Had Takashi Ishii never written or directed a film his name would nevertheless be a legendary one among aficionados of cult Japanese media. A major figure in the world of manga, Ishii revolutionized the medium, particularly the “gekiga” or “dramatic picture” form of manga aimed at older audiences with his Angel Guts (Tenshi no harawata, 天使のはらわた) series in the late 70’s. The noticeably heightened levels of sexuality and violence, oftentimes combined, in Ishii’s manga led Japan’s legendary Nikkatsu studio, the number one name in the fields of “roman porno” and “pink films” or pinku eiga, to develop a series of films based on Ishii’s manga. Beginning with Angel Guts: High School Co-Ed (1978), the Angel Guts series would go on to become one of Nikkatsu’s most successful properties with Ishii serving as screenwriter for each film centering on a different female, all named “Nami”, the name Ishii would use for the majority of his female protagonists. For the sixth entry in the series, Red Vertigo (1988), Ishii was finally given the opportunity to make his directorial debut. A small film even by roman porno/pinku eiga standards, Red Vertigo nevertheless stood out from other films of its type with Ishii instantly establishing a signature neo-noir influenced visual style marked by neon lights and torrential rainfall. But what set Red Vertigo apart was that the drama was not token. While fulfilling all the pinku eiga quotas, Red Vertigo also consisted of a shockingly resonant emotional core, taking extremely difficult material into fascinating psychological territories, something which would become a defining characteristic of all of Ishii’s subsequent work. Like Miike in select works or a non-eastern filmmaker like Andrzej Zulawski, Ishii uses genre to its fullest dramatic potential to induce extreme emotions, the realm of noir being where Ishii’s characters appropriately tend to dwell the most.
Japan certainly wasn’t immune to the neo-noir boom that really exploded in the early 90’s and Ishii quickly identified himself as one of its leading directors. While splitting hairs when it comes to genre definitions is often a futile endeavor, it is worth noting how the “neo-noir” brand very quickly became an umbrella term for any film with an element of crime, and as other adjacent genres like the erotic thriller began to grow in popularity in the early 90’s, a sort of hybridization emerged. The majority of Ishii’s films often get the “neo-noir” tag and not without reason, though more often than not Ishii is pulling from multiple wells, the noir influences acting alongside the pinku eiga of Red Vertigo, the revenge angles of the Black Angel (1998-99) films and Freeze Me (2000) or the sadomasochistic psychodramas of Ishii’s pair of Flower and Snake (2004-05) films, The Brutal Hopeless of Love (2007) and Sweet Whip (2013). If some of the key tenants of classic noir include the likes of down on their luck men, tragic women just as down who are alluring yet lethal because of it, lost souls finding each other together in a bad part of town despite the obvious fatal outcome, than Ishii’s work in the first half of the 90’s should be considered “neo-noir” in its purest sense. While the plot of Red Vertigo was certainly of the classic noir downtrodden lost souls finding each other variety, Ishii’s storytelling ability was somewhat restrained by its budget and fairly standard pinku eiga run time of a little over 70 minutes.
For 1992’s Original Sin (Shinde mo ii, 死んでもいい) Ishii was able to expand the concept of a troubled relationship born out of extreme circumstances as seen in Red Vertigo into a full-fledged drama. Based on a Bo Nishimura novel, Original Sin also draws inspiration from one of the most legendary noir titles, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Swapping out Postman‘s diner for a real estate office, Ishii’s take on the perennial drifter character is Makato, a 22-year old loner who immediately becomes fixated on Nami Tsuchiya, the wife of realtor Hideki, after bumping into her upon his arrival in town by train. Following Nami to her husband’s office where she also works, Makato rents an apartment from Hideki but also asks for and is granted a job. Hideki takes a liking to Makato who’s obsession with Nami grows until he forces himself on her in a show house, though consensual sex is initiated immediately afterward. The two embark on an affair, though after being caught by Hiedki twice, who is adamant about saving and giving the marriage a fresh start, Makato informs Nami, torn between her love of both men, of his plan on murdering Hideki.
