Madame O Review
The FilmSeiko (Michiko Sakyo) is a gynaecologist, who with the help of her assistant Keiko (Naomi Tani) has been running a small clinic. Things seem generally well on the surface, but Seiko harbours a deep secret. Raped at sixteen and left with syphilis, she’s remained a mentally scarred victim of male domination, which has prompted her to develop the utmost hatred toward all men. By night she moonlights as an easy pick up, all too willing to give men her body in exchange for infecting them as they sleep with the same disease once inflicted upon her. It’s an unquenchable thirst, but one that she manages to juggle quite comfortably amid the daily grind of her practice.
But the business is still understaffed, and when Seiko brings in a fellow doctor (Akihiko Kaminara) she finds her life heading in a direction she never expected it to. One night, after learning herself that she’s gotten pregnant after a particular one night stand she attempts a self-abortion. Having fainted during the process, she’s discovered by the doc, who manages to see everything right by fixing her up. Seiko in return tells her of her past, and soon they develop a strong bond, even falling in love. But is this really the first man in her life that she can actually trust and love?
Seiichi Fukuda is one of the unluckiest Japanese directors of the sixties era. As stated by Jasper Sharp in his accompanying linear notes many of the director’s films, which owed themselves to the pre-Pinky “Erudiction” wave (low budget soft skin flicks), are now considered lost in his homeland thanks to poor preservation, or rather poor attitudes; that these were simply cheap and disposable rolls of film, considered utterly useless after their initial theatrical run. It’s only thanks to European and select Asian distribution that a small portion of his legacy survives. And while that’s something to be thankful for it’s still a shame that we can’t get to see quite so many of his offerings, especially considering the beauty that Madame O contains. The film is otherwise known as Vice Doctor - Female Vice Edition, an indirect sequel to Fukuda’s long-winded Vice Doctor - Maternity and Gynaecology Department Diary, posing no problems whatsoever then in welcoming its audience.
Fukuda nicely sets the overall tone of Madame O for what is one of its underlying strengths, helming it in a methodical manner as he sets about slowly deconstructing his central figure. Keeping things slightly off balance he occasionally inter-cuts his predominantly black and white photography with colour sequences, although in hindsight there doesn’t appear to be any real reason for him to do this; an entirely random gesture in which any of these given scenes bare little context between narrative developments and stylistic choices. I can only wager then that the director did this simply because he could, and that the studio financing his work didn’t give a toss as long as he got it out on time. Which isn’t to say that Madame O doesn’t look nice. Indeed it’s a visually striking piece of work from cinematographer Jiro Ohyama, who lights and composes his shots with sharp precision, thus perpetuating a great amount of depth to what is something of a morally ambiguous tale of revenge, set against a very intimate backdrop.
Indeed the themes presented here aren’t entirely fresh, but they serve a purpose as Fukuda places all of his faith in the delicate delivery of star Michiko Sakyo. It’s worth noting, however, that hers is such a performance that - at least in this current incarnation - can only be studied on a certain level: her subtle expressions doing enough to override any concerns we might have otherwise had with the loss of the original soundtrack here. Most of the film relies on spouting exposition through a continual narration in a bid to unravel its mystery, which, while it might not give the viewer much of a cerebral workout, brings into play various other mental factors whereby questions are raised and are left to our own interpretation. Themes regarding sex, obsession, trust and general social paranoia lend additional weight alongside the aforementioned photography, certainly for a good hour or so anyway, before the final act hurries things along and degenerates into bouts of sheer human stupidity. And it’s easy to say that by this point we care little for anyone. Both sexes are depicted in thoroughly derogatory light - men are bastardly as always, and it’s debatable as to whether or not the film has any true feminist tones to it. Seiko might have been abused by men at a young age, spurring her to systematically carry out acts of depravity upon every male she comes into contact with, but it’s impossible to sympathise with her reasoning on account of her preying on often innocent victims (simply the horny men she lures) with such intelligent and pre-meditated grace. As such I can neither strictly label her a protagonist, nor antagonist. She’s clearly mentally unbalanced whatever the case and in fact the further she slips into eventual marital complacency during the final reels the worse she seems off than when she was happily infecting her one-night stands. It remains, then, a questionable illness that could no doubt have been better served.
And for those wondering just how much of the ‘goods’ it actually delivers, there’s surprisingly very little on display in terms of sordid delights. The director evidently appears disinterested in showing heinous acts of human violence, instead merely implying actions off-screen, while the occasional passionate embrace earns itself more wanted attention. In Madame O’s favour though is a feeling that it isn’t trying to outstrip any other film of its type or fully meet studio expectations. This leaves an impression that perhaps Fukuda would have liked to delve deeper into Seiko’s psyche, in what appears to be a thouroughly sincere piece of work that wants to be remembered for its captivating looks and storytelling, however trite in places, rather than the throwaway it was always considered to be.
The DVDSynapse’s presentation of Madame O is a very commendable one. Given what they have here, which is Audobon’s U.S. dubbed release from 1969, the source materials are in great shape barring just a few specks here and there. Presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, the film features a fine amount of detail, along with providing an excellent balance of contrast and brightness levels, which more than compliments Ohyama’s painstaking work. Compression is handled as well as always, leaving this with very little to complain about. A final note: this is a region free disc.
The English 2.0 DD track is one that initially causes concern, but in fact it’s a very surprising dub that does what it can to bring out the best in the film. The dubbing process and some of the Foley effects have their faults, minor as they are, but the dub itself is very respectable, with some pleasantly understated performances from a cast that I cannot identify. The woman voicing Seiko in particular lends her character a lot of credence and successfully diverts our attention away from the fact that what we’re hearing isn’t the director’s intended choice. The dialogue comes across clearly enough, with no major defects. Any niggles here and there are inherent to original elements, but never prove to be detrimental to the overall enjoyment.
These are but limited to an over-the-top U.S. theatrical trailer and linear notes by Jasper Sharp.
OverallThere’s a certain neediness behind labelling Madame O a “paralysing tale filled with gore, nudity and shocking violence”. In reality it displays so very little of those traits. As a psychological tale, however, it’s certainly interesting even if it doesn’t go to any great lengths to explore its themes. Its saving grace is undoubtedly the superb cinematography and the conviction behind Michiko Sakyo’s performance, who has to carry the entire weight of the film. A nice little treat indeed for those eager to see more from a genre that eventually burst wide open in a colourful haze of lust, torture and sleazy music.
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