Within the rich and diverse oeuvre of Yasuzo Masumura (Gaints and Toys ) one can easily find films dealing, in one way or another, with sexuality – e.g. Manji (1964), The Sex Check (1968) and the macabre Blind Beast (1969). In 1966, Masumura delivered another one of his ‘sexual’ films, Irezumi, a film bringing one of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella’s to life, using a script by master-filmmaker Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba , Kuroneko ).
One night, Otsuya (Ayako Wakao), a rich merchant’s daughter, forces her lover Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) to elope with her. They find shelter at an acquaintance of her father, Gonji (Fujio Suga). Gonji promises to convince Otsuya’s father to accept their marriage, but his attempt fails.
Not that much later, while Shinsuke is gone off to pawn some stuff for money, Gonji tries to rape Otsuya. Yet, his attempt fails, as his wife Otaki (Reiko Fujiwara) enters the room. Then, Gonji and his wife devices a plan to enrich themselves, by murdering Shinsuke and selling Otsuya to a local geisha house (Narra-note 1). To bind Otsuya to him, Tokubei (Asao Uchida) decides to let tattoo artist Seikichi (Gaku Yamamoto) mark her and tattoo a thirsty female spider on her back.
Irezumi is, by some critics, qualified as a film that signals the changing post-war attitudes towards the sexual act. Yet, in our view, the post-war attitude changes, changes that allowed the sexual dimension to be more directly approached in film, allowed directors to explore and reveal the true dynamics that underpin sexuality – the writer Tanizaki did not use the feminine figure to subvert Japan’s long-standing sexual hierarchies, but to reveal the inherent complexity of the power relations that underpins the sexual game. Irezumi is, in this sense, a film that grants us an insight in the active role a female subject can play in the game of sex, romance, and male obsession.
Before exploring the subjective logic of Otsuya, we need to analyze the act of tattooing Otsuya is subjected to. I should be evident that the milk-white skin of our rich merchant’s daughter is an object of desire for Seikichi. Her skin is not only an object to violate with his tattooing art, but also a canvas to put his signature on – a signature that signals that he artfully molested her. The whole scene is sexual but without the act of penetration; he solely rapes her with his ink. Yet, the thirsty spider on her back does not only function as a sign of Seikichi’s brilliant molestation, but also as a mark that she is the possession of geisha owner Tokubei.
This artful molestation underlines a certain uncomfortable truth about sexual dynamics. Male subjects, when desiring a female subject as sexual object, are often driven to take possession of the object by force. Yet, resorting to force within the erotic game is a sign of weakness, a sign that the female object that is desired holds the power.
To understand Otsuya’s subjective logic, a logic that dictates the unfolding of the entire narrative, it is important to analyze the romantic dynamic between Otsuya and her lover Shinsuke before the beautiful tattoo adorns her back. To put it somewhat poetically, Shinsuke is caught up in the web of Otsuya’s desire. While he might have seduced her at first, he is now merely a puppet of her demands – e.g. the demand to elope, the demand to make love, … etc. The cowardly Shinsuke feels obliged to answer Otsuya’s demands because she emphasizes, in a seductive and feminine way, that only by obeying her he can proof that he loves her. Yet, how far will Otsuya’s demands for ‘love’ drive him? Will he attain a state of bliss or be forced to the edge of a subjective abyss?
Within this romantic dynamic, we find the first indication that Otsuya can wear her womanliness as a mask. Yet, when she plays with the mask of womanliness, it is not because she fears the retribution of the male other, but to dupe the male other – ‘I’m a castrated woman, I need your phallic strength.’ – and imprison him into her web of revengeful desires. Her womanliness functions a lure for men who phallically desire to possess her beauty, a beauty function of the skin she parades and the fictive lack she seductively reveals.
In this sense, the mark of the spider that adorns her back does not turn her into a spider-like woman who feasts on the ‘phallic’ stupidity of men – I want to sexually possess women and feel desirable – but merely strengthens (and visualizes) her pre-existing subjective dynamic. The mark of the spider, in other words, unchains Otsuya, allowing her to freely exploit her womanly masquerade for, in essence, vengeful purposes. She tries to seduce men, attempts to blind them with her seductive womanliness, to exploit their desire to be desired and to possess the female other as a phallic trophy. If she succeeds in entrapping their phallic desire in her web of womanliness, Otsuya can elegantly force these men to spend fortunes or her, be scammed, or even to organize their own bloody downfall. But can Otsuya escape the clutches of Tokubei, the one who owns her and exploits her merely for his own riches? And can she avoid the violent retribution of men who realize they have been duped by her elegant beauty (psycho-note 1)?
What makes Irezumi’s compositionso visually pleasing is its masterful play with light and shadow – a play that often creates a powerful tension between sprawling dark shadows and vivid colours (of elegant white human skin and the beautiful kimono layers) evading the threatening darkness. This tension raises the visual pleasure because it is utilized as the prime compositional element. The beauty of the shots resides, in other words, in the pleasing geometrical composition the interplay between shadow and light creates, either by emphasizing the elegant geometrical interplay between bodies, layers of clothing, and traditional objects like umbrellas or by exploiting the geometrical dimension of the traditional architecture.
Another element that plays an important role in making Irezumi such a pleasing and engaging narrative is the traditionally flavoured musical accompaniment. The musical accompaniment, both subtle and dramatic at the same time, gives the atmosphere a threatening quality, a quality that does not fail to entrance the spectator. The final element that makes Irezumi a classic is Ayako Wakao’s extra-ordinary performance. It is due to her seductive but chilling performance that the male subject can get a revelatory insight into the ‘phallic stupidity’ that marks his position within the sexual game.
With Irezumi, Masamura delivers a phenomenal narrative, a true post-war classic. Not only does Masamura dazzle us with one of his most visually enticing compositions, but he also allows audiences to discern who in the sexual game holds the true power. Ayako Wakao’s elegant beauty haunts the screen, subtly seducing the (male) spectator, giving Masamura’s uncovering of the stupidity that marks male obsession with phallic possession its uncomfortable but revelatory character.
Narra-note 1: How can we understand the sudden shift in Gonji behaviour – from rape to selling her off. While it is not explicitly said, it seems plausible that Gonji convinced his wife that it was Otsuya that seduced him and that he was merely trying to fend her off. The selling of Otsuya is a way for Gonji to prove his innocence.
Psycho-note 1: Any retribution born out of the realization of being deceived by the female other also function as a final attempt to make this deceiving female other once and for all their own.