Despite not being a pinku eiga film like Red Vertigo, Ishii actually takes what surely most would find most troublesome about the plot of Red Vertigo, that being a “what if” romance developing out of sexual assault, and expands upon it considerably with the relationship evolving into something much more. While not told directly from Nami’s perspective, Ishii does seem to trying to put the audience in Nami’s confused shoes for most of the film, Shinobu Otake being one of Ishii’s many phenomenal “Nami’s”. At the same time, despite the violent origins of the affair, Ishii presents Nami’s role in it from a purely objective point-of-view, Nami’s motivations becoming all the more fascinating throughout the film. In fact it’s Makato who is the one character Ishii seems judgmental of, presenting him as obsessive and possessive from the beginning, declaring “love at first sight” after merely bumping into Nami. Ishii does however employ noir’s famous moral ambiguity later in the film as it relates to Makato’s murderous intentions towards Hideki and Nami’s foggy complicity in the ordeal. Although only Ishii’s third film as a director, his writing and the talent for drama, in particular dramatic tension as the crime and suspense elements are added to to story, were perfected by Original Sin, the explosion of horror violence during the films hotel bathroom set climax legitimately startling. Ishii ends the film with a shot of Nami smoking, seemingly shell shocked, a perfect summation of Ishii’s first masterpiece and an indicator of the even darker directions Ishii would take his noir influences.
Ishii’s follow-up to Original Sin the following year, 1993’s A Night in Nude (Nûdo no yoru, ヌードの夜) might not be rooted in a Postman-esque story though Ishii is even more entrenched in explicitly noir territory with a hapless fall getting involved with a desperate woman with a tragic past. The fall guy is Jiro (Naoto Takenaka, Ishii’s go-to leading man since Red Vertigo), an odd job man for hire with services ranging from cleaning up after pets to standing in at funerals for absent family members, who is approached by an enigmatic woman, Nami, to show her around Tokyo. Agreeing to meet at her hotel the next day, Jiro discovers not Nami in the room, but the body of Kozo, Nami’s abusive yakuza boyfriend whom she’d stabbed to death the previous night after her time with Jiro. In a panic, Jiro stuffs the body in a suitcase and sets out upon confronting Nami, soon finding himself in over his head as he and Nami’s past confront the the both of them.
Being both a noir and an Ishii film, it’s not simply Nami’s past with Kozo, a cycle of physical and sexual abuse with Kozo acting more a pimp than boyfriend, that’s painful, but the present and inevitable future as well. Similar to Red Vertigo in the sense of Ishii teasing possible hope and happiness for the central characters, A Night in Nude is even more harrowing with any real positive outcome rendered all the more futile the further the film moves forward as Jiro’s slow turn from handyman to attempted hero becomes as desperate as Nami’s attempt to escape her surroundings. Yet the film is also not without moments of incidental humor. The sight of Jiro following Nami struggling to lug around the dry ice filled suitcase containing Kozo’s corpse inevitably becomes rather hilarious as are the over-the-top antics of Tatsu, a non-too-subtle admirer of the late Kozo making matters all the worse for Jiro and Nami. The slight surreal touches Ishii included in Red Vertigo become far more pronounced in A Night in Nude as well, with a standout moment in Ishii’s oeuvre being Jiro’s Cronenbergian dream of a pistol penetrating his forehead. Ishii would return to the Jiro character though not for another 17 years with A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010). Ishii immediately returned to Nami however, with even more difficult trials and tribulations in store.
