It's one of the most revered of Toei's Pinky Violence films, with Reiko Ike and lots of extreme content. It's very watchable, but it confused and slightly disturbed me.
The confusing bit is its sexual politics. The exploitation count's way up there and includes titillation you don't want to see, yet at the same time it's all about girl power. These women are stronger, cleverer and tougher than the men. In particular none can hold a candle to Reiko Ike. She's amazing. She moves like a shark through a world where men usually have the upper hand. Her father was killed in front of her and she was adopted by a clan of female thieves, so these days she steals what she wants, kills her enemies and can walk all over any man who gets in her way.
That doesn't make her a bad person, though. Her motivations in this film are: (a) to avenge her father's death, and (b) to uphold an oath to protect the sister of a man who was unjustly killed in front of her.
It's not just Reiko Ike, though. Her adopted family are female, powerful and only have one man on the premises, who's a comic relief idiot you'll remember as Mr Farting. Meanwhile the men in this film are either silly, evil or weak. The good ones get killed. The bad ones also get killed, but only after abusing their power and doing terrible but pointless things. None of them accomplish anything. There's a male revolutionary who's full of good intentions (albeit murderous ones), but at the end of the day it's going to be Ike who'll get the job done.
Did I mention that it's a period piece, by the way? It's set in the early years of the 20th century, after Japan had opened up to the west but before the World Wars. It's an era when policemen still carry swords. The period setting is well done, actually, with plenty of costumes and outdated attitudes. The condom scene is a nice illustration of this, both by showing us the era and by being another example of the film's emancipation of its women from traditional gender roles.
So it's a girl power film, blazing a trail for sisters in a country and an era where in real life men most definitely still had the upper hand. Note also the violence, as is suggested by the genre "Pinky Violence". However at the same time, there's that "Pinky" bit.
It's not just the nudity, but the boundaries they're blurring. I have no objection to boobs, of which there are a lot. Rape scenes, though, are different. There are two scenes in which a powerful man forces himself on a submissive woman, one of whom is a virgin who'd been sold to a brothel for 500 yen. Admittedly you could just as easily point at Reiko Ike using her sexuality and killing men, but that doesn't change the fact that we've been watching rape. The exploitation sits uncomfortably with the girl power theme. It's schizophrenic. Half the time we're celebrating women's strength and cheering them on, but then just as often the film's shoving boobs at the camera and showing a disturbing eagerness to punish its female characters in sexually charged ways.
This wouldn't be such a problem if the film weren't so brilliant at coming up with imagery to burn out your eyeballs. Trust me, "brilliant" is the word. If you're looking for exploitation kicks, you've come to the right place. Examples include:
(a) Reiko Ike single-handedly fighting and killing a small army of men in the snow... while she's stark naked. They tried to assassinate her in the bath. This scene in particular is cinematic genius.
(b) a topless, chained Ike being whipped by another gorgeous woman in a church to the accompaniment of organ music, while nuns watch.
(c) nuns with flick knives.
(d) a topless woman being strangled to death by her husband in front of their daughter, in a scene which Norifumi Suzuki makes more intimate and worrying than necessary.
The film's also rich in symbolism and visual motifs, e.g. the snow, the little playing cards or the animals. Ike's character's name sounds like "big butterfly", for instance, which is important in the symbolism.
The plot is nonsense. It works like gangbusters if viewed as a means of supplying villains, violence and vengeance, but it's hard not to notice the plot holes and duplicate bad guys. There are Japanese villains, who run brothels, get involved in politics and deserve to be castrated. However there are also English villains, who want to start a Second Opium War in this barbaric country and whose plan makes no sense at all. They're not even played by actors with English accents! One is Mark Darling (American) and the other is Christina Lindberg (Swedish). I lost it completely when one of them saw a Union Jack in their dying moments. This is a thoroughly silly film, but for the most part it's a gripping, intense silliness that knows exactly what it's doing. Darling and Lindberg though are another kind of silly entirely.
Darling is merely a non-actor. He avoids being horrendous and I got the impression that he at least knew some Japanese when saying dialogue in that language. This is his one and only screen credit, mind you.
Lindberg though is unbelievable. She's a Swedish glamour model who did 23 films, usually softcore, exploitation or erotica, and she can't even deliver her dialogue when it's in English, let alone Japanese. With the former, she made me snort. With the latter, she sent me into screaming spasms. Apparently she's good two years later in Bo Arne Vibenius's Thriller, but that's in Swedish. Here's she's giving us anti-acting into its purest chemical form, failing at everything she's asked to do on-screen except disrobe. Her face occasionally reminded me of Madeline Smith's, mind you.
Random observation: the blood's too bright. It looks like poster paint.
One could try to rationalise this film's violent schizophrenia. It's a pink film, from an era when the Japanese film industry was dying and was inventing new genres of semi-porn just to survive. Thus the "women as subjugated sex objects" scenes were perhaps simply the genre framework into which the film poured violent kick-arse ultra-feminism. Maybe. I'm just speculating, though, and I haven't convinced myself. This is no ordinary mismatch. Sex doesn't need to be linked so intimately with disturbing power relationships. Personally I think it's just filmmakers going gleefully for extreme material and being unashamed or unaware of its, um, pecularities, informed by a possible Japanese tendency to see dominant women as erotic.
It's great pulp, though, and Reiko Ike is immense. She was a Pinky Violence icon in Japan in the 1970s. She rules this film and she's what you'll remember above everything else, not the mad sleazy imagery or the film's sometimes disturbing sexuality. She's always great, whether sword-fighting naked in snow or telling someone she's rescued not to commit suicide. By exploitation standards, this is classy.