I have always had great love and affinity for the darker side of things. This not only encompasses my love of all things horror but is also true when it comes to romance. The conventional love story has never had much impact on me, and I happily leave those tales to one side. However, in this genre as in any other, there has always been plenty of room for the more sinister kind of story, and it’s these stories that have always drawn me in. Stories of obsession, sado-eroticism and destructive passion, offering a more complex and diversified portrait of human relationships, are the ones that have made the biggest impression on me. Films such as Luis Buñuel’s brilliantly elegant Belle de Jour (1967) and Liliana Cavani’s provocative The Night Porter (1974) certainly have their place amongst my favourite films of this variety. Recently I was introduced to a film that on a personal level, seem to tick every box on what makes these types of films so alluring to me. It’s a story of perfectly unhinged love; love that spirals down to madness but does so in a decidedly tender manner. That film of course is Yasuzo Masumura’s Blind Beast (Môjû, 1969).
Blind Beast has its roots in the literary world. The story was originally written by one of Japan’s best-known mystery writers Edogawa Ranpo (also known as Tarō Hirai) in the late 1920’s (first serialised in Asahi National Newspaper between 1931 and 1932). While Ranpo, a great admirer of Western mystery writers, is perhaps most synonymous with detective stories, he also explored a different side of the human psyche in his work. In the 1930’s, his stories shifted from traditional crime drama to the more bizarre side of the literary world as he embraced the newly founded movement of Ero guro nansensu: eroticism, grotesque and the nonsensical. The movement including artist from all corners of the art world revelled in all things bizarre, perverse, grotesque and erotic, and pieces of work often contained elements of bondage, mutilation and other savagery of the same ilk. Despite these things, ero guro was not straight forward horror or pornography, but often contained deeper themes and was used as a vehicle for social commentary. Ranpo had already explored some rather dark and unusual concepts in his work in the 1920’s; his story The Case of the Murder on D. Hill (D-zaka no satsujin jiken, 1925) focused on murder of a woman who met her unfortunate end as a result of a sadomasochistic love affair and The Human Chair (Ningen Isu , 1925) a story of a man who wishes to feel bodies on top of himself and ends up hiding inside a chair, certainly took the mystery novella somewhat off the beaten track. Coming to the end of the decade, Ranpo wrote two of his most famous ero guro stories Blind Beast (Môjû, 1928) and The Caterpillar (Imo Mushi, 1929), both of which revolved around the theme of obsession, mutilation and twisted love. While at its time very controversial The Caterpillar would eventually go on to get its film adaptation in 2010, Blind Beast found itself on the silver screen much earlier, in hands of the director Yasuzo Masumura.
Masumura got his start in world of cinema working as an assistant to filmmakers like Kon Ichikawa and Kenji Mizoguchi at the Daiei studios. From there he went on to study philosophy in Tokyo University; a path that would lead him to get a scholarship to study in Rome’s prestigious Centro Sperimentale Della Cinematografia. There Masumura studied under such Italian master as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti, all of which would go on influencing his career in years to come. He returned to Japan with a mission of changing the face of Japanese cinema by breathing new life into, what he thought of as the dying, traditional film conventions. And that he certainly did! While not hugely successful at the time of its release, Masumura’s first film Kisses (1957) with its unusual pacing and narrative structure, is in retrospect seen as the precursor to Japanese New Wave. His rather extensive body of work, encompassing over 50 films, ranged through variety of themes including war, crime, eroticism and gender politics, but always with the human experience in the heart of the story. This too is true of Blind Beast.
