The late 1960s were a high-water mark in Japanese cinema. The production companies had come into their own following the postwar rebuilding of the 1950s and several genres distinct to Japan had a hold on the market. Chambara, the sword fight movie, was Japan's answer to American westerns and they were extremely popular. Daiei (although hemorrhaging money and nearly bankrupt) was the king, of Chambara at this time, with their Zatoichi series. Shochiku Studios copied the blind swordsman formula with The Crimson Bat, and Toei leapt into the sword swinging fray with three Legends of the Poisonous Seductress films. While Ohyaku, the anti-heroine of the film isn't blind, she's still a social outcast and damaged like her sightless counterparts. The series only ran for three films (sort of like the Crimson Bat), but Toei would go on to make literally hundred more Chambara films after Daiei was mired in bankruptcy (though Zatoichi would live on as a popular television series).
Legend of the Poisonous Seductress: Female Demon Ohyaku, which I will simply call Ohyaku 1 for the rest of this review, takes a different tack than either Zatoicho or Crimson Bat in that it offers one of the first chambara films where sex and sensuality is integral to the part. In Japan this is known as "pink" cinema.
We meet Ohyaku (Junko Miyazono)as a four year old child when her mother attempts suicide with young Ohyaku in tow (she jumps off a bridge). The child survives but is marked with a deep scar on her back. We meet her later as she's a performer in a traveling carnival. Her specialty seems to be walking the tightrope. She is also expected to work as a prostitute for any important audience members who might be in attendance.
But Ohyaku isn't satisfied with her rotten lot in life and decides to give up the hooker angle much to the dismay of the carnival owner. She balks at the advances of the Intendant, Minokichi, and gets herself fired. She meets a handsome samurai during her last performance who saves her when the boss, pissed that he won't be getting any, tries to kill her.
The samurai, Shinkuro, falls almost instantly in love with Ohyaku too, but doesn't make a move on her. He's got a little gang of his own together and plans to rob the regional coin minter of his raw gold. To do this he's befriended one of the assistants at the mint as an inside man. Shinkuro checks in with the local gang boss who warns them against trying to rob the mint as it cost him an arm twenty years ago. But, he still agrees not to interfere with their plan.
Shinkuro's men, rob the mint and hide the raw gold, then in what will be the first of several double crosses, his inside man turn them all in. Everyone but Ohyaku and Shinkuro are killed and the pair are arrested. They are sentenced to death by the Intendant who uses Ohyaku as part of a guillotine contraption into which Shinkuro is tied.
After Shinkuro's death she's shipped off to an island prison/gold mine where she's expected to work until she dies (life expectancy in the mine, six months). There she meets Bunzo, the badass of the prison who sort of takes her under his wing. He still tries to rape her, as the Intendent does, but at least he keeps the others from doing the same over and over again which is what she was expecting.
Ohyaku's rage can't stay bottled up for long. She wants off the island and to exact revenge on everyone who played a part in Shinkuro's death. To do that she needs to coerce her way out, and the warden's wife might be just the ticket.
To fully describe the plot would take a lot of the fun away from watching the movie without being sure what was going to happen next. And there's a whole lot of zig-zaggy plot points and characters to consider in this film. More than it needs really (but that's for another review).
What sets this film apart from its similar offerings from other studios is the increasingly dark and hopeless vibe that it has. Nothing good ever happens to Ohyaku, and you can see her getting crazier and crazier as the circumstances of her shitty life literally drive her insane. Yet it's impossible not to be sympathetic as she was so clearly wronged from pretty much her fourth birthday on. The other aspect is the sex and sensuality. There's a lot of rape in this film, but none of it is titillating, perhaps because these scenes were meant to show a contrast between the men (representing society) and Ohyaku (representing women). The sensuality is reserved for the lesbian scenes (few that there are) and the extended sequences when Ohyaku's tattoo is being created to cover her scar.
As for the other aspects of the film –
The swordplay is about average, where I keep the Zatoichi films as my high water mark for the golden age of Chambara, this rates below it but it's still well executed, i.e. the actors look like they have had some real training.
Although the film is shot in black and white (a rarity for all but the poorest studios in 1968/69) it's still gore heavy and lit like a classic noir.
Toshiaki Tsushima's score is a nice mix of traditional instruments and modern symphonic film music, and as is so often the case in chambara, this one doesn't become overly dominating very often (it does in a few scenes though). Still, good score, I'd buy it on CD.
Synapse offers Ohyaku 1, as well as the two sequels, in beautifully remastered widescreen with original Japanese and English subs. The DVD offers trailers for all three films, and a commentary track (that I could not find anywhere). The case has reversible artwork with the original theater poster (which is nice) and a short paper essay on women in chambara film which is pointless.
I'd like to ask all distributors to put a moratorium on this sort of waste paper. There is no reason you can't put this information as a text file on the DVD, with photos even, that way we won't hurl it into the trash as soon as we open the case.
Nits about paper aside, these are great releases for fans of pinky violence/chambara films and offers are rare anti-heroine who though insane and murderous, is still compelling and sympathetic.