Monday, July 13, 2015
Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988)
With Jess Franco gone its safe to assume that Takashi Ishii is the most “free” filmmaker still working today. With the possible exception of Lars von Trier, its hard to think of another director making films with the type of complete artistic freedom that Ishii has, particularly for the past ten years. Of course this type of freedom can sometimes come at the expense of an audience and Ishii’s more recent output has divided viewers with many dismissing it as being over indulgent, obsessive and fetishistic yet its exactly those things that make Ishii one of the most exciting and consistently audacious filmmakers with films like Flower and Snake (2004), its 2005 sequel, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007) and Sweet Whip (2013) just to name a few. Had Ishii never directed a film his reputation would still be firmly in place as the man behind the Angel Guts manga series which would be turned into one of the most well known and financially lucrative Japanese exploitation, or “pink film” (“Pinku eiga”) series with most films featuring the “Angel Guts” moniker being made for the legendary Nikkatsu studio. Ishii wrote the films from stories based on his manga and eventually made his directorial debut with the fifth film in the series, Red Vertigo, easily the best in the series and a knockout debut which would only be a sign of things to come.
While working the night shift, nurse Nami is assaulted by two patients who attempt to rape her. In a state of shock, she rushes home only to find her photographer boyfriend cheating on her with one of his models. Even more distressed than before, Nami takes off on her bike but is struck accidentally by Muraki, a disgraced former stock broker with several people after him for stealing a large amount of cliental money from his firm. Nami comes too, only to find Muraki molesting her. After explaining his situation to Nami, and eventually hers to him, the two bond over their shared desperation and a bizarre romance begins to form between the two.
What’s bound to surprise many about Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Memai, 天使のはらわた 赤い眩暈) is Ishii’s approach and handling of the material. While the films instances of sexual violence are undeniably harsh as is the case with most pink films, those looking for a total sleaze fest will be sorely disappointed. Although the mere suggestion is enough to disgust most, the fact is that Red Vertigo is ultimately a love story about the preverbal “lost souls” beaten down by life who seem to find some solace in each others misery. What’s interesting is that Ishii’s doesn’t seem so much interested in answering the question of why Nami would want to begin a relationship with Muraki but rather exploring the slow development of the relationship which raises several possibilities as to what Nami’s reasoning is. Muraki’s mentality is equally ambiguous in the sense that its unclear if his constant apologies to Nami for his actions are legitimate but its also apparent that he’s in desperate need of a companion. What’s really incredible are the moments of sensitivity Ishii peppers amongst all the ugliness and despite how hard to take the directions taken by the narrative might be, there’s no question that Ishii is on Nami’s side. With this being his first film, Ishii lets known what will become his visual calling cards right off the bat with brilliant neon lighting, surrounding his characters with constant rainfall and a dose of surreality by way of a random dream sequence early on.
Its been mentioned many times before but Ishii’s original intensions when he began writing and drawing the Angel Guts series bears repeating. Numerous viewers have written the series off as being nothing more than sexist rape fantasies which is clearly painting with a broad brush. Ishii intended the series as a tribute to victimized women with the “Guts” in the series namesake referring to courage. According to Ishii, prior to his manga women were depicted as nothing but sex objects with no characterization. Ishii’s creation of Nami (the name of the female protagonists in all the comics and films) was in direct opposition to that in an attempt to write and draw a female character rooted in reality. A lot of the negative criticism directed towards the series, and Ishii’s films in general for that matter has primarily come from western critics while in Japan Ishii is celebrated by some as a feminist director which speaks to the differences in eastern and western views in regards to topics like the depictions of sexism and rape in the media. Red Vertigo was one hell of a way to make an entrance as a director, essentially establishing every narrative and visual motif Ishii would continue exploring and continues to explore to this day. Unquestionably one of the most important pink films from possibly the most important pink series and the debut of a true maverick.