Directed by Takashi Ishii, 1994, 87 min. Starring Maiko Kawakami and Jinpachi Nezu.
The Nikkatsu studio in Japan was one of the first to get going in the early days of film, way back in the 1910s. As time went by, it became one of the most successful studios in Japan , not least due to its wild action films but also in no small part to its pinku romanporno films. Started purely as a guaranteed cash cow as the studio was starting to go into the red (but nevertheless made with a higher budget and production values than most pink eiga), directors were basically given free rein to do and say whatever they wanted, so long as there was a sex scene every so many minutes – which led to rather innovative uses of the genre, such as the political porn flick.
So, when Nikkatsu, which in the mid-90's back in financial trouble and seemingly at the end of their romanporno line, asked successful manga writer and contributor of several screenplays Takashi Ishii (later to direct Gonin, Freeze Me and a couple of Black Angel movies) to helm a movie of his own, he jumped at the chance. He says: "The audience started to get bored with romanporno at one point and that's when I joined Nikkatsu. What I wanted to make was a drama between men and women. My stories had a harder, more realistic portrayal between men and women as you can see from Nami in Angel Guts. I think what the Nikkatsu audience and management really wanted were sensual films. But my stories couldn't help being violent - I realised the core of my eroticism was violence. They were violent films which had no connection with those porn films which portrayed women as noble but ended up humiliating them, or with the films which focused on the actual sex act to make the audience excited."
As a direct reaction to 'those porn films', Ishii sought to redress the balance with his contributions to the series, and unequivocally succeeded with Red Vertigo (also known as Red Dizziness ). It's a daring and ambitious concept that could well have backfired badly on the director, but instead his audacious, totally admirable and innovative vision of a porn movie doesn't exploit, humiliate or oppress its female star, but rather focuses on making her into the heroine of her own tale, by imbuing her with strength, tenacity, passion, and the will to fight and survive – not qualities one often finds in the average porn star.
Considering the lack of feminism one usually finds in contemporary Japanese societal values, it's also a novel point of view for a young, male Japanese director, for which Ishii should be rightfully applauded for producing this exquisite and rather extraordinary work of art.
There's not much of a plot to Red Vertigo, to be honest. Nami is a hard-working nurse with a glamour photographer boyfriend, who keeps on pressuring her to do a photo session with him. Their relationship is, she thinks, reasonably strong despite this, although recently she's noticed one particular model featuring more frequently in his work than others. Kenji explains this away by saying she's the sort of woman that his boss likes.
One day at work, though, Nami's life changes irreversibly. Summoned seemingly by a patient to a private room, she is raped by two intruders hiding there. On her exit, she is reprimanded by the ward matron for time-wasting. He immediate reaction is to leave and seek solace with Kenji. Unbeknownst to her, however, he's busy shooting then sleeping with the boss' favourite model. There's a hugely long sex scene between the two of them, highlighting Nami's betrayal and showing that this is something Kenji does all the time, and which he enjoys. Nami enters to find the two in post-coital embrace, and runs off, her life falling in tatters around her.
In another part of the city, stockbroker Muraki is drowning his sorrows in a bar. He's been caught embezzling funds, and faces being fired and arrested, not to mention the terrorizing phone calls left on his machine from irate clients, threatening revenge on he and his family. He's also a serial philanderer – he gropes the barmaid who (pretty much) rejects his advances before the alcohol in his system causes him, after a rather bizarre dream sequence, to pass out. Waking up in his apartment, the threatening phone calls continue, so he puts on a hat and scarf as a disguise, dashes down the stairs and into his car... where, concerned with what might be behind him rather than what's ahead, he cannons into the fleeing Nami.
Convinced she's dead, he bundles her into the passenger seat and drives away. Parked in a layby, he finds a pulse, goes through her bag and, trembling, binds her hands with his tie before molesting her. As she wakes, she manages to escape, her hands still bound, until he chases her into an abandoned building and attempts to rape her. For Muraki, it's a power thing – he says things like "Do you know who I am? Somebody who won't finish at the bottom". However, he is humiliated as he's unable to perform, and is reduced to tears, which sums up Takashi Ishii's entire manifesto as regards this particular movie pretty neatly. Taking the ropes off her wrists, he begs for forgiveness but Nami, naturally, is far less magnanimous, despite his attempts at justifying his deeds - particularly since he still keeps her tied to a chair...
