Spectators might know director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi for his work in the martial arts genre (e.g. Sister Street Fighter (1974), Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (1974), The Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975), …etc.). Given his skill in the fighting genre, it is rather strange that Yamaguchi was asked to direct a narrative that combined two genres he had little experience with, horror and erotica. Yet, is his A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse worth watching? Can we still get a kick – pun intended – out of it?
March 31st, 1958. The anti-prostitution act is put in effect. To circumvent the law, Genzo Kakinuma (Taiji Tonoyama) decides to turn his former red-light business into a Turkish bathhouse. By doing this, he does not only secures his own income, but also allows the women to keep their job as prostitute. All the girls agree with Kakinuma‘s scheme, expect for Yukino (Naomi Tani) who expresses her wish to quit. Yet, Utae Kakinuma (Tomoko Mayama), cannot appreciate Yukino’s desire, feeling that she is merely biting the hand that has fed her for all these years.
Some days later, she leaves, together with her black cat, to start living with her lover Shikauchi (Hideo Murota), a local gangster. Yet, after witnessing her lover being beaten for stealing a lot of money, she meekly returns to Kakinuma to ask for a job at the Turkish Bathhouse, not knowing that her lover’s beating was staged and the theft merely a lie to coerce her back into the hands of Utae.
A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse offers a cocktail of bloody murder, vicious torture, joyous sex, calculated deceit, and otherworldly interference thirsty for revenge to ultimately question the impact of phallic desire and fantasy on interactions between men and women.
With respect to phallic desire, A haunted Turkish Bathhouse explores the exploitative and destructive impulse that marks such desire. This is not only illustrated by Kakinuma who forces himself upon Yukino to check and hone her sexual skills, but also by Shikauchi’s rape of Yukino’s sister Mayumi (Misa Ohara), and the forced marriage of Genzo’s daughter Natsuyo (Terumi Azuma). Such desire underpins the highly problematic belief that women, as good girls, are merely meant to satisfy the phallic thirst of men with their body.
In the case of phallic fantasy, Yamaguchi’s narrative underlines that men will continuously seek a way to fleetingly please their phallic fantasy – i.e. paying hard-earned money to indulge in the fantasy of being sexually desired by women. It is this unquenchable thirst for phantasmatic and sexual pleasure that explains why any attempt to forbid sexuality as service is doomed to fail. The Turkish Bathhouse business is, even with the strict prostitution ban, booming. The lucrative nature of the adult business is, as a matter of fact, that what invites Shikauchi to conspire with Utae Kakinuma and compels him to deceive the female other for his own financial gain.
The phallic fantasy can also, as Yamaguchi underlines in his narrative, play an important role in determining the logic of a male subject’s comportment. It is not difficult to realize that Shikauchi’s thirst for financial wealth is regulated by his insobriety with the fantasy of having the impossible phallus for the female other. It is this intoxication that compels him to coerce Yukino into prostitution for financial gain, but also to violently take Mayumi’s virginity (and keep approaching her sexually afterwards) and to start an affair with the Kakinuma’s wife to buy his way into the Turkish Bathhouse business. Yet, such intoxication with the impossible phallus also allows him to be easily duped by the female other. Via her shrewd and seductive signifiers and by gifting her body to him, Mayumi easily deceives Yamauchi into believing she desires him (Narra-note 1).
A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse also touches upon the fact that many women, within the romantic relationship, inscribe themselves within the fiction a man creates with his signifiers and his acts. Yukino shapes herself according to the needs of her lover – agreeing, in the name of love, to become a full-time prostitute at the bathhouse, because she wants to be sure of his love. Yet, the fact that her lover’s signifiers – I rushed into debt to ensure your happiness – are structured by such blatant deception opens up the possibility for Yukino to discover the truth – i.e. to encounter the hollow emptiness of Shikauchi’s statements and realize that she is merely used as an object to be sexually exploited for his and Utae Kakinuma’s financial gain. Yet, the love she feels for her lover could very well blind her for the truth, a truth that might only be revealed when her physical destruction is near.
The composition of A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse stands out due to its rich decorative flair (sudden zoom-ins, unconventional perspectives, zoom-outs, extreme close-up shots, use of cuts,…), its fluid but slow-moving dynamism, and its many elegant shot-compositions, which are created by exploiting geometrical dimensions in a thoughtful way (e.g. frame within frames, creating tension with symmetry, …etc.).
The stylish flair of the composition is also evident in the colour and lightning-design. While the lightning within the narrative is natural for the greater part, Yamaguchi introduces with a certain subtlety dramatic colour-contrasts into his visual fabric. This subtle contrasts are not merely decorations aimed at heightening the visual pleasure of the narrative, but sudden moments of visual tension that allow a certain unheimlich to seep into the narrative’s atmosphere.
What also plays an important role in highlighting the unheimlich within the narrative is the musical accompaniment and certain decorative sounds (e.g. a cat miaowing, reverberating laughter, sound of lightning and heavy rain). While playful jazzy music is used to accompany the sexual scenes, other musical pieces, by having a more disconcerting flavour, reverberate the unheimlich that subtly lingers within the narrative’s spaces and disallow the spectator to feel at ease for long.
All these elements play a role in making the otherworld finale, which employs a variety of special and visual effects, a satisfying but also a disconcerting haunting experience. While some effects are dated and rough around the edges, the evocation of an unheimlich atmosphere coupled with the fluid integration of all effects make it easy for the spectator to suspend his disbelief.
A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is marked by the same duality that characterizes many Japanese soft-erotic narratives – offering the female body to the scopic joy of the male subject while critiquing the impact of phallic desire and fantasy on female subjects, yet succeeds in presenting this theme in a fresh manner by adding a ghostly twist to the mix. It is via the splatter of blood, the concatenation of sexual acts, and the ghostly revenge that Yamaguchi presents the male spectator his truth: that he, beyond fantasy and desire, is a merely castrated being.
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Narra-note 1: Twice in the finale, Yamauchi tries to defend himself with a phallic object – the first time with a spear-like object and the second time with a katana. The need for him to materialize “his” phallus as a last defence against the vicious and violent Other-worldly presence, underlines that he, as subject, was always a castrated being.