Director: Yasuzo Masumura
Notable Cast: Ayako Wakao, Akio Hasegawa, Gaku Yamamoto, Kei Sato, Fujio Suga, Asao Uchida, Reiko Fujiwara, Kikue Mori, Jun Fujikawa, Tadashi Iwata
“We go to hell together!”
Arrow Video’s continuation to release incredible pieces of Japanese cinema remains one of the best things that the label is currently pursuing. Whether or not the sales reflect the brilliance of their choices is something that remains to be seen, but if there’s a title announced on the line up - mark my words, it’s one to add to your collection. With their release of Irezumi, one of those fantastic pieces of cinema too often overlooked by more mainstream cinephiles, Arrow does it again. Not only is the restoration and presentation of the film incredible, Irezumi is one of those slices of subversive arthouse exploitation that serves to continually remind everyone - myself included - that the amount of top-notch cinema that exists in the world is far more than one could expect.
Following the exploits of a young couple in a historic era Japan as they attempt to run away and find love with one another far from the craziness of their lives, Irezumi is borderline a character study mixed with relationship drama that fringes on horrific thriller with just a few dabs of social commentary. Director Yasuzo Masumura, a director that I previously mentioned in my coverage for Black Test Car/The Black Report as one that I was eager to explore, finds a true balance between all of the genre elements and its foundational dramatic weight.
The artistry of his choices visually, in pacing, and through the design becomes blatantly apparent from the first scene - where a psychotic tattoo artist knocks a young woman unconscious and proceeds to tattoo a spider woman across her entire back. This is just the start of a film that may have easily fallen into its own spider’s web of exploitation elements, ensnaring its strengths for the sake of delivering on its slightly supernatural colored proceedings. Although the film does feature a woman forced into prostitution and her lover forced to kill a man in defense when trying to find her, Irezumi never leans too far towards the gimmicks. It’s a refreshingly subdued approach to the proceedings, particularly after the mass of Teuro Ishii films that have been part of Arrow Video’s line up in recent years, and one that maximizes the artistic talents of its creative forces.
The performances, particularly the dynamic work of lead actress Ayako Wakao as the tattooed young woman attempted to fight for power in a system built against her, are deeply layered to add to the dense viewing. When the young couple come back together in the latter part of the film, their journeys have darkened their outlook on life, yet have given them strength as survivors that ultimately lead them on a path to be consumed by the insanity of the world they desperately tried to flee in the first place. The choice to slather Wakao’s Otsuya in luscious reds and yellows in a mostly naturalistically designed film, the gorgeous snow of the first act, or the tense life and death battle against a corrupt brothel owner all pop from the film’s relatively intentional pacing and narrative flow. It’s an impressive balancing act that Masumura executes expertly. Whether its moments of introspective silence or a gorgeously shot silhouetted brawl in the rain, Irezumi has something for everyone.
Irezumi is one of those films that saunters down the line between arthouse depth and genre style entertainment with finesse and confidence. Masumura crafts an incredible cinematic story with expert precision, using his stacked cast, penchant for incredible visual depth, and nuanced script to deliver one of those diamond films forgotten with time. The release is a gem too, featuring a spectacular commentary from David Desser, a Tony Rayns introduction, and a video essay on the film’s stunning cinematography.
Irezumi might be a film that’s too often overlooked, but don’t this time around. It’s a worthy addition to any cinephile’s collection - art or grindhouse.