Irezumi (1966) Movie review

Irezumi is a Japanese word for a traditional tattoo, so judging by the title and movie poster, I guessed this movie probably has something to do with tattoos. Furthermore, the movie was inspired by the novel of the same title, written by Junichiro Tanizaki. Yasuzo Masamura directed the movie, and according to the list on IMDB, he favored lead female characters in his long career of filmmaking.

The story begins with a girl in a kimono, tied with ropes, rolling on the wooden floor during the night when someone approached with a lantern. In the following conversation, we learn the basic idea of the plot. The rare beauty of the girl enchanted a man, which provoked him to reward her with a special gift. He then takes an opium bottle, drugs her, pulls out his artist tools like needles, ink, and goes to work on her back. An eerie score of oscillating metal pipes in the background brings a sense of horror to the scene. This tune appears throughout the movie in specific moments when tension rises. The girl grunts and moans while the tattoo artist breaks in sweats, trying to create an irezumi of a spider with a girl‘s head. Her skin is a perfect canvas for the last masterpiece an artist created. The mystery behind why he did that, who the girl is, and how she does not show fear lured me into the story.


Shortly after the opening scene, the director takes us to the place where the real story begins. An intro tells us what the movie is about, similar to a blurb but not explaining the movie. She got a tattoo, and what happens next is an actual story. I will have to mention that tattoos in Japanese culture are seen as bad, reserved only for Yakuza, criminals, and outsiders. This stigma around body decoration is still present in Japan, but it is slowly changing in modern times.


The order of scenes after the opening is linear, easy to follow and understand. I have seen directors struggling to portray art with abstract, inconsistent storytelling methods, but this „Shock first, then tell the story“ fits the topic better than other forms of filming. There is also a theme of framing choices, which is probably borrowed or copied from Hollywood. Speaking of Hollywood, the structure, concept, and style looks more western than eastern, which tells me that Irezumi was a joint project of American and Japanese movie studios. Japan provided the story, idea, artists, and shooting locations, while America provided technology, knowledge, and logistics. Whatever the agreement was, the production value and visual appeal are perfect, just like storytelling and performance.


The leading role was given to the brilliant actress Ayako Wakao who plays a pawnshop owner‘s daughter Otsuya. Her performance borders the iconic roles of Meryl Streep and other actresses of similar rank. All other roles were for men who were somewhat pushed to the background but equally present in the scenes. Characters like Shinsuke, Otsuya‘s partner, or Seikichi, a tattoo artist, are there only to compliment the female lead and help us understand the developing situation. In the older days, Japanese production, when sourcing out from other works like novels, tales from history, or borrowing elements from the culture, followed the source to the letter, so I assumed the same was afoot in this movie. The way the scenes were aligned and how the movie progresses brings the literary spirit of reading more than watching the movie.


The tale of Otsuya, a runaway girl kidnapped into prostitution, tells us a tale of a scorned woman looking for revenge. Men she encounters portray wolves in sheep clothing, a cause for her misery and a cause for brutal manipulation to the end goal. The same could not be said for her fiancé Shinsuke, who is positioned as a weak, extremely dubious, and insecure pawnshop assistant. His purpose in this movie was to be a catalyst for other events until his role changed into a more critical character. As she becomes known by her geisha name Somekichi, Otsuka is a stubborn, emancipated, and goal-driven woman. Everything that happens is by her own will and design. Running away from home was her idea, while Shinsuke is a coward, a boy coming from a low-income family, and an obedient servant to his beloved girlfriend. These two characters could not be apart from one another, so how come these two came together? It is hard to give a correct answer to this question, but one might guess that Otsuya took him because he is easily manipulated. This is why you need to love Otsuya‘s character. She is aware of her beauty and knows how to use it to her advantage. Every time she gets crossed under the impression that men control her, the situation pivots to her benefit, and innocent bystanders get hurt.


This story can be observed as a battle of determination, confidence, and desires on a higher level. Sporadic male roles aim to win Otsuya as if she is a grand prize, while Otsuya only wants to get what is best for her. She does not have a moral dilemma if a better suitor comes into play, so she will cut ties and leave with someone else. That is why every dialogue with her, every interaction she gets, is where she becomes dominant, even if her foe is many times stronger and influential. This „Strong female“ trope is executed perfectly, a better alternative than a tomboy trope we see in modern movies. Otsuka is feminine, seductive, but harsh, composed, and direct at the same time.