A sober, thoughtful and serious study of contemporary Japanese societal attitudes both towards and of women, a modern-day feminist fable, Red Vertigo is also an interesting parallel study of the emotions, both positive and negative, surrounding sex – not necessarily always a frivolous or titillatingly gratuitous subject. Ishii centralises all the action and events around one single, exceptionally strong female, who shows depth of character, toughness and mental stability equal to, and often exceeding, the weak and often treacherous male figures who are both drawn to and repelled by her: compelled to try to subjugate her into a position of passive submission, they all end up losing her in some way. It's a tense and sometimes surprisingly tender explanation of the tragedies that befall one woman on one day in one society.
Red Vertigo might be classified as "romanporno", but a better summation might be "a Greek tragedy with plenty of sex". However, the sex used throughout is often there to illustrate male attempts to subjugate Nami, the central character of the entire, slightly oddly-named Angel Guts series, and her natural inherent strength and ebullience. There's examples of sex as a weapon, in attempting to overpower her through the medium of rape and bondage, as well as sex as a disposable commodity and also as a means of betrayal: one sex scene, in particular, where Kenji has the affair with the model, is tortuously drawn-out by Takashi to emphasise Nami's complete betrayal, and her boyfriend's absolute lack of morals, lack of sympathy and lack of love for his betrayed and absent partner – it's as if by drawing it out for an inordinately long time, the director is simultaneously drawing out the pain for Nami and drawing the viewer in, making us complicit by watching the proceedings like a voyeur to both the lovemaking and the betrayal, by not stepping in to stop it somehow.
However, don't think for a second that the tale is all gloom and doom: indeed, Nami is such an indomitable spirit that no man, no horrible event, no tragedy can suppress her lust for life, for love, and even for sex. In a rather emotionally raw and shocking scene where she consummates her relationship with a man who previously tried to rape her, she proves that no matter what, she is in control of her life and nothing can ever break her spirit.
There's more explicit sex in this movie than straightforward skin flicks, but its every use is artistic, emotionally valid and illustrates an event or mental state. Maiko Kawakami in her performance as Nami plays the role with understated and subtle brilliance: whilst not the most beautiful woman I've ever clapped eyes on, she is certainly charismatic, attractive and has a certain quality which renders her as compelling as her character. The male characters she is surrounded by one equally understated, playing out their roles as moths drawn to her flame, failing to subjugate her whilst simultaneously believing themselves superior, more powerful and stronger than her, when in reality they are weak-willed, cheap, sleazy, downright evil or just plain doomed.
The minimalistic use of music, especially during emotionally significant passages, is thoroughly effective – in fact, most of the sex scenes are shot in rather uncomfortable and thoroughly realistic silence. Indeed, most of the sex depicted in Red Vertigo is shockingly close to the real-life experience: not soft-focus, no passionate music or dim lighting, but as physical, unglamorous, harsh and frequently tawdry as the real thing can be.
Admirably, there's no softcore gloss on these scenes at all, which renders them more poignant and easier to relate to than silicone boobs, saxophones, and buckets of lip gloss. Actually, your devoted reviewers may have even heard some skin-crawlingly accurate squelching at several points. But, for me at least, the scenes in this movie are a major improvement on the usual, throwaway dross that usually passes for sex scenes – because they have substance, they're grounded in reality, and they always carry an emotional tenet, whether that's positively or negatively charged.
Red Vertigo is a strangely beautiful and life-affirming story, yet not exploitative at all. Takashi Ishii has created something magnificent, a porn movie with a proper plot, a strong and solid emotional subtext, told ultimately from an amazing woman's point of view, and whilst failing somewhat to be erotic, it's an extraordinary achievement: a truly feminist porn movie. It's a dazzlingly ambitious concept which succeeds on every level, a fascinating, ground-breaking movie in its genre, and one that has true heart and unprecedented love and respect for its female characters.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment Value - 7/10
Sex – squelch!/10 ;-)
Violence – 6/10
Artistic validity: 8/10
Visual Impact: 3/10
Strange Dream Sequences: 1
Nami: not having a very good day, despite what her horoscope might have said that morning
Films in a Similar Style: ummmmm... we'll get back to you if we think of any ;-)
*** Recommended ***
This film is being released by Artsmagic in early 2005. Screencaps were taken from a VHS transfer and are of significantly lower quality than the finished article.
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.artsmagicdvd.com/ and http://www.artsmagic.co.uk - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in 2005.
http://www.sanchodoesasia.com/sdj/sdj_angel_guts.php - Sancho does Asia with a review (French only)
http://www.jahsonic.com/Nikkatsu.html - really good, if out of date, overview of Nikkatsu (link to Google cache as site seems to be down)
http://shishido0.tripod.com/ - for another side of Nikkatsu, this site is devoted to their 50s and 60s cheesy action movies