Legends of the poisonous seductress: Quick-draw Okatsu (1969) review

Introduction

While the second installment of Legends of The Poisonous Seductress brings back Junko Miyazono to once again exact revenge on those who wronged her, other things have changed. Not only did they change the director, Yoshihiro Ishikawa for Nobuo Nakagawa (Jigoku (1960)), and opted for colour instead of a black-and-white cinematography, but the exploration of the sexual power dynamic between men and woman has lost much of its centrality.

Review

City commissioner Shiozaki (Kenji Imai) is corrupt. Armed with accusations of cheating on the rice tax, he roams the area with his gang to rob the local farmers and kill those that defy him. On one of Shiozaki’s violent tours, Rui (Reiko Oshida), a drifter, rescues a local who was about to be killed and brings her to the Kogen dojo led by Okatsu Makabe (Junko Miyazono) and her widowed father and strict master (Ko Nishimura). Okatsu’s brother Rintaro (Masaomi Kondo) lacks self-confidence and wants, rather than following his father’s footsteps, to become a simple farmer together with his love Saki (Yukie Kagawa).

One day, Shiozaki asks Okatsu’s father the hand of his adopted daughter, but he refuses. He is not prepared to give a corrupt man drunk on ambition his precious daughter. Of course, Shiozaki is not going to let this pass and he devices, together with Samonji (Tetsuya Yamaoka), the ambitious assistant-master of the Kogen Dojo, and the local gambling tent, to set up Rintaro and put his family into a highly problematic position.

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The second installment of Legends of The Poisonous Seductress is not, as one might assume, a direct sequel to Ohyaku: the Female Demon (1968) but an entirely different narrative featuring the same main actress, Junko Miyazono. Both narratives are, nevertheless, revenge narratives and explore the perverse effects of exploitation others by both men and women. In Quick-draw Okatsu the main evildoers are Shiozaki and Okiwa.

Shiozaki’s acts of violently extorting the locals is caused by no other desire than his desire to gain promotion and restore the family’s former glory. Shiozaki feels himself, as he is part of the Hatamoto family, unfit to be in the position he is in and aims, by bribing the councilors in Edo, to gain a position fit for his family’s name. Shiozaki, at least in his mind, does what he needs to do to gain what was always rightfully his.

Quick-draw Okatsu (1969) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Rintaro, Okatsu’s brother, has a different problem with his family name. The Kogen name is a burden for him, the name that has a weight – a weight caused by both his father’s expectations and the Dojo’s reputation – that he cannot carry. His desire to become a farmer should thus not be read as his true desire. What Rintaro truly desires is to escape the Kogen family name and the burdens that this name implies.

Okatsu, who shoulders the weight of the Kogen name admirably, ultimately becomes victim of the desire of Shiozaki, full of ambition, to make her his. But his desire is not a desire to marry her, but a desire to have her so he can, whenever he wants, enjoy her body. His attempt to force Okatsu’s father to pay of the debt of his son with her body backfires, but that does not stop him to try to take ownership of her body by forcing her to choose between death or him. But Okatsu has no desire to choose either of those options. She succeeds, with the help of Rui, to escape and create a third path: the path of life and bloody revenge.

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There is another demonic character present in the narrative: the wife of Jinkuro (Harumi Sone), Okiwa (Toshiko Sawa). Okiwa is addicted to the shininess of gold and her hunger for gold is never stilled and will never be stilled. She knows that beauty sells and happily sells, without even considering the subject behind the beautiful face, various women to the local prostitute house.

The reason why the revenge narrative works so well, it due to fact that the events of violent exploitation Okatsu and her family are subjected to, e.g. gambling fraud, torture, cold-blooded murder, and even a (confronting) violent attempt at abortion, are framed in impactful way. We do not only understand why she wants to take revenge, but also feel why such revenge is, for more than one reason, righteous (Narra-note 1). While Quick-Draw Okatsu is not as politically charged as its predecessor Ohyaku: the Female Demon (1968), Okatsu’s revenge against those who wronged her is not without an aspect of critique. Does the narrative not show that an infatuation with one’s name and power as well as the seductive nature of money easily leads to exploitation of one’s fellow human beings?

Quick-draw Okatsu (1969) by Nobuo Nakagawa

Quick-Draw Okatsu is composed with a pleasing and dynamic mix between fixity and movement. In conversational sequences the subtle infusion of spatial moving shots keeps these sequences interesting and, in some cases, infuses some tension in the visual unfolding of the narrative. The dynamism of the visual composition also supports the framing of action. By letting the cinematographical movement follow the on-screen movement, Nakagawa emphasizes the motion of the on-screen action for the spectator. It is a simple device, but a compositional device that gives the various acts of violence a bit more weight and the visual composition a pleasing fluidity.

Another compositional device applied to empower the impact of violence is the use of static moments. It is, as a matter of fact, only by pausing within the highly dynamic composition – a pausing that emphasizes facial expressions, the clashing of swords or the slicing impact of the sword – that Nakagawa succeeds in truly showing us with the impact of the sword and make the chanbara action exiting and enjoyable to watch.

Quick-draw Okatsu (1969) by Nobuo Nakagawa

What also emphasizes the impact of the sword is, of course, the sound-design. While Quick-Draw Okatsu does not offer anything out of the ordinary at the level of the sound-design, the swishing of the sword in the air as well as the clashing of swords heightens the enjoyability of the exciting chanbara action-sequences.

While the black-and-white cinematography in Ohyaku: the Female Demon (1968) gave the overall film a certain elegancy, the vibrancy of the colours (e.g. the kimono’s) in Quick-Draw Okatsu is pleasing in its own right. In contrast to the first installment, Junko Miyazono is not as captivating. This is, in our view, not due to her performance, but because Nakagawa has not ‘exploited’ her elegance on the screen like Ishikawa did.

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Quick-Draw Okatsu is a very entertaining revenge narrative. Nakagawa’s narrative does nothing to reinvent the genre, but he offers everything a spectator and fan has come to except from the genre: exciting action and violent exploitation. As a matter of fact, it is due to the impactful way of staging the various acts of exploitation that enables Okatsu’s trajectory of violent revenge to become so enjoyable.

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Notes

Narra-note 1: What makes Okiwa and Samonji even worse is how they, when endangered by Okatsu’s sword, attempt to blame others for their own violent conduct. When death looms, they quickly attempt to escape to take responsibility for their own violent deeds.

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