Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mondo Macabro Roman Porno

This week saw the release of a pair of 1970s Nikkatsu Roman Porno films from specialty DVD label Mondo Macabro. The two films really couldn't be more different, and taken together give a pretty good portrait of the subgenre that lasted from 1971 until the early 80s, producing hundreds of films and making careers for many actresses, screenwriters and directors, quite a number of whom transitioned into more mainstream films after the genre folded.

We helped to broker the deal that allowed Mondo to release these two films, and assisted with title selection—four more great films are on the way, next up being Masaru Konuma's 1983 Joshu Ori, aka
Female Prisoner: Cage, a sleazy women-in-prison epic with some jaw-dropping sequences. Look for it in early 2009.

But back to the titles you can actually buy now.

My favorite of the two, and the only title that has seen previous subtitled DVD release (way back in the early days of the format, as a PAL format disc from a UK label called Pagan Films, also run by the guys behind Mondo Macabro) is Noboru Tanaka's glossy and respectable 1976 adapation of several Edogawa Rampo stories, The Watcher in the Attic (aka
Yaneura no sanpo-sha, which actually translates to "The Walker in the Attic"). Starring Roman Porno starlet Junko Miyashita and future Takashi Miike company actor Renji Ishibashi, the story takes place in Rampo's favorite Taisho era (the 1920's), and follows a warder in a boarding house (Ishibashi) who secretly spies on the other tenants from above, through peepholes in the attic floor. One day, he catches sight of a beautiful woman (Miyashita) having sex with a man in a clown suit (no, really). Wanting to learn more about her, he eventually witnesses her commit a murder, but realizes that she knows she's being watched. He eventually reveals his identity to her and the two begin a destructive love affair that also ends in murder.

Tanaka creates a beautiful period atmosphere on what must have been a shoestring budget, capturing not only the distinctive and opposite impulses of early 20th century Japan - to modernize and become a democracy, yet remain true to its feudal roots - but also the feel of the specific era, the last time before the buildup to World War II when decadence was really permitted in the country, just prior to the military build-up of the early Showa period. (The same era was depicted, with less success, I think, in Oshima's lauded In the Realm of the Senses. And of course, Tanaka did his own earlier version of the same story in the much-better A Woman Called Sada Abe.)

The horror elements in the film are subdued, but definitely present. It's a slow-moving film, one that concentrates much more on building its atmosphere and exploring the dark crannies of its characters' psyches than presenting much action onscreen. Being a Roman Porno, there are the requisite four or five sex scenes, many of them quite sexy, but it's clear watching the film that Tanaka was reaching for something greater with Watcher, and I think he succeded in creating it, a classic erotic film that not only transcends its genre but is also one of the best of its kind.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, let's examine the other new Mondo Roman Porno, director Yasuharu Hasebe's inflammatory Assault! Jack the Ripper (aka Boko kirisaki Jakku). Also made in 1976, the film was Hasebe's second Roman Porno (after Rape!) after returning to the Nikkatsu fold following his departure in the early 70s, when Nikkatsu transitioned from making action films to making softcore porn. Hasebe was a fixture during late-period Nikkatsu action, making everything from Black Tight Killers to Roughneck to a few of the Stray Cat Rock series entries. In-between, he even made the fourth Female Convict Scorpion film - quite a prolific guy, and still going strong today.

Hasebe's Roman Porno films are known for their violent and shocking content, and Jack, the first one I've had the chance to see, didn't disappoint in that regard. It's as sleazy as they come, taking the true story behind films like The Honeymoon Killers—about a couple who lure young women into sexual situations, and then murder them—and giving it a sadistic twist, filled with blood and nudity. Filled with murder sequences where women are stabbed repeatedly in their private parts with a pastry knife, it's not for the faint of heart, but it's also surprisingly humorous, featuring enough oddball situations and bizarre character quirks to almost lighten its dark and nasty mood.

Definitely more of a "graduate level" Roman Porno title, it'll definitely please the audience open to its particular kind of entertainment, but it won't win any new converts who don't already appreciate the genre. In fact, it's just the kind of film people like to refer to when they condemn Japanese softcore cinema as nothing but violent porn. They're wrong, but it's an easy argument to make on the surface.

Both discs present the films fully remastered and featuring well-scripted English subtitles. The discs look great, too—these are the same remastered versions previously released in Japan by Geneon, but without English subtitles. All the subsequent Mondo Roman Porno titles will feature similarly polished transfers.

Extras include a Mondo Macabro documentary on Nikkatsu and the Roman Porno genre, originally produced a number of years ago but updated now with new interviews and clips. Featured in the doc are Nikkatsu actress Kozuko Shirakawa, director Seijun Suzuki (who never made a Roman Porno film!), film critic Toshiyuki Matsushima, artist Romain Slocombe, and critic / author Jasper Sharp. Sharp also turns up on both discs in a separate introduction to each film, which covers the overall genre, the director's career, and notes on the actresses and the reception each film has received. Also included are trailers for both films, plus three others forthcoming in the collection. The only one missing is Akio Jissoji's bizarre Marquis de Sade romp
The Prosperity of Vice (aka Akutoku no sakae), which is one definitely worth waiting for!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tokyo day 5 - Masayuki Mori

The current Tokyo trip has come to a close, and our final interview was with longtime Takeshi Kitano associate Masayuki Mori, for BCI's upcoming discs of Violent Cop and Boiling Point, the first two films by Kitano as a director.

