Female Demon Ohyaku takes some time in setting up its premise it’s nonetheless crafted as a gruelling and violently tense study on morality; Ishikawa doesn’t spoil the viewer, instead choosing to save the best bits and evenly spread them across the ninety minute run time so that their effect is all the more enhanced, none more so than during the superbly staged final act, when Ohyaku’s reckoning comes to a head as she confronts our reprehensible villains. Her ultimate vengeance upon Hyoe and Sengoku - played perfectly to a tee by stock villain actor Koji Nambara - is so skilfully executed that it sends the heart racing with disturbing levels of excitement, and few directors ever manage to set emotions on fire quite like that. In a time shortly before the seventies embraced such outward displays of nudity, Female Demon Ohyaku is notably barren, though it’s certainly no worse off for it. It treats its subject of female abuse with equal distaste and without the need to present anything for the sake of titillation, knowing of course that in its place is an actress, underrated and less forthcoming as she might have been, who was more than capable of selling the entire thing with seemingly little effort.
This in turn leads us onto the heart of the film, with its social concerns that had become such an intrinsic part of Japanese film making at the time. While fantastical in appearance there’s an ongoing underlining truth which lends itself toward a struggling economy, sided against feminist traits as it stands on its clear-cut moral highground. Ohyaku is our primary voice, the spirit of retribution who systematically hunts down bastardly men like the dogs they are, having mercilessly abused their lesser empowered female counterparts. Though at a relatively early stage of the Pinku scene, the brazen woman/scornful avenger archetype was fairly well into its stride, though not a greatly overused device considering the popularity of male dominated Yakuza flicks. But the then 25-year-old Junko Miyazono’s Ohyaku can certainly be viewed as an integral part of the Pinky Violence movement, an influential being whose ideals and codes of conduct can be likened alongside heroines subsequently played throughout the years by Reiko Ike, Miki Sugimoto and Meiko Kaji - one of the key factors of empowerment being that these women use the very thing that men want in order to trap them in their web of despair. And I might add that Miyazono, a forerunner to these zesty young heroines, is certainly a remarkable presence, with the fire and good looks to go down in Pinku history. Meanwhile in the background Ishikawa deals with other downtrodden members of society; he fleetingly examines prostitution and he contributes in sending a few political digs toward hierarchies. At face value we may have seen it all before, the ideas are recycled and for all intents the film is a pastiche of several to come before it, but it’s driven by an insatiable desire to entertain in equal measure. Despite its bleak outlook and depressing veneer there’s no denying its startling imagery and fully dedicated performances as it reaches its bittersweet conclusion.
Female Demon Ohyaku has been simultaneously released alongside the other two titles in the Poisonous Seductress series care of Synapse, who are working in partnership with Panik House. As with their previous releases Snake Woman’s Curse and Horrors of Malformed Men Synapse offer reversible sleeve artwork: the inner sleeve featuring the original Japanese poster art.
Another carefully preserved Toei title, Female Demon Ohyaku comes to DVD with little to bring it down. Synapse treats the film with the respect it deserves by offering us another fine example in DVD authoring, with a progressive tranfer - something that all too few independent distributors of Asian films ever bother with. The film, presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and afforded anamorphic treatment, shows no ungainly signs of compression artefacts or digital manipulation. The image itself is remarkably clean, with very few instances of specks and the stark black and white photography is equally well rendered, although the contrast levels seem somewhat debatable. White levels appear to be accurately depicted with no overt blooming, while on occasion black levels lose minor details in large shadowed areas. However, this is but small nitpicking as the detail in general is remarkably strong and there’s no doubting the film looks as close to how it should do without it seeing the light of day in HD.
Sound wise, there’s not a lot to say. We’re getting the original Japanese mono track and as it stands it’s not too shabby at all. Like the print the track has been well looked after; there’s barely anything by the way of hiss and other age related concerns, with dialogue and ambience being nicely carried across the centre channels.
Optional English subtitles are available and remain up to the usual standards from the guys at Synapse/Panik House, being clear and free from grammatical errors.
There’s not a great deal here this time around, with the main attraction being an audio commentary from Chris. D. As I’ve said before, the problem I have with Chris. D’s audio commentaries is that they come across very bland, and with very little keen-ness toward the subject. Rarely does he cover a film and actually talk about the film production itself, rather deciding to establish the pinky violence movement; this results in the speaker covering the same ground over again, leaving this particular commentary not unlike his previous ones. He does talk a little about Ishikawa and other members of the crew, while bringing us up to speed on the film itself and its influences derived from other Asian and even western territories, but a lot of the time his comments are quite vague and there are far too many pauses throughout, while on occasion he offers some general critique. Overall I’m afraid it’s quite boring despite D’s knowledge of the subject. On the other hand his linear notes are fine, something which I’ve found he’s far better suited to, and something which would have been better served perhaps as an inclusion on the disc instead.
Theatrical trailers for all three films in the series are also included and are presented anamorphically.
Ishikawa may not have gone on to direct any further films quite as notable, but when things are this good it makes the first instalment of the Poisonous Seductress series all the more savoured. Masterfully directed and featuring splendid performances from seasoned veterans and rising talents, Female Demon Ohyaku remains the best of the loose trilogy and a film which deservedly stands proud amongst some of the genre’s finest efforts.
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