Friday, November 03, 2006

Sex and Fury: It's Art! It's Trash! It's Both!

Eleven minutes into Sex and Fury (originally released in 1973, now out on Panik House DVD) there's a scene which represents an amazing--perhaps even definitive--cinematic crystalization of sex and violence. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but trust me: it's a mind-blower.

The most astonishing thing about this moment isn't the high quotient of violence, nor is it the wall-to-wall nudity on display (how are those for hints?). No, the most shocking aspect of this scene is that it's shot, edited, and acted with the unbridled artistry of a Kurosawa flick. Were a typical US director prompted to bring this moment to cinematic life, he'd jam his tongue so far into his cheek that it'd rip out the other end.

And that's what makes Sex and Fury so utterly fascinating: it juxtaposes base exploitive elements with the kind of craftsmanship customarily reserved for something a lot more respectable (this sub-genre, the Pinky Violence film, became a fixture in Japan). Simply put, few moviemakers in America have ever put this kind of care and artistry into this kind of movie.

Set in early twentieth-century Japan, it opens with the brutal murder of a police officer by assassins covering the ass of a crooked local politician. The slaughter is witnessed by the cop's little girl Ocho, who grows up to become a gambler, pickpocket, and swordswoman with the proverbial heart of gold.

Segue to 1905. Ocho (Reiko Ike)--now grown--makes a comfortable living on the streets, when two key events radically shake her world. First, a dying man asks her to rescue his young sister Yuki from a life of prostitution by buying back Yuki's freedom. Then Ocho gets a line on--and plans revenge against--her father's killers.

From here, Sex and Fury branches off on some pretty complex tangents for an exploitation movie. Another lady gambler, a European named Christina (Christina Lindberg), engages in a card game with Ocho (the stakes: Yuki's freedom). Lindberg turns out to be a foreign agent working to thwart a group of anarchist dissidents, but this elegant European spy falls in love with Shunosuke, leader of those political upstarts. Ocho's quest for revenge, meanwhile, takes her deep into the brothel that's enslaved (and deflowered)Yuki.

Director Norifumi Suzuki treats this entire saga with craftsmanship and verve, injecting hefty doses of socio-political commentary and high melodrama into the proceedings. Lindberg's fellow American diplomat is a classic ugly Westerner who cares more about the physical charms of his countrywoman than his duties, and Suzuki imbues the romance between Shunosuke and Christina with the epic feel of a gothic romance. The movie also looks stunning, its exquisitely-composed symbolism-laden frames awash in color and surprisingly opulent sets and costumes.

But don't get scared (or lulled) into thinking that this is the cinematic equivalent of a Bronte novel, or an anarchist polemic. Thoughtful and carefully-crafted as it is, Sex and Fury still possesses the grimy, pulpy soul of an exploitation movie. Stabbings, swordfights, gunplay, nudity, sex, rape, and torture cover the film like blood spatters on an elegant ball gown, and Suzuki rockets the action along with bullet-train velocity and precision (his fight scenes easily stand toe-to-sandalled toe with anything out of a Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub feature). There's something to offend everyone, but Sex and Fury is so arrestingly shot and realized that it frequently transcends its tawdry subject matter.
Two incredibly charismatic leads stand front and center in Suzuki's frantic parade of mayhem. Lindberg was a quintessential doe-eyed seventies brunette who made her name in several trashy Euro flicks of the seventies, most notably the notorious B actioner, Thriller: They Call Her One Eye (Lindberg's character in the latter was just one more influential jumping-off point for Quentin Tarantino). She's an arresting vision here, her milky skin and sad brown eyes contrasting strikingly with the green evening gown draped over her in her big entrance. My heart, however, belongs to Reiko Ike, a riveting presence who handles action, drama, and overt sexuality with equal aplomb. Kimono hanging off her tattooed shoulder and a lazer-beam stare shooting from her eyes as her sword makes cold cuts of an army of thugs, she's probably the closest thing Japanese exploitation cinema ever had to Pam Grier.

Like Grier, Ike dropped off the face of the earth after her seventies heyday, but unlike America's greatest movie heroine the Japanese action starlet never experienced a comeback. Genre Cinema guru Chris D. (in some excellent, informative DVD commentary) indicates that Ike harbored a lot of embarassment over participating in this and several other sex-and-action extravaganzas, and her exodus from film in the late seventies was likely intentional. Sex and Fury provides ample proof that the loss was undoubtedly ours.

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