„Beauty is a weapon“ can be a phrase that sums up the movie; however, it is much more than that. La fem fatal, fatal beauty, call it by any name you like; we have seen this trope in Nikita, Fifth element, and other films with attractive female leads. For comparison, I would go further and call this movie „Black Widow before Black Widow. “ Speaking of spiders, why is that irezumi tattoo of a spider essential and how it comes to play? Otsuka gets this tattoo in the first third of the movie, closer to the halfway mark. The same scene from the opening plays again, but this time we get to see a more protracted process of making the mark on her back. The owner of the geisha house explains the motive of a spider with a girl‘s head. He sees this irezumi as a prophecy or a guarantee paper of profit when Otsuya becomes Somekichi. Geisha owner interprets the mark and Otsuya‘s purpose as weaving a web for easy targets, in which the spider will cast a spell on them and run their pockets dry. His new employee disagrees and becomes a different type of spider, the one who will poison the prey, devour the men, and survive.


Otsuka becomes focused after she gets the irezumi. It is understandable since her life before the painful procedure and after are different. She realizes that people will never accept her for her tattoo that takes her whole back, so the only natural choice is to play along and keep moving. Otsuya‘s manipulator side is in full swing, weaving the web, luring in the prey, using them as pawns for grander goals than they can imagine. This woman is frequently called „man-eater“, which describes her new function in the world of men. If men in this movie represent humanity’s evil nature, and Otsuya outplays them, who is a more significant threat? Otsuka wins every battle, so evil men transform in her playing things. With this plot development, we get two separate flows. One flow is superficial, and it aims to show how badly women were treated in the old days. In the other flow, the story is based on exploring where the monsters dwell. The only victim in this masterpiece is Shinsuke, Otsuya‘s fiancé, who does things against his will. This victimization is better showed in fightings scenes because he is always around when the story culminates. An explanation for the calamities, ill fortune, and sour destiny is subscribed to spider irezumi. Even the artist who needled it under Otsuya‘s skin suffers the curse flowing within the ink. Seikichi, the tattoo artist, suffers more because he stopped making irezumi, stopped sleeping, and eating while his mind is racing with thoughts and desire to awe at his last work. The end is somewhat predictable but welcome and poetic for Japanese drama.


Lighting is well thought out and used splendidly so that we do not miss details. Perhaps the remastering process amplified the colors, lighting, contrast, and details, so the original could be a few shades darker. Still, we can see the irezumi clearly, since this tattoo is occasionally shown. This means that the actress had to be naked from the waist up. She always turns back to the camera, which takes all nudity away. Otsuya‘s beauty can only be seen on her face and back, but nothing more than that. Love and sex scenes are shot from different angles, cut so that no erotic zones are off screen. An actor and actress are hugged tight so that their upper bodies are visible.


Fight scenes are also well made but acted out with clearly dramatic effect, so a strike is more of a swing and miss. When katanas come into play, the same still stands, and the movements remained overly dramatic. Proportionally, there is an equal measure of action and sex scenes, which are quick and straight to the point, so there is more space for the story to develop.


Japanese culture is rich and very interesting to explore. With this movie, we can experience a fragment of what it is like to live a geisha life, a shogun‘s samurai, a traditional tattoo artist, and more. I found Irezumi as a brilliant depiction of perfect drama and how one movie should be made. If I had to rate it, Irezumi would get 9 out of 10 stars in my book of films I watched. I would like to recommend this artistic work to every cinema junky and ask you to recommend what other movie I should write about for my next review.

This was my review of Irezumi, a Japanese movie from 1966. I enjoyed the storytelling, and learned something about the vast Japanese culture. My catalogue of Eastern movies I’ve seen is moderate for someone who periodically watches the films, and not dive deep into it to learn more. I recommend to everyone to steer from Hollywood from time to time, and experience different art styles. I would suggest to everyone who likes movies to search for “Millennium Saga”, or better known as “A girl with a dragon tattoo”, from Danish production, the original one, not the American because there’s also an American version. Overall, go out there, and watch good movies, since western production is slowly, but surely hitting the creative block.

This is all from me. Let me know what else I can write about for the next month’s post, and see you at the nighttime blabbering.

Shawn

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