Quick-Draw Okatsu Review
Okatsu Makabe (Junko Miyazono) is a master swordswoman who contributes in running her adoptive father’s (Ko Nishimura) Kagen dojo in Kofu. Lately relations between her family have been running wild, with her brother Rintaro’s (Masaomi Kondo) desire to leave home and become a farmer alongside his beloved Saki (Yukie Kagawa) upsetting his father’s wish for him to honour family tradition. Unfortunately Rintaro is a hopelessly addicted gambler and when he loses to the local den’s owner he sets himself up for a big fall.
Meanwhile Shogun retainer Commissioner Shiozaki (Kenji Imai) pays visit to the dojo where he learns that Okatsu has been looking out for wanted criminals, or rather victims of greedy officials who seek higher rice taxes. One young woman is Rui (Reiko Oshida), a zesty sort who offers to help Okatsu whenever she’s in trouble. Soon trouble does arise when Shiozaki decides that Okatsu’s father is getting in the way of how he chooses to run the district and so he hatches a plot to do away with him, insisting that he take Okatsu for his trouble. At the same time, whilst in league with the local gambling den, he plots to double-cross Rintaro and be done with the entire family all together. Okatsu is inevitably forced into a horrible situation, during which time she sees her loved ones ruthlessly executed, vowing to herself that she will return as a demon avenger and rid her home town of corrupt officials. But when she becomes a wanted criminal the price on her head grows tall and soon she’ll have bounty hunters to worry about as well.
Ideally Nobuo Nakagawa should have been able to build upon and in effect better his good friend’s first entry into the Poisonous Seductress series. But that’s not entirely the case for Quick-Draw Okatsu, the second of three, and a film that isn’t so much a direct sequel but a loose reworking of the original. It was made within a year of Nakagawa’s big return to the Kaidan genre with Snake Woman’s Curse in 1968. Similarly it shares common themes, and it sees the director take on an effortlessly laconic stance as he strays from his better known contemplative works of the fifties and early sixties in favour of setting up pacey whiz-bang heroics set against a feudal backdrop not unlike a large majority of chanbara flicks of the time. It’s difficult to know if Nakagawa was feeling generally blasé by this stage though, having taken on a film that shared such thematic links with his aforementioned Kaidan Hebi-Onna: corrupt politics and rice taxes being such a huge talking point for instance - things which have been a staple part of Japanese period cinema in the years before and since. More likely it simply shows it was something that he proved to be good at, after all he certainly wasn’t a stranger to Chanbara tales, having poked around with the sub-genre during the latter part of the thirties onward. But we can probably pinpoint sheer laziness on part of Koji Takada, who penned three ludicrously similar scripts for this short-lived franchise. Ordinarily the fact that Quick-Draw Okatsu freely lifts plot lines wouldn’t be much of a concern, but that it does so from its barely one-year-old sister and equally fresh Nakagawa period tales makes it feel more than a little half-arsed in places. Its story plays out as predictably as one might expect, with character motivations following almost identical paths, while there’s very little sympathy to be gained from either cowardly individuals or those who have their priorities a little too mixed up. It’s no shock that Toei among other studios were recycling the same old material, relying on assured directors to do wonders with it, but it’s a gamble that doesn’t always seem to have paid off.
Disappointingly though not even Nakagawa himself can match the sheer intensity of the razor sharp Female Demon Ohyaku, which of course can be found guilty itself of re-using the same old plot devices. His set-pieces, clearly designed to forward the series further into action territory are well staged, but no amount of glorious colour and large sums of money can hide the fact that they lack a certain freshness. The fight sequences have occasionally good choreography, though our central protagonist Okatsu - who is considerably built up as being an expert swordsman from the start - feels rather timid and spends more time running away or putting up with her tormentors, even when situations present themselves for her to easily fight back. Eventually though Miyazono steps up to the plate and swings a sword with the best of them, which is ultimately what the fans pay to see, even if she lacks a certain amount of skill. Still, Nakagawa does deliver a striking shot or two - along with some neat touches such as the concealed Shamisen sword and beautiful mountain vistas - and he sticks to the experimental edge he so successfully deployed in the past, notably with a voyeuristic and prolonged single-take staging of the brothel scene centerpiece, which becomes highly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window in many respects. It’s a tad over indulgent, as is his extended torture sequence involving Okatsu’s father, but then that would certainly place it alongside the unbearably depraved Jigoku nine years earlier.
