Marquis de SadeNikkatsu Roman PornoJapanese
Woods are Wet: Woman Hell
Medium: film
Year: 1973
Writer/director: Tatsumi Kumashiro
Original creator: Marquis de Sade
Keywords: Nikkatsu Roman Porno, boobs
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Hiroko Isayama, Rie Nakagawa, Hatsuo Yamaya, Moeko Ezawa, Akira Takahashi, Yuri Yamashina
Format: 65 minutes
Website category: Japanese old
Review date: 7 November 2013
It's a Nikkatsu Roman Porno based on the Marquis de Sade's Justine. It's okay.
In case you're wondering, it's one of the classier Roman Pornos. Tatsumi Kumashiro was the critically acclaimed director of award-winning films like Ichijo's Wet Lust (1972) and The Woman with Red Hair (1979). Here he's made a disturbing film, yes, but only in the ways it's meant to be. It doesn't even feel like porn, even though the second half of the film goes to some fairly extreme places.
The story's the problem, really. It's the Marquis de Sade, for goodness' sake. I'm fine with the depravity, but let's just say that de Sade's reputation isn't because of his plotting.
The film begins with Sachiko (Hiroko Isayama), on the run from a murder investigation. Her mistress has been murdered. (That's a servant's mistress rather than anything more salacious.) Maybe she's a killer. Maybe she's been framed. We don't know. The important thing though is that she runs into Yoko (Rie Nakagawa), who begs her to come back to her husband's hotel because she says she's desperate for human company. She's married to "the most brutal man in the world" (Hatsuo Yamaya) and she says she's been "hideously lonely" ever since her marriage at the age of 19. Isayama goes along with Nakagawa's wishes and things get ever more disturbed from then on until we reach the, um, ahem.
That said, though, the horrors aren't actually that bad. There's not much blood. Kumashiro's not trying to make you vomit. More shocking than the explicit scenes, actually, are the mind games that precede them. Terrible things are said and you don't know whether they're lies, with the uncertainty itself making the subsequent scenes tense. We don't know. Nor does the victim of the games. When things eventually turn X-rated, we've been wound up to such a psychological pitch that the excesses feel earned, not gratuitous. That's a big deal, actually, since that's the obvious danger with de Sade adaptations.
As for the extreme content... well, it's memorable. It helps a lot that Yamaya's whipping and buggery is often of men rather than women, which makes it feel as if the film's genuinely exploring de Sade's mindset instead of just going for exploitation. The double rape sandwich was new on me. Before long, it's livened up further with corpses.
In short, it's not Japanese torture porn. It's nothing like the eyeball-searing likes of Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs et al. Instead it's about abuse of power and the characters' psychology. This includes men who have been earmarked as victims-to-be but don't know it yet and are eager to be abusers in a mirror image of what's about to happen to them. It's about the deliberate corruption of innocence. Note the maids who've been living in the hotel since they were small children, for instance. There are roads not taken, such as the gun. It's also open to interpretation whether the victim was starting to participate, slightly, despite what she'll be saying and believing later. When she's asking for a corpse to be pulled off because his cock's still stiff inside her, for instance, both her manner and her recently chosen actions suggest at least ambivalence.
The film's stylish and elegant, with a 1930s setting. Notice the colour-coding of the women's clothes, with white meaning purity. The acting's also strong, with all the main cast still working in the business today.
As for the script, it's a respectful, intelligent adaptation. It appears to be specifically an isolated segment of de Sade's Justine (4000 pages long in the 1801 version), with Isayama saying that she's experienced nothing but terrible things for years. This isn't the beginning of her story. The film never says it explicitly, but her reactions and ability to keep a cool head afterwards suggest that this isn't the first time Isayama's been raped or worse. I also like the fact that we're wondering throughout about whether Isayama really did murder her mistress, which adds another layer of ambiguity and keeps us wondering whether the biter might not end up getting bit.
There's one big peculiarity, which seems to have annoyed a number of, ah, one-handed viewers. Kumashiro had co-written the script for Seiichiro Yamaguchi's Love Hunter, which got everyone arrested and prosecuted for obscenity. Our heroes didn't take this lying down. Yamaguchi shot and released a sequel in the run-up to his trial, while Kumashiro shot his mouth off to the media (e.g. "crucified", "nothing but a scapegoat") before making several films with an anti-censorship theme. Woods are Wet is one of those. As well as expressing de Sade's idiosyncratic views of power and the authorities, he mocks Japanese genital fogging by masking everyone's groins with massive black bars that are sometimes half the size of the screen.
On 29 May 1973, incidentally, the police also shut down Woods are Wet, insisting that the Japanese film industry's board of standards look at it again.
All this is interesting, but at the end of the day, I wasn't blown away. Oh, it's good. It's as twisted as you'd expect of a Japanese version of de Sade, but it's absolutely not empty shock value. I can't remember seeing a subtler, better portrayal of the ambivalence of de Sadean corruption of innocence. My problem with it is simply that the story's a bit slight. Its lack of a twist is almost in itself a twist, if you like. It's teasing us with possibilities that might, perhaps, turn this into something more recognisably what we expect these days from a story. In many ways it's a study in passivity. A fine, intelligent filmmaker is putting his talents to the service of an author with unusual priorities.
"What you accept as ethical is contrived by those in authority so they can control people."