Yasuzo Masumura may be practically unknown to the west, but he is quite famous and respected in Japan, with filmmakers like Shinji Aoyama and Nagisa Oshima considering him as one of the precursors of the Japanese New Wave of the sixties, and one of the most important creators in postwar Japan. Irezumi is of the first films that established his exploitation style, which was later implemented in his most well known ones, like “Hanzo the Razor: The Snare” and “Blind Beast.”
Based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki and scripted by the great Kaneto Shindo, the story revolves around a true femme fatale named Otsuya, a daughter of a rich merchant. In the beginning of the film, she persuades her lover, Shinsuke to betray her father, who has helped him a lot and considers him a trusted associate, and to elope with her. The two of them end up in Gonji’s Inn, where a series of unfortunate events take place. Gonji first leads Shinsuke away from the inn, where he has planned to t have him drunk and then assassinated, and then sells Otsuya to a pimp named Tokubei. While there, the young woman has a tattoo forcefully drawn on her back by a mysterious individual named Sekichi. The tattoo is one huge and onerous spider, which signifies that she belongs to Tokubei, who subsequently prostitutes her. However, Shinsuke manages to escape his fate and Otsuya turns her situation in her favor, becoming, in the process, a true and deadly “black widow.”
Masumura directs a film in distinct exploitation fashion, with much violence mixed with eroticism (although not nudity). Regarding the first factor, the scene includes some great fighting scenes, which are impressive as much as realistic, exemplifying how regular people fight to the death. Particularly the one in the woods in the rain is magnificent, benefiting the most from Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography and Kanji Suganuma’s editing, as is the case with the rest of the film. Masumura used a lot of interior shooting that resulted in quite a claustrophobic film, a sentiment that becomes even more intense during the fighting scenes, and particularly the final one, which is part of the great finale.
Regarding the second factor (eroticism) the film benefits the most from gorgeous Ayako Wakao’s presence as Otsuya, who emits sex appeal even when she has a tattoo drawn on her back or when she is beaten. Masumura based the film largely upon her, and she delivered in wonderful, femme fatale fashion. Akio Hasegawa is also great as the naive and shy Shinsuke, who becomes a pawn in the hands of Otsuya, who makes him repeatedly go against his nature, destroying him in the process.
“Irezumi” is an exploitation film of rare quality that will definitely satisfy fans of the genre, as it paved the way for the surge of the category that occurred in the 70’s.