Thursday, October 18, 2007

10/18: Blind Beast

Yasuzo Masumura's Blind Beast is a staggering example of Japanese pinku eiga cinema, a "pink film," part of the wave of sexploitation movies that swept over Japanese theaters in the late 60s. Of course, Masumura's take on this genre, which was often nothing more than soft porn, is as highly idiosyncratic and stylishly executed as anything in his filmography. The blind sculptor Michio (Eiji Funakoshi) kidnaps the beautiful model Aki (Mako Midori), in order to use her as the subject in his project to create a new art of touching. She resists in any way she can think of, finally using psychological manipulation to turn him against his clinging, overbearing mother (Noriko Sengoku), but she eventually warms to him, and the duo engage in an escalating orgy of sensation, in constant search for greater and greater pleasure and pain.

Masumura uses the simple, exploitation context of the story in order to layer on multiple meanings and ideas which are explored throughout the film. Most obvious of these, and least interesting, is the thick Freudian subtext. Michio is a virginal momma's boy who, before Aki's arrival, is content to explore sensation by becoming a masseur and creating sculptures of women's body parts. His warehouse studio is a phenomenally designed aggregation of these sculptures, the walls lined with disembodied body parts, organized by type — one wall is all lips, another all breasts. And in the center of the room are two tremendous nude bodies, which Aki helpfully points out indicate Michio's mother complex, a desire to be small in a woman's arms. Regardless of the Freudian implications, though, the set provides a stunning visual backdrop to the film. When Aki first wakes up after being kidnapped, she's bathed in total darkness and can't see her surroundings. Michio arrives with a flashlight and leads her — and the audience — on a terrifying tour of his studio's interior. As Aki flees from wall to wall, the blind sculptor advances, the beam of his light illuminating each wall in turn. We see a wall of huge ears, a wall with legs extended sinuously, a wall of arms writhing with their fingers contorted into strange poses.

Masumura and his art director Shigeo Mano had these sculptures made by a big team of art students, taking up most of their budget, but the effort clearly paid off. This is one of the most striking sets I've ever seen, and it is especially effective because of the way it externalizes the film's psychological conflicts. Michio is content in this bizarre room because it reduces the complexity of woman to dismembered parts, which he can caress in isolation, without dealing with the woman as a whole. Even his organization speaks to his inability to cope with actual humans; all the legs together, rather than all the parts of a single woman. The constant presence of these sculptures in the background means that the film is playing out in a giant reconstruction of Michio's mental landscape, writ large in the setting of the film.

The film also examines the nature of art itself, and it's surely tempting to see in Michio's manic quest for a new art, a parallel to Masumura's own career. For a director constantly obsessed with pushing boundaries and cramming his cinematic works with the most stunning imagery imaginable, there's a real link with Michio's desire to find new outlets for artistic expression, and new ways of expressing himself. The scenes where he's sculpting Aki's body, caressing her legs in order to learn their shape, establish the link between the physical act of sculpting, of creating, and the caresses of a lover. These deeply erotic scenes might be thought of as Masumura's own commentary on the sensory potential of art, and the artist's capacity to translate what he senses into new forms of expression.

Throughout the film, Masumura himself pushes the boundaries of expression, just as Michio does, in order to capture the complexities of the relationship between artist and subject. In the final twenty minutes, their relationship finally morphs as Aki softens her feelings towards her captors and they begin to develop a mutually parasitic relationship of violent sensual pleasure. I was initially wary of this change, abrupt and unexplained as it is, fearing that Masumura was merely indulging in a despicable male fantasy of rape engendering love. But it almost immediately becomes clear that this new turn of events is the logical development of the film's themes. Abandoning artwork, Michio and Aki engage in a total art of tactile sensation, their medium each other's bodies and their tools their own hands at first, and eventually whips, chains, and knives. Encased in total darkness (Aki is going blind too, in a somewhat heavy-handed metaphorical gesture), the duo caress and claw at each other, vampirically drinking each other's blood, in pursuit of the ultimate sensory pleasure. Masumura responds to this material by translating the couple's tactile excesses into an orgy of audiovisual sensations. Naked bodies blend into each other, set off from the darkness, blood flows freely and redly, and cries of mingled pain and pleasure ring out of the eerie quiet in the warehouse.

Blind Beast is a wild, powerful examination of eroticism, artistic expression, and the dangers associated with art at its extreme borders. As a channeling of pinku eiga material, it frequently verges into the lurid or the outright ridiculous — another risk of art at the edge — but its vivid imagery is constantly enthralling. Masumura takes his art right to the edge along with his characters, fearlessly following them into the abyss of sensual excess.


Filmbo said...

What are the chances. I just added this film to my queue not two seconds ago.

Ed Howard said...

Good choice! Fantoma's done a great job bringing Masumura to DVD. I can't think of any other director who makes such intelligent and complex exploitation films.

Troy Olson said...

I just watched this during the last week, Ed, and was fascinated by the film. I don't see much about it written in the blogosphere, so I was happy to see that you had written about a few years back.

As you point out, the set design is the star of the show here, enough in its own right to keep the viewer attentive for the first third of the film. The middle part starts to drag a bit as the subplot with the mother takes place.

But God, that ending. Wary as I was of the "falling in love with your rapist" aspect, at first, it soon became clear that Masumura wasn't pushing an all too familiar exploitation trope, instead using it as a mere plot point to delve into Aki and Michio's descent into madness and explore what can happen at the extremities of pleasure.

To my mind, it's the best representation of these themes I've seen in a film (again, because most films that deal with them are too often interested in the titillating aspects of such a thing).