A once-wealthy businessman finds himself in dire financial straits. To pay off his debts, he uses his beautiful, tango dancing wife Shizuko as currency. Now in the hands of a 95-year-old lecher known as “Showa Prince of Darkness”, Shizuko finds herself in the throes of sexual abuse and psychological .
This stunning and disturbing feature from writer/director Takashi Ishii (Evil Dead Trap, Angel Guts) is a nightmarish blend of fetishism and art.
Hana to hebi (2004) 6.75
eyelights: Aya Sugimoto. its beautifully framed shots. its sets and locations.
eyesores: its thin script. the BDSM. the CGI.
“Do as they say, or you’ll never leave this hell.”
The 1974 version of ‘Hana to hebi’ (also known as ‘Flower and Snake’) is a BDSM cult classic. Released in 1974, it is credited for ushering in what’s called the “S&M Roman Porno” era of Japanese cinema which saved the Nikkatsu Corporation, Japan’s oldest movie studio.
I only heard about it because of its 2004 remake featuring Aya Sugimoto, who also stars in another film I had my eye on, ‘Johnen: Sada no ai’ – which is indirectly related to ‘Ai no Korîda‘, one of my all-time favourite films. I saw the remake first, years ago.
And I didn’t like it. Not. One. Bit.
The remake of ‘Hana to hebi’ recounts the story of Shizuko Toyama, a renowned and glamourous Japanese dancer, who is kidnapped by a crime boss after her husband refuses to pay a hefty ransom for keeping a shady business deal quiet. For days, she is forced into sex slavery.
Firstly, I’m no great fan of rape fantasies; even though I know that some women genuinely get turned on by the thought (not the real thing!), I just don’t find forcing anyone titillating. Secondly, I’m not even remotely turned on by BDSM; I’m neither into power games or pain.
So, clearly, I’m not ‘Hana to hebi’s target audience.
While the 1974 version had an undercurrent of humour, which helped to balance the picture and make the gritty stuff palatable, the 2004 version has no sense of humour whatsoever – it’s all about humiliation, degradation, and psychological and sexual torture.
It does have a few redeeming values, however, starting with the quality of its visuals: while it was shot on video, not film, writer-director Takashi Ishii had an eye for framing his shots, for making even the unpalatable look gorgeous – especially the intricate rope bondage.
He also picked some eye-catching locations to work in and had an impressive set built for the so-called “Coliseum” part of the picture, in which Shizuko’s mind and body are violated endlessly. It’s just a large room draped in black and with a stage, but it looks stunning.
Clearly, Ishii has an artistic eye.
Finally, there’s Aya Sugimoto, who is so incredibly beautiful that she brings class to what could otherwise be a rather crass and vile production. While I despised seeing what she was subjected to, I wasn’t at all displeased to see her in the flesh in countless instances.
There were even a few sexy scenes, like when Shizuko, after an extended period of disconnection from her alcoholic spouse, rebuilds their bonds and makes love with him. The way he fondled her was a bit rough for my taste, but the sequence was otherwise shot in an alluring way.
Most of the rest, however, is hard to watch. At least, for me. Even Shizuko’s dream of acupuncture involves pain, with the needles stabbing her nipples. And watching her get splayed in uncomfortable positions, crucified, groped and poked by hooded men as she wept was soul-wrenching.
And, frankly, there’s not much to ‘Hana to hebi’ but this: once the stage is set and Shizuko is kidnapped, the only subplots involved her bodyguard also being kidnapped, to contrive her submission, and her husband’s eventual effort to buy her back. And these are just blips.
Really, most of the film is plotless. It’s all about watching this woman gets violated, as Tashiro looks on.
Some people will dig this kind of fodder (the fact that there have been at least four versions of the original story and six sequels, including four for this film alone, confirms this), but it’s really not my thing. It’s undeniably got some artistic quality, but that’s just not enough.
Personally, I love to see women who are empowered by their own sexuality, not enslaved by someone else’s.
Date of viewing: April 1, 2016