AKA: Porno Jidaigeki: Bohachi bushido
Review By: David Austin
Bohachi Bushido is proof that, while Teruo Ishii might not always have brought the most disciplined and sophisticated visual sense to the table, when focused he was capable of some gorgeous work. Indeed, with Bohachi Bushido, Ishii shows he could be a match for the formal rigor of his colleague Norifumi Suzuki, usually by far the greater visual stylist as demonstrated in films like School of the Holy Beast and Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch Law Classroom.
Those familiar only with The Executioner series, where Ishii killed time by having Sonny Chiba pick his nose and put it in people’s drinks, will be shocked to learn that Bohachi Bushido comes from the same director. Ishii’s works have always been stagy, but here his direction tips over the line into full-blown theatrical. Characters scheme and declaim their lines as if in a Kabuki drama. Even his images of the classic Yoshiwara red light district of Edo (pre-Meiji restoration Tokyo) are drawn as if from an old ukiyoe print, with crowded horizontal planes filled with bars, theaters, and pleasure-seekers.
The entire film is stylized, with rarely a “realistic” moment. Ishii leads off with a battle that would not be out of place in the Lone Wolf and Cub films. The cold open finds us in media res as the protagonist faces off with his enemies in a highly dramatic fashion a cartoonishly backlit bridge. Slow motion is heavily utilized, as are geysers of blood. Ishii even makes a comical point of spinning the cast names out of splattering blood, dismembered bodies and sparks from shattered samurai swords, foreshadowing the seminal opening credits of Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer. Later battles showcase such eye-poppers as eight nude female killers taking on a ninja armed with a chain dagger in a field at night.
The plot is something of a clothes-hanger. Savvy viewers, familiar with the comics of writer Kazuo Koike, upon whose work this film is based, already will have some idea of what to expect. Koike, author of the original manga Lone Wolf & Cub, Lady Snowblood, and Hanzo the Razor, is a maestro of sex and violence, creating gory but intelligent samurai masterpieces that were adapted into some of the key works of Japanese grindhouse cinema of the 1970s (as the above titles should make clear). Here Ishii combines Koike’s violent aesthetic with a narcotized dreamlike atmosphere that would not be out of place in an Italian horror film.
The film is set among the Bohachi yakuza subculture of panderers and pimps in the Yoshiwara. The Bohachi – “beasts masked in human skin” – acquire and train prostitutes in a highly ritualistic and fetishistic fashion. They are presented as a fascinatingly contrary group. While the most amoral of the Yakuza tribes, they nevertheless are strictly wedded to a code. However, their code, their ethos, is expressed solely in negation. The Bohachi’s vows require the abandonment of loyalty, trust, shame, etc. – the “Forgotten Eight Virtues.” The story is as much about their customs and ways as it is about the “plot.” In that sense, it is classic Koike - the writer relished dissecting the criminal strata of Tokugawa-era Japan.
The lead, played by Tetsuro Tamba, is Shino, an aimless assassin. It is a rare starring role for the prolific Tamba, who excelled at cameos. Here Tamba shares central stage with a hairpiece that goes way past ridiculous. Shino becomes embroiled in the Bohachi’s schemes to control all of the Yoshiwara by punishing all johns and prostitutes who fail to pay their dues to the Bohachi.
In addition to Tamba, Bohachi Bushido stars a number of other Japanese genre stalwarts. The Bohachi’s second-in-command, Kesazo Shirakubi, is played by Goro Ibuki (of the superb Battles Without Honor and Humanity series) in wonderfully surreal fashion. Shirakubi makes no secret of his intentions to profit from Shino’s downfall and his willingness to perform any act necessary. Perhaps as a result, Shirakubi comes off as a worthy and even ambiguously appealing adversary. Ibuki and Tamba share one of the film’s best moments – a gun versus sword showdown featuring a spotlight and faux slow-motion that is one of Ishii’s most effective in-camera tricks.
Boss Shirobei of the Bohachi is played by the distinctive Tatsuo Endo, who specialized in such roles as evil authority figures, be they Yakuza Oyabuns, clan elders or corrupt politicians. Endo is one of those actors whose name you might not know, but whose face you have seen a thousand times. And finally, the ninja who takes on the pack of naked beauties is Ryohei Uchida, who had a similarly busy career in Yakuza films.
Bohachi Bushido almost could pass for a Criterion-approved Kihachi Okamoto masterpiece like Sword of Doom or a Hideo Gosha film but for the sheer volume of naked flesh on display and the tongue-in-cheek approach to the material. Indeed, Bohachi Bushido actually achieves the odd effect of making nudity commonplace. Almost every frame of the film is so packed with naked women that breasts become background noise. You can see it in the resignation on star Tetsuro Tamba’s face – “ What, more naked women running around? Oh, if we must.” Of course, that blasé attitude may reflect more on Tamba’s lifestyle than any on the film.
Recommended? I had low expectations for this one, especially given the title “Porno Jidaigeki” or “Pornographic Period Piece.” I did not find it to be pornographic, though it is quite sleazy, and I was pleasantly surprised to find one of Ishii’s better films.
If you like this, you might like: Lone Wolf & Cub, Lady Snowblood, Hanzo the Razor, Female Convict Scorpion, Sword of Doom
DVD Production Company: Discotek (www.discotekmedia.com)
Discotek’s 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen print looks gorgeous. The disc also contains a number of interesting extras. First up are two essays, liner notes by Chris D. of American Cinematheque and a discussion of the screening of the film at a recent retrospective by film critic Mark Schilling. Also included are two interviews – one with Yuriko Hishimi who plays a prominent woman of the Bohachi in the film and another by J-Taro Sugisaku, contributor to a book on Toei Pinky Violence. Sugisaku also participates in an audio commentary with cult director/writer Takao Nakano. Finale there are lengthy excerpts from the original manga provided for comparison purposes and a photo gallery with a number of stills from the film as well as shots of director Ishii and his notes on the film. Also included are trailers for a number of Discotek releases.
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and DVD Reviews and DVD Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and Rating: Average ★★ and DVD Companies: Discotek and People: Teruo Ishii and Studios: Toei and People: Tetsuro Tamba