This story of strange love begins with the model Aki (Mako Midori) entering an art gallery filled with pieces portraying her in various bondage scenarios. In the middle of the room, dominating the space, stands a statue of her nude body and despite the early hour of her visit, Aki finds a strange man (Eiji Funakoshi) caressing and studying her marble doppelganger with great intensity. While the man continues to explore her body, horrified, yet simultaneously excited Aki suddenly feels like she can feel the stranger’s fingers on her actual skin; almost as if she and the statue are somehow mysteriously connected. Perplexed and somewhat shocked, she rushes out of the gallery leaving the man and her lifeless body double behind. A few days later Aki, exhausted from work, orders a masseur to come and help her relax but unbeknownst to her, the man who turns up is not the friendly healthcare professional she expects, but the very same man from the art gallery. Not recognising her blind admirer at first, she lets the man carry on the task he has been assigned. It’s only when his touch turns inappropriate, she realises that the two have met before, but by then it’s too late. The man quickly drugs Aki and carries her away.
Next thing she knows is waking up in darkness. Panicked and scared she is soon introduced to her captor Michio; a blind sculptor hoping to use Aki as his model. As Aki stumbles helplessly around Michio’s studio and her newly found prison, he explains his artistic mission of creating a whole new genre of art, one that is purely based on touch. Quite naturally Aki wants no part of his plan, but as escape also seems near impossible she eventually decides to go along with Michio’s project in hopes of slipping away or at very least, being released when Michio is finished with his sculpture.
The two set to work with escape all the while in Aki’s mind. When her attempts of sneaking away fail on several occasions, she eventually resorts to seducing Michio and driving a wedge between the sheltered sculptor and his overprotective mother (Noriko Sengoku). Eventually the plan bears fruit and as Aki has predicted, the jealous mother comes to set her free. Unfortunately, this scheme does not pan out as intended either and the two are intercepted by enraged Michio. Aki quickly blames the whole thing on Michio’s mother, accusing her of being possessive and wanting to sleep with Michio herself. A fight ensues during which the mother hits her head and dies. Aki tries to use this distraction to her advantage and escape but is once again caught by Michio, who drags her back in the studio and rapes her.
As stated previously, this is a story of strange love, and rather strangely this is where the torrid love story between Aki and Michio really begins. Despite the monstrous acts Michio carries out, Aki develops an affection for him that later turn into love. Forgetting everything around them, the two embark on exploring each other’s bodies in any way humanly imaginable. Aki herself begins to go blind making her need for touch that much more intense. Traditional acts of love soon give way to more extreme measures as Aki demands her lover to bite, scratch and whip her. In the end, both on the edge of death, Aki has one last demand: to be cut up into pieces limb by limb. There cannot be no bigger ecstasy than die in this way in the hands of her lover. Naturally the obedient Michio complies, ending the life of the woman he loves and then turning the knife on himself. “The world of touch…The world of insects…the lower orders such as the jellyfish…Those who venture to the edge of such worlds, can expect only a dark dank death to envelope them.” These are the last thoughts of Aki, as the picture fades to black, leaving the two lovers in the darkness where they belong.
While there are many things to love about Blind Beast, for me, the most enticing part of the film is the wonderfully imaginative set design. Almost the entire 86 minutes of the film’s running time takes place in one room, but oh boy! What a room it is. The studio that Michio has so painstakingly build for himself is not a mere sculptor’s workspace, but an exhibition of his life’s work. As Michio introduces Aki to her newly found prison, the camera slowly reveals the myriad of sculptures lining the wall of the room. Eyes, ears, lips, limbs and breasts reach out from the wall at the terrified Aki as she stumbles blindly around the dark room, with only Michio’s flashlight to guide her. Hikaru Hayashi’s simple instrumental score does its part in helping to create a surreal, slightly psychedelic ambience. When Michio finally lights up the room it’s revealed that It’s not only the walls that hold Michio’s artwork, but the whole space is dominated by two gigantic nude sculptures laying across the room. This otherworldly set of inanimate body parts is the perfect backdrop for the equally bizarre love story that the characters are about to embark upon. Exploring the limits of carnal pleasures on top of colossal nude studies just seems like the perfect fit this tactile affair. Had the story taken place in an ordinary bedroom, I have a feeling that I would be discussing a very different type of film. As it stands, the set and the atmosphere that it creates helps the film ascend from being a mere sleazy sexploitation, to the torturous love story that it is.