Mr. Mori has been associated with Kitano since before he became a film star, directing many of his first TV programs and managing his career from nearly the very beginning. He's also produced all of Kitano's films and is one of the prime creative forces in shaping the career of one of the biggest celebrities in Japan.

We asked Mr. Mori to provide a comprehensive background of Kitano's pre-directorial career for U.S. viewers, and he gave us much more than that. This information is available on the web and elsewhere, but in this interview, it'll be straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, and there are some funny stories associated with Kitano's career that I hadn't read or heard about before. Mori took us up through the first two films and skipped ahead to the present day and Kitano's lingering impact on the Japanese entertainment industry. It should make for a very interesting interview when it's all finished.

Look for more information on BCI's discs of these two films within the next few months. I expect they'll be out at some point in the first quarter of 2009, possibly with additional supplements, but definitely with new transfers and looking the best they have yet on home video.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tokyo day 4 - Hisao Maki

I was going to call this entry "Interview with a Yakuza," but figured that saying something more factual was better. Still, this photo really gives it away.

The latest interview on this trip was with someone who's a bit of a legend: writer / producer / martial arts sensei / and reputed yakuza Hisao Maki. Maki is the star of a late 1970s martial arts movie produced by Shochiku called Karate Wars (aka Karate daisenso). It's little-known, even in Japan, but is an enjoyable film, following Maki as he goes to Hong Kong and Thailand to prove the superiority of Japanese martial arts, all the while being manipulated by his greedy promoters and their business partners back in Japan. Maki is stoic and not very expressive as an actor, but the martial arts in the film are terrific, and totally real. He fights other karate opponents, kung fu masters, and Thai boxing guys. Co-stars include the pretty Yoko Natsuki and perennial villain Nobuo Kaneko. BCI releases the disc some time next year, double-billed with a 1960s martial arts film called Judo Duel (aka Yawara senpu) that's even more rare.

Maki is also well-known in Japan because he's the younger brother of late sports manga writer Ikki Kajiwara, who created Karate Wars as a vehicle for his brother. He's also the writer of such renowned series as Karate baka ichidai, Tiger Mask, Bodyguard Kiba, Ashita no Joe, Waru and many more. The two brothers were students of even more legendary kyokushin karate founder Masutatsu Oyama, in whose name Maki runs his Roppongi-based dojo. Of course, Oyama is the subject of such films as Karate Bull Fighter and Karate for Life, which star Sonny Chiba and were directed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, which brings this all full circle.

Maki was pleased to do the interview and was a treat. He growls his answers like a real yakuza, drank some kind of alcohol-tea mixture throughout, and wore dark sunglasses most of the time. When he shook my hand and slapped me on the back when we met, I really got the idea that he could have crushed my ribcage with one blow. After getting a look at his black belt (a real one, folks) with its six gold stripes on it, I was sure of it.

Maki talked about the making of the film, his background with Oyama and Kajiwara, his recent work writing and producing films for Takashi Miike, what he thinks of those Chiba movies about his sensei, and told us some funny stories about trying to survive in Thailand during the film shoot when money stopped coming in from the studio.

And yes, when it was released in Japan, it was originally double-billed with the Shaw Brothers production Mighty Peking Man.

One more interview to go, then it's homeward bound. Watch this space for updates.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Tokyo day 3 - Gore and guts

No new interviews to report today, just fun times with some friends and filmmakers that we've met over the years.

One of the most popular films we screened at the NY Asian Film Festival this year was the Media Blasters production of director and makeup fx artist Yoshihiro Nishimura's Tokyo Gore Police. While we weren't able to invite any of the cast or crew to New York, I wound up meeting Nishimura, star Eihi Shiina, stunt choreographer Tak Sakaguchi, and others in Montreal at the Fantasia Film Festival screening of the film. This was followed by a fun encounter with Nishimura in Austin at Fantastic Fest last month.

But now it's Tokyo time, and after an initial night out with the director after the first Japanese screenings of the film (where I got to meet most of the rest of the cast), we wound up getting together for two nights of food craziness and general mayhem. The first night was filled with all kinds of low-budget Japanese comfort food, like motsu yaki (grilled intestines and stomach parts, all bubbling in a cauldron of broth and tofu), basashi (horse meat, presented this time smoked and cured like corned beef, with a side of mayonnaise), skewered chicken hearts and more intestines, some strange kind of smoked or stinky fish presented in a style called "kusaya", and more. Enjoy the close-ups below.

Nishimura is an amazingly talented guy, but also a big fan of movies in general, with a great knowledge of and appreciation for cult horror.

