There's something cold about Takashi Ishii. You'd expect Freeze Me
to be a sleazy exploitation classic, for instance, given its rape-revenge storyline and Harumi Inoue nudity. However it's not. Instead it's distant, alienating and examining its broken protagonists like insects under a microscope slide.
This earlier film of his is similarly dispassionate. Again a woman is taking murderous revenge on vile men. More specifically, it's a yakuza film with bloody killings, gunfights, knives and martial arts, not to mention nudity. (Admittedly far less than Freeze Me
, but I'm not complaining.) However I'd also describe it as an unsympathetic character piece and almost wilful in its refusal to be trashy or exciting.
I'm going to talk about Ishii for a bit, if that's okay.
He cut his directorial teeth on Nikkatsu roman porno. He was already a successful screenwriter and manga-ka, but this made him a name in Japanese cinema through nihilistic, aggressively feminist porn films. They sound brave, actually. To quote the man himself... "What I wanted to make was a drama between men and women. My stories had a harder, more realistic portrayal between men and women, as you can see from Nami in Angel Guts. I think what the Nikkatsu audience and management really wanted were sensual films. But my stories couldn't help being violent - I realised the core of my eroticism was violence. They were violent films which had no connection with those porn films which portrayed women as noble but ended up humiliating them, or with the films which focused on the actual sex act to make the audience excited."
Decades later, this is still at the core of his work. Most of the gratuitously cruel and stupid behaviour in this film is due to men's self-destructive obsession with sex. It drives the plot. Women suffer and then take revenge, but they'll be scarred both physically and psychologically. There's no nobility here and not much that's even sympathetic.
The story begins with a baby being taken from its mother. Six years later, we have a cute little girl being cared for by yakuza. She has a sweet relationship with an uncle figure among the yakuza, but she understands things like her supposed father cheating on his wife and she's about to be in the middle of a bloodbath. Yakuza have many enemies, some of whom will be pretending to be friends. By the time the carnage is over, she's on her way to America.
That's all in the film's first eighteen minutes. Fourteen years later, she's being played by Riona Hazuki and she's returned from America with a grudge and a high-kicking boyfriend.
Firstly, it's not an action movie. It has enough violence and bullets to persuade inattentive viewers that it's trying to be, including a silly Hong Kong moment near the end, but it's not. Just listen to the soundtrack. You'll hear opera, classical music, monastic choral arrangements and something soulful and Latin that I want to call slow flamenco. There's also a low-key piece with, I think, African drums and steel pipes. It's atmospheric. These are the choices of a director who's interested in mood, not adrenaline.
Secondly, Hazuki isn't the traditional killing machine. On the contrary, she's a happy-go-lucky child who also happens to want to kill some gangsters. See her first encounter with yakuza. She doesn't know what she's doing. The more you see of her, the more you realise she's got a life expectancy you could measure in hours and she's probably letting herself in for a world of pain. The most unexpected scene in the film is the one where she and her boyfriend dance for three minutes. Just don't expect her disposition to be quite so sunny when we reach the closing credits.
Thirdly, the film actually has two Black Angels: Hazuki and an older one, Reiko Takashima. Fourteen years ago, the latter saved the former's life. Hazuki thinks Takashima must be cool, beautiful and just waiting to swoop down and save them. Oh dear. Of all the ways in which this film systematically grinds all romance into the dirt, the ugliest must be where Ishii's taken Takashima's character. (Yes, worse than the schoolgirl rape.)
Incidentally you can ignore the "Vol. 1" in the title. The American release doesn't even have it. Ishii likes making sequels, sometimes even seventeen years after the original (e.g. A Night in Nude: Salvation), but there won't necessarily be any plot link. I don't think this film's protagonists return in Black Angel Vol. 2
and even the few actors who appear in both movies are playing characters with different names.
All that said, what's it like as a viewing experience? To be honest it's more fun than I'm probably making it sound, since Ishii is a good storyteller with a clear artistic direction. Besides, he likes blood and tits as much as anyone. (Sometimes both at the same time.) It's not hard going or anything. Its main flaws for a general audience is that it could be said to lack energy and that it's driven more by its protagonists' weaknesses than by the expected arse-kickings. Hang on, no. I tell a lie. Its biggest single flaw is the English (sorry, Engrish) being spoken by Hazuki and her boyfriend, who admittedly are managing not to talk in Katakana-Eigo but still sound in no way like people who'd lived in America since they were six. Those accents were a bit weird.
It can be classical. Hazuki will learn unwelcome truths about her family background and bullets will be exchanged between mothers and daughters. You could also argue that Takashima is Hazuki's metaphorical mother, not only in terms of emotional connection but even in the simple fact that she's unwittingly passed on her name. I think Martin Scorsese would approve of this film... but "approve of" is the correct phrase. This isn't a movie to love, or even necessarily to enjoy. It's cold. Not as cold as Freeze Me
, admittedly, but there's ice in its veins.
Ishii's clearly a director to watch, though.