“Sex and fury is an enticing stylish cinematographical narrative evoking the power of female sexuality.”
1886, Meiji period. A detective is brutally murdered and robbed by unknown assailants in front of his own daughter. His last dying act is to clutch three hanafuda cards: a deer, a boar and a butterfly: clues for his daughter to identify his murderers.
1905. The young girl has grown into a beautiful woman and has become a skilled pick-pocket, a fighter, and an expert gambler. She has adopted the name Ochô Inoshika (Reiko Ike), a name referring to the three clues her father left her [ochô meaning “butterfly”, ino “boar”, and shika “deer”] and her desire to enact revenge on her father’s murderers, a desire also inscribed on her body, by way of animal tattoos.
An encounter with a dying Yakuza in a gambling joint forces Ochô to travel to Tokyo to fulfill her promise to redeem his sister Yuki (Rie Saotome) who is about to be forced into prostitution. In Tokyo, Ochô becomes entangled in a complex game of power involving two middle-aged Yakuza (Seizaburo Kawazu, Hiroshi Nawa) hungry for power, a young guy (Masatake Narusa) on a personal and political assassination mission, a British Agent (Mark Darling) and his latest recruit Christina (Christina Lindberg) who’re planning a second opium war. Will Ochô be able to get her revenge?
Even though various narrative elements remain rather undeveloped and some narrative choices (i.e. the switchblade carrying nuns) remain unexplained, Sex and Fury’s narrative is compelling, proving to be more than just a cheap excuse to stage nudity, sex, and sexual and non-sexual violence, … etc. – the necessary ingredients of the Pinky Violence genre. Furthermore it’s only by way of staging of the sexual, the violence and the nudity that the narrative can be read as an elaboration of – and maybe even as a commentary on – the differential power between men and women. Sex and Fury’s answer is simple: whereas society creates the structure where men can assert their power (over women), true power is to be found in female sexuality. In this respect Sex and Fury can be seen as a narrative about female sexual confidence and pure female power. But the narrative nevertheless stays within the confines of male fantasy; a minor indication of this concerns the peculiar choice of music for the rape/deflowering scene.
Even though Sex and Fury doesn’t intend to be a “historical correct” narrative, it nevertheless provides us a minor insight in how the “traditional” ways still structured social exchanges in 1905 (use of kimono, Yukata, way gambling games are played, …) and how westernization permeated the Japanese social fabric (the rich Japanese “clothing” themselves with western cars, hairstyles, and clothes, the funny interaction about unknown western goods, …). This juxtaposition between western and traditional also finds its expression in the cinematography itself.
A rather peculiar narrative choice is the choice to let Ocho externalize some of her thoughts as external speech towards ‘herself’. Even though this speech gives the viewer more information, the choice to present it as external speech doesn’t seem to add anything besides creating another opportunity to observe Reiko Ike’s face. What concerns Christina, her speech often takes up the function of ‘external’ narration, explaining her character as well as underlining her longing. This narration feels quite awkward, because Christina Lindberg’s vocalization of her English sentences (who were obviously written by Japanese people) is emotionally flat, which is at odds with the contents of her speech.
The cinematographical palette of Sex and fury is diverse, offering a wide array of various techniques (long shots, close-ups, far-wide shots, slow motion, zoom-outs, focus changes, zoom-ins, moving camera…), interesting viewpoints, and often original ways of framing shots. By way of a thoughtful and aestheticized use, each scene is staged with a sense of artfulness and refinement. This artfulness is already sensible in the fabulous opening scene, where the rhythmicity of the running of the girl – as staged cinematographically – is enforced by traditional Japanese music and the sounds of her geta and bells.
Furthermore this artfulness finds its highlight in the shot where President Ikamura pulls Yuki’s obi, while she tries to run away from him, as well as in Ocho’s first fighting scene. In this scene it is not the nudity as such that is important, but the mere beauty of the contortions and anglings of the female body in movement and the interplay between nudity, snow and blood. In our view, this slow motion celebration of female beauty, enlivened by energizing 70’s music, is still one of the most unforgettable scenes of Japanese cinematography to date.
Cinematographically tension in ‘male’ action scenes is creating by way of the framing somewhat wilder, and shakier, but not without keeping firm grip on the most important character, even if that character is nothing other than the chaos itself. Noribumi Suzuki’s cinematographical talent is also sensible in the way he positions characters in scenes with a lot of characters [i.e. characters that are important relative to the scene are ever placed visible in the space] to create a lively interaction and how he successfully stages the gambling scene [close-ups on the eyes (the poker-face) implying depth of character alternated with images, often through shifting focus, which form the mental content of that particular character], capturing the tension of a high stakes poker game.
So, even though the cinematography is adapted to the particular needs of the scene in question, there are some instances where the choice of framing or used techniques doesn’t add anything to the scene. Cinematography, in our view, is not a matter of variation, but first and foremost of supporting the narrative and the purpose of a given scene.
To conclude this part, we feel obliged to underline Reiko Ike’s radiant presence and her natural elegance, which is further underlined by the kimono. And it’s only because of Noribumi Suzuki’s framing (often focusing on her beautiful eyes) that Reiko Ike’s mesmerizing and irresistible presence comes fully to fruition.
Sex and fury is an enticing and stylish cinematographical narrative. It provides a compelling narrative resolving around the theme of the power of female sexuality in a cultural playground thriving on male dominance. And even though some cinematographical choices are odd and unnecessary, it’s nevertheless the artful cinematography that makes Sex and fury so compelling, creating some of the most visual impressive scenes in Japanese cinematographical history. Furthermore, the cinematography enables Reiko ike’s attractiveness to be fully utilized, making her cinematographical presence as mesmerizing and irresistible as possible, washing away any bad taste the ‘performances’ of Mark Darling and Christina Lindberg may have left behind.