Japan has always had a long running tradition of extreme cinema. Be it gangster films, period dramas, or horror, there has always been a renegade group of filmmakers that have relentlessly pushed the boundaries of taste and decency. One only need look at Nobuo Nakagawa’s “Jigoku”, or just about anything by Kinji Fukasaku (“Battle Royale”) from as far back as the ’60s. A curious niche that grew out of this uninhibited time was the ‘Pink Film’ (or ‘Roman Porno’). These films were essentially soft-core porn that featured a lurid focus on the psychological and sexual humiliation and torture of women. While the genre has been around since the late 1960s, the granddaddy of all Roman Porno films was Masaru Konuma’s 1974 opus “Hana to Hebi” (literally “Flower and Snake”).
“Hana to Hebi” kick started a veritable cottage industry for Pink cinema that survives to the present day, and is mentioned in hushed tones amongst underground cinema aficionados as the progenitor of high-class, socially conscious smut. The latest entry into the genre is, quite appropriately, a remake of Konuma’s film by “Gonin” director Takashi Ishii. An opulent example of Japanese S&M at its most vulgar, “Hana to Hebi” is the story of a woman’s abduction and sexual slavery at the hands of the Yakuza. Based on Oniroku Dan’s classic S&M novel, the 2004 version is an uber stylish, perverse and explicit sexual shocker.
The stunning Aya Sugimoto stars as Shizuko, a bored and unfulfilled trophy wife of a wealthy businessman. When her husband (a weaselly Hironobu Nomura) is blackmailed by the Yakuza, Shizuko is sold to decrepit Oyabun Tashiro (Renji Ishibashi) as payment. Tashiro, in turn, places Shizuko in a private S&M show for an elite audience in order to satisfy his own unfulfilled sexual needs. This is all the more disturbing because boss Tashiro is a 95-year old shriveled, drooling invalid hooked to an oxygen bottle. The balance of the film consists of Shizuko being subjected to a series of sexual and emotional humiliation for the enjoyment of the masked audience, all of it presented in unflinching detail by Ishii’s leering camera.
The film immediately reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and I can only surmise that his inspiration came at least partly from the same source material as “Hana to Hebi”. Unfortunately, what starts out as a slick, sexy thriller ends up much like its heroine — a dizzy, confused mess. The problem is that once the shock and novelty of what you are seeing wears off you realize that the movie isn’t going anywhere. It’s just more ropes and hot wax and, since any semblance of story has long since been abandoned, the last third of the movie plays like a bunch of unrelated bondage vignettes randomly strung together. In fact, there are enough subtle consistency problems on screen in the last act to make me suspect that there was some indecision in the editing room.
Despite the debauchery on screen, what’s most shocking is the lengths star Aya Sugimoto agreed to go to in making the film. Much was made of Monica Bellucci’s courage in filming the brutal rape sequence in “Irreversible,” but the level of debasement that Sugimoto endures in “Hana to Hebi” is truly amazing. Not only does she spend roughly 75% of her screen time naked, she’s usually in a compromising position while being humiliated. What makes it all the more perplexing is that Sugimoto is actually a rather famous professional Tango dancer, not to mention a model, singer and TV personality. With such a strong ‘legitimate’ artistic resume, it’s baffling why she would take the role in the first place. Twisted as it may sound, I’m really looking forward to seeing the ‘Making of…’ segment on the DVD.
A film like “Hana to Hebi” is tough to assign a movie grade. The subject matter is repellant and the despicable and voyeuristic way in which Ishii films the story is unsettling and shocking. However, the film looks fabulous and, much to the viewers’ chagrin, Ishii manages to make all the sexploitation and abused skin on display titillating. In the end, “Hana to Hebi” gets a very guarded recommendation, as although it’s by no means meant for the casual viewer, even most seasoned cinephiles will find the film not their cup of tea. If you are curious, bring an open mind and a strong constitution, and prepare to have your buttons pushed.
Takashi Ishii (director) / Oniroku Dan (novel), Takashi Ishii (screenplay)
CAST: Kenichi Endo …. Kanzo Morita
Renji Ishibashi …. Ippei Tashiro
Misaki Mori …. Kyoko Nojima
Hironobu Nomura …. Takayoshi Tooyama
Aya Sugimoto …. Shizuko Tooyama