What does make Quick-Draw Okatsu all the more interesting, however, is the arrival of several unique faces, each of whom are consumed by ambiguity. Rui, the young and feisty swordsgal played by the cute Reiko Oshida - who’d go on to star in Blossoming Night Dreams, Delinquent Girl Boss and the TV series Playgirl along with Okatsu herself Junko Miyazono - is arguably the most noteworthy addition to the cast. Rather unfortunately though the script demands so little of her, least she miraculously pops up to get Okatsu out of a sticky situation so that they may live to fight another day. This fleeting in and out affords the belligerent Rui little to no character development, leaving her as a curious addition to the tale that at least enlivens it a bit more. As with the first film Tomisaburo Wakayama makes an appearance, not as a sympathetic mob boss this time, but a sympathetic bounty hunter. It’s utterly ridiculous of course, but it plays to Wakayama’s sensitive but tough character type, and if you can get them in then why not? If anything these features are abound in neat cameos and veteran support (Ko Nishimura shows up for a good portion as Okatsu’s father for instance) and it’s these turns that ultimately make this second instalment all the more watchable.
Quick-Draw Okatsu’s progressive and anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is about as good as can be expected from Synapse, who continually push the boat out in ensuring we get grade a materials. Any apparent faults come down to being reflective of the source used: slight shimmering and the occasional speck for example, while there are negligible bouts of softness and slight tearing. However, detail is largely fine and the colour reproduction is simply striking; I’ll refer you to shot three for just a taster of how eye-popping Nakagawa’s palette can look. Likewise contrast levels are solid and the transfer manages to handle shadow detail well throughout.
Again we have the original Japanese mono track for our sound of choice and these are never the easiest things to review, primarily because they are so simple and demand very little from the listener. Suffice it to say it’s another well-rounded offering which captures dialogue succinctly and retains good levels with its output of ambience and scoring.
Optional English subtitles are provided, and as per usual the translation is fine with no grammatical errors. There is the occasional moment though where delivery doesn’t quite ring true. Jinkuro saying something along the lines of “Man, it’s cold outside” for example doesn’t feel wholly accurate, though we still get the gist so I’m being but overly picky perhaps.
Chris D’s commentary here varies little from his previous one. Again he places the film into historical context which allows him to slip in various insights here and there, while pointing out several obligatory scenarios and commenting on the simplicity of the tale. But he’s a bit too defensive in saying how normal this kind of thing was and therefore it’s all the more acceptable, even more so when he begins to champion Nakagawa a great deal by saying how he can turn the most mundane of storylines into cinematic treasures. He does make a good case for the film and he clearly respects Nakagawa; at the end of the day it depends on how much you’re willing to tolerate though. Unfortunately Chris. D just isn’t an engaging enough speaker and again he leaves us with yet more lengthy pauses and repetitive comments.
The rest of the bonus material consists of a poster gallery featuring other works by Nobuo Nakagawa (which has cropped up on previous DVD releases) and a collection of all three trailers in the Poisonous Seductress series, which are presented anamorphically and with removable English subtitles.
I’ve made out Quick-Draw Okatsu to be a bit of a rubbish film, and it really isn’t the case, it just feels so ‘normal’ and somewhat disappointing by Nobuo Nakagawa’s standards. Despite being technically sound it wastes a few good opportunities in relation to specific characters and its storyline is hopelessly generic and unfocused (particularly when we learn that the third film wouldn't attempt to tie up any loose ends) with not enough stand out moments to see it sit proud amongst the elite. But there is still fun to be had in short bursts and it’s a totally undemanding exercise from a genre which would branch off into something truly sublime just a couple of years later.
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