The first film, Female Demon Ohyaku, was directed by Yoshihiro Ishikawa, a man better known as an assistant director on many of Nobuo Nakagawa's Shintoho films from the 1950s, including his great version of Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan, still unreleased on DVD in the US but owned by Janus Films and Criterion (write them and ask for a release date!). Ishikawa also directed a few films of his own, the most notable being 1960's Ghost Cat of Otama Pond, a color kaidan eiga that's fun and features some great imagery.
In Female Demon, Junko Miyazono stars as an actress and con artist named Ohyaku who becomes an unfortunate object of attraction to Sengoku, a salacious and cruel magistrate. Sengoku is also behind a scheme to defraud the Shogunate of a shipment of gold, pinning the blame on a group of bandits whose number includes Ohyaku's lover, Shinsuke. After Shinsuke is executed and Ohyaku sent to a prison island, she swears revenge and begins killing anyone who stands between her and Sengoku. What results is a truly astonishing film for its time (1968), a torture-filled, bloody saga of revenge that had my jaw on the floor when I first watched it. Given Ishikawa's history of working on traditional costume stories and ghost films, I little expected the level of carnage and sexuality on display in the film. Of course, there's no overt nudity but viewers will be surprised by how close things get sometimes. Still, there's no hiding the violence - beheadings, eye-gougings, throat-slashings, and more - and Ishikawa revels in its, steeping the story in cruelty and torture. It's really surprising, and not something I would have expected from Toei at this point in its history. Fans of the swordplay and Pinky Violence genres are in for a pleasant surprise once they see this film.
The second and third films in the series were directed by Nobuo Nakagawa, who made Snake Woman's Curse for Toei just before these films, and the great Jigoku nine years previous. The second film, Quick-Draw Okatsu, features the best swordplay of the trilogy, and no surprise, as Miyazono stars this time as the daughter of a swordmaster and dojo owner who is at odds with Shiozaki, an ambitious official who is terrorizing the local populace. When Okatsu's brother offends a gambling den owner who's in cahoots with Shiozaki, she and her father take the blame and are severely tortured in Shiozaki's dungeon (all the bad guys in these films seem to have medieval torture facilities close at hand). Once again, bad things happen and Okatsu swears vengeance against the evil man, cutting her way through rival dojos and a brothel straight out of a Norifumi Suzuki exploitation film before she reaches him. Along for the ride are Reiko Oshida as Rui, a miniskirt-clad young swordswoman, and Lone Wolf & Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama as a bounty hunter on "Okatsu the Killer's" trail. (Wakayama also appears in Female Demon, in a smaller role as a kindly gang boss.)
The third film, Okatsu the Fugitive, follows closely in the pattern set by its predecessor, with a similar story of a samurai woman losing her family and going on a crusade of vengeance against the corrupt officials responsible for it. This time around, Okatsu is the daughter of a local official who has exposed a bribery scheme involving tobacco crops. When her parents are tortured (yes, again) and killed, she comes after Judayu, the powerful magistrate who was responsible for it. Mixing it up this time around are a group of orphans (including Reiko Oshida), watched over by a ronin and former swordmaster played by yakuza movie stalwart Tatsuo Umemiya. Another twist is the presence of Okatsu's fiancé, who begins the film on her side but swiftly slides in the direction of the corrupt Judayu, in order to further his own career.
All three films have been remastered in HD by Synapse, and look terrific. Each disc features trailers for the entire series, and Female Demon Ohyaku and Quick-Draw Okatsu both feature audio commentaries by writer and Japanese film expert Chris D. Extras may be a little light on these titles, compared with Horrors of Malformed Men and Snake Woman's Curse, but I hope that the availability of these hard-to-see films will make up for that.
Look for the discs in stores in less than a month and remember, your order or purchase will help support the release of more Japanese genre cinema classics. Only by supporting the companies that are willing to go to the effort and expense of licensing these films can you expect to see more of them come out in remastered, legal editions. And if you like them, send Synapse an email and let them know what you thought!
And for those who've read this far, here's a treat: the original trailers for all three films, with English subtitles. Enjoy!