Of course, a great set alone does not a great film make and much of the films allure is indubitably created by its charismatic cast. Like the set, casting is also limited, with only three characters playing out the whole story. In the original Ranpo story, Michio’s mission of finding the perfect model is not quite as straight forward and his intentions not quite as pure as they are in the film. In fact, Michio roams the land in search of models with the perfect body parts. Models for him to decapitate, mutilate and dismember in order to create the perfect piece of art. Masumura’s Michio is a very different kind of animal. While his actions are still of those of a deranged individual, his quest for the perfect muse stems more from an artistic need than the need to kill, and the carnage that follows is something that happens as part of mutual understanding between him and Aki. Eiji Funakoshi does a wonderful job balancing the character somewhere between sorrowfully sympathetic and completely deranged. While he certainly isn’t the poster boy for what a healthy, functioning adult man should be, it’s still hard to find this lonely mama’s boy completely dislikeable. Funakoshi plays the part with great intensity that exudes the characters yearning for his artistic fulfilment; his need to create that outweighs the everyday norms of normal human interactions. Mako Midori offers equally fierce performance as Michio’s perfect sparring partner. Her character is fiery yet vulnerable and Midori does a great job in playing both sides with authenticity. Her narration of the story is also true pleasure to listen to and really helps to set the tone of the film from the very start. I do admit that the intensity of the performances given by the two main actors, do on occasions err on the side of comical. Some of the scenes have distinctly over acted feel to them that might put a slight smile on your face. Nonetheless, it does not take anything away the overall fantastic performances, other than maybe giving them a slightly old-fashioned feel.
While Blind Beast could be criticised for presenting the rules of consent in, shall we say, dubious light and re-enforcing the idea that ultimately women want to be dominated and can only be truly satisfied when that happens, that would ignore a few key elements of Aki’s character and the relationship between these two lost souls. Aki’s sexual preferences are hinted on very early on in the story: at her first encounter with Michio in the art gallery, she finds this strange man’s hands on her body simultaneously repulsive and exciting. In the next scene, when meeting Michio masquerading as a masseur, she boldly proclaims “Give it some muscle. I like it hard. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t satisfy me”, making her desires well known and unambiguous. As these two individuals come together and start their decent into madness, little by little it also becomes clearer that they have more in common than one would initially think. Not only do they share the passions for pain, but both seem somewhat lost in this world; Michio being sheltered by his overprotective mother all his life and lacking other human contact and Aki living a lonely life in the city isolated from other people. While Aki at fist comes across as a competent woman of the world, it slowly becomes clear that like Michio, she too is inexperienced and somewhat shy of people, making the bond between the two more understandable and believable.
Masumura has handled the theme of sado-eroticism with a gentle hand. Kidnapping, rape, sadomasochism and mutilation. All of these are certainly enough to make Blind Beast sound like quite an extreme piece of exploitations cinema. However, Masumura has opted out of the sensational route of revelling in depravity and instead created an intense yet tender tale of passion, obsession and sado-erotic love. It could be argued that his take on the story is even too tame and there would have been room for more vicious imagery. Apart from few scenes where Michio whips the tied down Aki, none of the violence is never really shown and the more graphic parts of the story are left purely for the viewers imagination, and personally, I think this was the right choice. To tell this story there is no need for repulsive amount of violence, but the message comes through loud and clear without it, perhaps even clearer. Had all the brutality been blatantly on show, the main story arc of Michio’s and Aki’s relationship would have been lost in its shadow and the film would undoubtedly be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Blind Beast is enchanting, stylish and outlandish and for all those reasons and more, I love it so much. It’s a superb representative of its genre that pushes boundaries but does so in a manner that doesn’t leave you feeling like you were just visually assaulted. Instead it lures you in gently and hold on tight till the very end.