Review: Irezumi (1966)

Directed by Yasuzô Masumura and written by Kaneto Shindô, a woman gets kidnapped and sold into prostitution, after being forced to get a spider tattoo made on her back, she grows vengeful, leaving several men in her path. Starring: Ayako Wakao, Akio Hasegawa, Gaku Yamamoto, Kei Satô, Fujio Suga, Reiko Fujiwara and Asao Uchida.

For a film made in this time period you’d be reasonable for expecting a certain amount of predictability, a high use of sexism, rape and assault and yet, in a delightfully pleasant surprise, Irezumi bucks all of those norms. The writing is utterly brilliant, creating this fantastically sadistic, determined and resilient woman, who is a classic puppet master of men. It’s a huge departure from the films of its time, so much so that it’s a concept that’s still thrilling to see in action in films created over fifty years later. It’s an entrancing blend of emotional manipulation, fatally underestimating women and the feeling of a grand scheme in place that you have to slowly figure out.

It can get a little silly or farcical at times but that feels owing to its time, the choreography had much different expectations than that of a modern audience and now falls foul of looking melodramatic rather than dangerous. With that exception, the direction is colourful and it keeps a consistent pace that’s neither fast nor slow. It feels almost structured like chapters in a book, with each new appearance of its male characters and what role they will play in Otsuya’s (Wakao) game. Its real strength is that it puts focus where it needs to be, there’s no distraction from this story, it doesn’t need any flare or frill.

Ayako Wakao’s performance is fantastic, undoubtedly one of the most underrated portrayals by an actress out there. It’s so wonderfully contained and precise, she starts out with this very melodramatic edge but as it’s revealed what kind of person she is, she becomes extremely level-headed and in complete control. Akio Hasegawa is the completely opposite as Shinsuke, starting out in a form of control and following a steep decline of self-hatred and lost principles. The whole cast provide a mix of characters, even though the men do have similar characteristics, there’s just enough difference in their personalities and the decisions they make to set them apart.

Irezumi succeeds because unlike most 1960s films, it held back, it added a tinge of darkness, lust and violence to drive its story but never plays anything heavy-handedly. The creation of Otsuya in cinematic history is something that should be inherently more celebrated, a sincerely intelligent, manipulative, controlling and sadistic female character in the 1960s is an outlier to say the least. Especially one who never experiences outright sexism, past the usual underestimation which clearly helps to serve her character’s dark intentions. It’s an entrancing experience, dipping its toes in many different ponds to bring together a story that’s gripping, clever and satisfying.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯½

Available now on Arrow Player

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