Eiji Funakoshi and Mako Midori in The Blind Beast (1969)
Yasuzo Masumura, though still underrated in the West, is often labeled by critics as the kick-starter and leader of the Japanese New Wave, which also featured Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Parade Of Roses, 1969) and Nagisa Ôshima (In The Realm Of The Senses, 1976) - boldly distinctive filmmakers who challenged the social norm with exposé's of the throbbing underground movement, debauched sexual inhibition and starkly violent imagery. All of this can be traced back to Masumura and Blind Beast (also known as Môjû), which seems to directly prefigure the work of Ôshima. However, if there is truth to the fact that Masumura kick-started the wave we can partly credit it to his time in Rome, absorbing the culture of the Neorealist movement...
"My goal is to create an exaggerated depiction featuring only the ideas and
passions of living human beings. In Japanese society, which is essentially
regimented, freedom and the individual do not exist. The theme of Japanese
film is the emotions of the Japanese people, who have no choice but to live
according to the norms of that society... After experiencing Europe for two
years, I wanted to portray the type of beautifully vital, strong people I came
to know there." Masumura, speaking of his time in Rome.
Masumura studied filmmaking in the early 1950s at the Centro Sperimentale Cinematografico, and soaked up Italian culture in the midst of the Neorealist movement - which was, of course, partly inspired by the great Ozu - but these pictures were much more raw and honest, tapping into the psyche of the poor and working class with a freedom of speech unheard of in Japan, and often using non-professional actors to draw authenticity from the picture. One of the names associated with the movement is Fellini, whose I Vitteloni (1953) would likely have been viewed by Masumura, and whose pictures became more stylized, dreamlike and sexy as the years went on - his 8½ (1963) was released the year before Masumura's pink lesbian drama, the dangerously erotic Manji (1964).
Fast forward to 1969 and Masumura had served as an assistant director to Japanese legends such as Kenji Mizoguchi and Ichikawa Kon. He'd broken from what he saw as the confines of his country's cinema early in his directing career and this feature, based on the novel of the same name by Edogawa Rampo, was to be his most daring and provocative thus far. It tells the story of an artists model named Aki (Mako Midori) who is kidnapped by a blind sculptor named Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) in order to create his ultimate masterpiece - and convince the world that touch can be an art form. It begins as a quietly sensual film; the first ten minutes are largely without dialogue and mostly consist of voyeuristic scenes of Aki and Michio; at first she watches and derives pleasure from him fondling a sculpture of her at a nearby exhibition and the next scene sees him posing as a masseuse, and sensually rubbing her body for real. Straight away a link has been made between art and sex; Michio touches both his self-made and living subjects with the same passion and intensity - growing up under the domineering care of his protective mother (Noriko Sengoku), he does not know the touch of a woman, and has sealed himself off from the world in a dangerously hermetic cave where his sculptures of women - arms, legs, breasts, lips - protrude from the walls, and two giant models take up the floor space. Upon her capture Aki makes a note that the reason these figures are so large is because Michio made them from the point of view of a baby - his mother is the only woman he has ever known, so the models are in her image - and his perception of her links back to childhood, and being soothed and rocked in her arms. To say there are Oedipal undertones at play would be an understatement, but Aki is no innocent herself - after all, it was her who got turned on by the sight of somebody sexually embracing her even in the form of sculpture; scopophilia via narcissism, if you will. As the movie descends into debauched, psychosexual hell it could be said that Michio (who knows no better) has done nothing but unlock urges that were already present in Aki from the beginning. After all, why was she at the gallery in the first place? Her narration tells us it is for a meeting, but no such event is evidenced and how trustworthy any narrator is - especially when they're the protagonist - is up for debate.
Of course Aki does at first resist her captor and tries to escape - but she soon learns that in order to stay alive she must deceive him. She learns of his vulnerability and virginity (indeed, Michio is not a bad guy - just a psychologically damaged one who can't socially interact) and begins to seduce him - revealing her breasts in one chillingly erotic scene. Soon her deceit is exposed by Mother (whose relationship with her son also recalls Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960) and a violent argument ensues, resulting in the accidental death of Mother. As revenge Michio rapes Aki again and again until she enjoys it and falls in love with him for real. They make love day and night in the darkness of Michio's artistic dungeon and soon she begins to go blind too - her eyes atrophy with no natural light or beauty to stare upon. Eventually orgasm is not enough for her and she wants for more dangerous fulfillment, with the film ending in flagellation, vampirism, sado-masochistic torture and finally ritualistic, ecstatic double suicide. What's most interesting is not the build up to these events (claustrophobic stockholm thriller becomes philosophical drama and ends up as a full-on horror movie) but how Masumura portrays that final intrinsic link between art and death. Aki decides that she wishes to die at the hands of Michio by him chopping off her arms and legs - he fulfills her wish but just as he brings the hammer down on the knife below her shoulders and thighs we see not her body falling apart, but that of her sculpture. She has become one with her image. It's also fitting that the aesthetic of the film is completely captivating - shot with a painterly composition by DoP Setsuo Kobayashi, the framing and colour texturing is always impressive and creates a suitably gothic-inflected tone - surrounded in darkness, the film is intoxicating, titillating, terrifying and repulsive. Not exactly Mizoguchi then...