When a films subtitle translates into Porno Period Drama, one pretty much loses the idea that the film will be about a deep exploration of mankind and its motivations in dealing with the complexities of the world.
What They Say
Japanese cult movie guru Teruo Ishii (Horror Of Malformed Men, Blind Woman's Curse) directs this stylishly deranged adaptation of the original manga by Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf And Cub, Lady Snowblood, and Razor Hanzo). Tetsuro Tanba (You Only Live Twice, Zero Woman: Red Handcuffs) plays Shiro, a mercenary ronin swordsman. Believing life and death to be the same hell, he attempts suicide, but is revived by two lovely prostitutes who are members of a local gang, the Bohachi. This is an organization of men and women who have discarded god, servitude, loyality, trust, propriety, justice, conscience, and shame. The Bonachi oversee the selection and conditioning of beautiful young women for forced prostitution in old Edo's pleasure quarter, and recruit Shiro to rid them of their competition. He springs into action, sending limbs, heads, and kimonos flying, and blood flowing in rivers!
A fine job in the presentation given the age of the title. It is a mostly center speaker driven track for the dialogue with no dropouts or distortions being noticed.
The film was originally released in 1973 and looks fairly clean by those standards though there is a noticeable level of grain and the kind of print damage that works of that age often have that have not gone through remastering. At no point does the damage become overwhelmingly distracting however. There are a few minor moments where aliasing is present as well. There is also a sequence that jumps out as it appears that the camera crew used two different types of film for one scene where the grain is much higher than normal on the distance shot but completely different in look on the closeup. That they then switch a couple of times between these two different types is a bit distracting.
The cover is from the theatrical poster and is a montage that includes a naked woman riding on the shoulders of a ninja while trying to kill him, a scene from the film with a naked prostitute and two clients being marched through the street, pictures of the main character and two secondary characters from the film as well as a panel from the original manga where the main character is slicing through a naked woman. Oddly it also has a reverse cover with the more censored version on the inside where the main actress has a torn shirt and panties painted on. A toga like cloth was added to the prostitute being marched down the street and finally the manga scene has the woman being slashed now wearing a bra and panties (which were hugely popular in fuedal Japan).The back cover has three scenes from the movie. The first comes from a scene where the main prostitute is "breaking in" a new arrival and is lavishing her neck. The second has a close up of the main woman with 3 naked (and slightly blurred out) fellow prostitutes in the back. The final image is a rather tame head shot of the main male character. Discotek also provides an image from the manga on the back but it is hard to make out with the copy and stills laid over it.
There is a very decent selection to be found here with interviews from lead actress Yuriko Hishimi, one with J-Taro Sugisaku writer of the Teruo Ishii section of the Toei Pinky Violence book, a commentary track with J-Taro and cult director Takao Hakano and finally liner notes and film history by Chris D. of the American Cinematheque.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The film opens with Shiro, a famous assassin, facing off against four swordsman who have him trapped in the middle of a bridge-or they would have if he weren't such a skilled swordsman who dispatchs them with the opening credits. Just after defeating the four he is surrounded on both sides by police officers intent on capturing him. After cutting down few of them and engaging in a type of standoff Shiro declares he has had enough and jumps into the river asking the question "If dying is Hell... then how is that any different from the Hell that is life?" just before he slips beneath the surface.
He awakes to find himself in a bed with two naked women who are trying to warm his body. He is made an offer by Kesazo Shirakubi, who is in charge of the men of the Bohachi, to join the Bohachi, a group of ill repute. All he has to do is abandon the eight human virtues of godliness, obedience and fidelity toward elders, loyalty toward friends, trust of allies, modesty, justice, conscience, and shame. This is explained to him as he is watching women being tortured and raped in order to turn them into the kinds of prostitutes the Bohachi use and he is also the cage where those with catch syphilis are left to starve to death giving him an idea what kind of people he is dealing with. Shiro says he sees them as beasts who have forgotten the human way of life and in that they are like him and he joins on a provisional basis.
Shiro is assigned the task of going with one of the members as he goes to collect a woman who has fallen into debt to be sold into the brothel. When the woman threatens to kill herself he offers a better weapon than she is threatening to use. Shiro displays no emotion as he first traps her arm then disrobes her allowing his accomplice tie her up. Even when neighbors arrive to throw items at them Shiro stays emotionless. Shiro is then forced to take part in the auction for the women in which he has no interest and pays the sizable amount he got for capturing her to win her though he doesn't touch her. It turns out everything he did in capturing her was just a test which he has now failed do to not taking advantage of the woman who belongs to the clan. He is thrown out of their Bohachi's district to discover that the Bohachi have lived up to their code and informed the police who are waiting for Shiro at the gates.
As Shiro is fighting off the officers the boss of the Bohachi arrives and gets the police to leave due to the Shogun's crest his clan posses. In the past the Bohachi provided women to the men who were building the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo) thus cutting down on the problems the officials had with the workers and speed up construction. This service earned the Bohachi a special exemption from Shogun Tokugwa Ieyasu to operate brothels-a portion of the funds the Bohachi then donate to the government. The current problem the Bohachi are having is that numerous places have now started to engage in prostitution but the officials won't shut them down due to the fact that most of the customers are samurai even though they are illegal. The boss wants Shiro to kill the women and customers of such places so they are forced out of business to which Shiro agrees as he feels the world would be better without such people and proceeds to skillfully carry out his mission. What follows is a trail of violence and humiliation of some of the patrons which forces the other heads of the brothels to come to arms against the Bohachi as well as to launch an assassination attempt against Shiro. Finally the government is forced to step in and take a role but then the question is raised- what use will the Bohachi have for Shiro once his mission is accomplished?
The film's subtitle translates to Porno Period Drama according to the extras and it earns it. The film spends a fair amount of time with the women of the film running around either with their chests exposed or completely naked. This leads to some odd moments as due to Japan's censorship laws the women had to cover their crotches when in front of the camera which makes them seem almost modest until their back is to the camera and they don't have to cover themselves anymore. The film uses sets that most fans of samurai films will find conventional for the period being filmed along with some screen backdrops that occasionally try to convey a surreal feeling for the film and convey that perhaps Shiro is right and this really is Hell. The acting is fairly top notch and the period costumes are also well done. The interview with Yuriko Hishimi is an interesting one that gives some insight into the different approaches the big studios Toei and Toho took in the day as well as how titles such as this one were made and maybe my favorite part of the disc.
The biggest problem with the film is that the writers never went out of the way to give a reason to really connect with any of the characters and assault the senses with so many scenes of brutality, torture and nudity that a feeling of numbness can set in fairly quickly that can leave one dead to what they are seeing. The fact that certain scenes seem to exist just for that reason is kind of confirmed in the interview with the lead actress when she admits that the scene where she is pleasuring a tied up foreign woman makes no sense to her to this day as to why it is there.
Bohachi lives up to its subtitle of Porno Period Drama with a good deal of the violence samurai film fans recognize as well as a very generous helping of female nudity. If that is what a person is looking for in a title this maybe one they want to see but for someone who has reservations to scenes of brutality toward women they may espouse the main character's belief that the world he inhabits is Hell. The film may not even register as shocking to many given where cinema goes today and without that key component the film brings too little in the way of character story to make it a high recommendation.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Interview with Yuriko Hishimi, Interview with J-Taro Sugisaku, Commentary with J-Taro and Takao Nakano, Liner Notes, Film History
Samsung 50" Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Reciever with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, JVC DVD player XV-FA95GD