With women being on the receiving end of the most of the violence, sexual and otherwise, in Ishii’s films, the knee jerk reaction for many critics is to immediately brand Ishii a misogynist. Ishii’s work however does provide a great example of how such things are perceived in an east vs. west context with many, including Ishii himself, viewing the work as empowering. This goes as far as the “Guts” in the “Angel Guts” being a reference to courage, Nami being an ultimate symbol of resilience. In House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, author Kier-La Janisse writes that Ishii has been “celebrated as a ‘feminist’ director who makes heroes of his various female characters”(1), Janisse describing Ishii’s Freeze Me as “a condemnation of the stigma attached to to rape victims, and and examination of the destructive potential of the accompanying shame.”(2) When the Angel Guts films made their way to North American home video in 2006 on the Artsmagic label, Ishii spoke of his intention to change the way women were written and perceived in manga and later in his screenplays on the Red Vertigo disc, telling Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema author Jasper Sharp:
“In the history of manga, women were categorized, and their portrayal was a function of their occupation, they were given fixed and stereotypical houses, fixtures, even furniture. For example, they were categorized as office workers or bar hostesses and so on. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to portray a woman who might exist, and to give her different lives in each of the films.”(3)
When asked if he sees his work as exploitation, Ishii places his work in the context of other Japanese films, saying in the same interview:
“At the time, female nudes were only presented to arouse men’s sexual interest. Female nudes weren’t treated with respect. But senior directors such as Nagisa Oshima fought to find a new way of portraying women nude in order to portray real women who do take their clothes off and want to have sex. When I was growing up, androcracy was very strong. I obtained the evidence at home, by looking at my parents. That’s why I wanted to portray independent and strong women. In order to do that, I had to portray the sexual violence that men possess. And women who go through the trauma, they become stronger as a result. They shine. Some people said these were just exploitation films showing nude women, so it was kind of a battle for me as well… I’d worked on the same theme for a long time so it was inevitable.”(4)
1994’s Alone in the Night or Night is Falling Again (Yoru ga mata kuru, 夜がまたくる) is where Ishii began to really cross-pollinate genres. Continuing to put another Nami through anther, almost passion like series of horrors and becoming all the more determined to complete her righteous vengeance, Alone in the Night also fuses the noir of his previous films with the genres he would focus more on in future films like revenge and yakuza. This particular iteration of Nami is the wife of Mitsuru, an cop working undercover in a yakuza drug ring. After being found out and killed in the line of duty, not only is Mitsuru’s reputation tarnished after being falsely accused of stealing drugs but Nami is beaten and raped by members of the gang, wrongly believing her to be hiding the missing drugs. After a failed suicide attempt and the police’s failure to clear her dead husbands name, Nami attempts to infiltrate the yakuza. Her efforts are unfortunately thwarted and Nami is sold into prostitution and forcibly addicted to heroin, however Muraki, a high ranking yakuza with secrets of his own whom had previously saved Nami from a second suicide attempt, tracks her down, nurses her back to health and aids her in getting close to her intended target. Though their scenarios may be drastically different, the hero complex Muraki develops throughout Alone in the Night is not dissimilar to Jiro in A Night in Nude. Likewise Ishii’s hinting of a possible but clearly doomed romance between Nami and Muraki or even the two possibly finding any form of salvation in each other is obvious by this point but nonetheless has just as much sting, especially following the noirish revelations made during the climax where all motivations are laid bare. The rooftop finale of Alone in the Night is also one of the visual highlights of this period of Ishii’s work, the image of the vengeful Nami against the neon looking forward to future Ishii films like the aforementioned Black Angel films and Freeze Me.
Following Alone in the Night, Ishii began what could be considered the most successful portion of his career beginning with the Takeshi Kitano led yakuza revenge thriller Gonin (1995), which can lay claim to being Ishii’s most critically acclaimed and successful film outside of Japan, which was quickly followed-up with a sequel in 1996. Obviously Ishii isn’t a completely unknown quantity in the west, however when compared to some of his fellow countrymen like Miike or Tsukamoto who’s work has found a wider audience outside of genre fans, Ishii’s distribution has suffered considerably. During the Asian film, particularly the “extreme” or Asian genre film boom of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, there was a brief window where the Angel Guts and Black Angel films, Freeze Me and Ishii’s pair of Flower and Snake films did secure US DVD releases. Said window was all to brief however and unsurprisingly limited to films with the most genre marketability. Ishii’s more psychologically challenging and fetishistic work like The Brutal Hopelessness of Love and Sweet Whip, some of the very best in contemporary film, continue to languish in modern obscurity. While films like Original Sin, A Night in Nude and Alone in the Night may have been screened (and treated fairly well) at some of the bigger festivals and even given the occasional retrospective screening outside Japan, like Ishii’s more recent films, his pre-Gonin era remains elusive, but undoubtedly representative of one of Japan’s most fierce and fearless talents that outside of a dedicated niche seems to remain frustratingly hidden.
1-2. Janisse, Kier-La. House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films. FAB Press, 2012.
3-4. Artsmagick, 2006.