Likewise, actor / director / action choreographer Sakaguchi is immensely knowledgeable about all kinds of bizarre cinema, his favorite movies being stuff like Cannibal Holocaust, Teruo Ishii's Bohachi Bushido and many others.

Nishimura had long said that he wanted to introduce me to friend and fellow Media Blasters filmmaker Noboru Iguchi, director of Machine Girl and Sukeban Boy, and a prime figure in the low-budget cult movie boom going on now between Japan and the U.S. Iguchi didn't disappoint, being just as nuts as Nishimura made him out to be.

Joining the party on the second night was arthouse / genre filmmaker Sion Sono (above, on the right), who was a guest at NYAFF in 2007 and is about to unleash a four-hour epic about child abuse, cults, pornography, sex addiction, religion, suicide and madness upon the world, in the form of his new film Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi). Can't wait. But in the meantime, we enjoyed a great sashimi and sea bream nabe meal together, courtesy of all-around classy lady and talent agent extraordinaire Mizue Kunizane. Gochisosama!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tokyo day 2 - Kazuhiko Yamaguchi

The second full day of the Tokyo trip passed with another good interview, this time with a director who's little-known, even in Japan, but one look at his filmography, even a partial one, will prove that he belongs in the history books:

the Delinquent Girl Boss series (aka Zubeko bancho)
Sister Street Fighter and its two sequels
Karate Bull Fighter
Karate Bear Fighter
Karate for Life
Karate Warriors

...and the list goes on. Our interview today was with Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, a long-time filmmaker and writer for Toei Studios, and we did it specifically for a pair of discs being released early next year by Synapse films: Wandering Ginza Butterfly and its sequel, Wandering Ginza Butterfly: Wildcat Gambler, both starring Meiko Kaji in her first films for Toei Studios in-between Nikkatsu's Stray Cat Rock series and Toei's Female Convict Scorpion films.

Yamaguchi was also a major screenwriter at Toei, perhaps not as prolific as contemporary Norifumi Suzuki, but a valuable asset to the studio. The director was kind enough to spend several hours with us today, a national holiday in Japan, discussing all the films above, what it was like to work with Kaji and Sonny Chiba, making a movie called Shamless Turkish Diary with American porn star Sharon Kelly and more, including what it was like to work at Toei studios during what many would consider the height of their creativity, certainly as far as genre films are concerned.

Keep an eye out for the announcement of these two titles in the next couple of months, and watch this space for more updates this week.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Tokyo day 1 - Genji Nakamura

Day one of my current five-day trip to Tokyo is underway, and one of the interviews I wrote about in the previous post is in the can.

We spoke for a couple of hours this afternoon with director Genji Nakamura, a pink filmmaker from the 1970s and 80s, and best known overseas for a significant gay pink film he directed for hire, called Beautiful Mystery. Nakamura started as an independent filmmaker but eventually wound up working as a stringer for Nikkatsu, creating the bottom part of a triple bill to fill out the space around two Roman Porno releases. It turned out, he told us, that audiences and writers enjoyed these indie pink films more than the more expensive Roman Porno films they were created to support!

In the 80s, Nakamura founded Yu Pro, a production company best known for its extreme pink cinema filled with S&M imagery, like Captured for Sex and its sequel. Among Nakamura's discoveries were two directors who made the transition in recent years to mainstream cinema, and have become well-known in the field: Ryuichi Hiroki, director of Vibrator and many other films, and Rokuro Mochizuki, who made Onibi and the great A Yakuza in Love.

But in 1985, Nakamura was hired by maverick producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama to make Go for Broke (aka V Madonna: Daisenso), a bigger-budget action film based on an award-winning screenplay by a new writer (the late Hisashi Nozawa, who also wrote Takeshi Kitano's first film as a director, Violent Cop). The interview we did today will appear in some form on the future DVD of this film, to be released in 2009 by BCI Eclipse.

If you're not familiar with the film, don't feel bad - I hadn't heard of it before this assignment, either, but it's a hellaciously fun and slightly cheesy, very 80s action film that features motorcycles, lesbian sadomasochism, explosions galore, schoolkids vs bikers and some of the worst fashion seen on film outside a post-apocalyptic Italian sci-fi movie. Watch this space for news about this and other forthcoming titles.

More updates after tomorrow's interview...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Back to Tokyo

I'm heading back to what seems fast on the way to becoming my second home this Friday, for a short five-day trip of interviews and meetings. I've got four interviews definitely scheduled, with a couple of more in various states of flux.

Exact details will be posted later this month, but here are some hints. One is with a pink filmmaker who was hired by Shochiku to direct a now-classic (and infamous) action film in the 1980s. One is with a prolific Toei 70's director who's worked with some of the biggest names in Japanese action cinema. One is with a man who's spent his life in the world of martial arts, as well as screenwriting, acting and other endeavors, possibly of a not-quite-legal nature. And one is with someone who manages and produces films for one of the biggest names in Japanese entertainment.

Wish us luck that everything comes off well, and that we come back with good stories to tell.