Monday, August 24, 2015

Flower and Snake II (2005)

The history of the Flower and Snake films can be a bit convoluted when it comes to films considered “official” adaptations or films which were simply loosely inspired by Oniroku Dan’s original S&M novel. By far the most well known and critically regarded film based on Dan’s book is the 1974 Nikkatsu version starting Naomi Tani, however the 60’s saw its fair share of “Flower and Snake” films, some of which even had  Tani and Dan’s involvement like Flower and Snake Continued: Red Torture (1968) and Flower and Snake: Rearing the Flesh (1968). Of course the 1974 film also inspired a series of follow-up’s such as Sketch of Hell (1985), White Uniform Rope Slave (1986) and Final Rope Torture (1987). Not that Takashi Ishii could ever be accused of following tradition, but it only made sense that he follow his 2004 interpretation of the novel with a sequel. Ishii’s take on the material shattered several of Japan’s taboo’s when it comes to film censorship and having a lead actress like Aya Sugimoto in such a role caused a bit of a stir but the films notoriety wasn’t for naught as its blew all other vitiations on the story out of the water. Flower and Snake II saw Ishii once again craft a film more than worthy of standing alongside the first as well as go above and beyond the expectations of its genre.

Following the death of Oikawa, a famous painter, Takayoshi Toyama, a renowned art critic and confidant of Oikawa receives a CD featuring several S&M based paintings by Oikawa never before seen by the public. Thinking the paintings would go for good prices on the black market, Toyama sends his much younger wife Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto) to Paris to commission Ryoosuke Ikegami, a young painter whom Toyama once sponsored to recreate the paintings. Ikegami agrees on the condition that Shizuko be his model. Reluctant at first, Shizuko agrees and becomes not only Ikegami’s muse but his lover as well, revealing a hidden side of herself as she becomes more acquainted with the underground world of sadomasochism.  

Flower and Snake II (Hana to hebi 2, 花と蛇2 パリ/静子) does what any proper sequel should do which is retain the spirit of the original film (even carrying over the names Toyama and Shizuko) while bringing something new to the table. While a fairly good psychological portion of the first film dealt with hidden sadomasochistic desires and the bonds of marriage, here that seems to be Ishii’s main concern as its those ideas which come to the forefront with some voyeurism thrown into the mix as well. Its a well detailed story and although some of the intricacies of the plot may take more than one viewing to fully reveal themselves, Ishii takes the film full circle with a clever and fairly twisted romantic twist. Stylistically the film differs from the first in that it feels much more rougher, featuring lots of hand held camera work, at times feeling almost Lars von Trier-esque as opposed to the refined composition of the first film. That’s not to say the film is lacking in the visual department. On the contrary, Ishii creates several (appropriately) painterly sequences, the centerpiece of the film being a jaw dropping auction scene where Sugimoto reenacts the S&M scenarios in the paintings and a fantasy sequence early in the film recalls the sadistic phantasmagoria of the first film. Sugimoto once again goes above and beyond the call of duty in terms of physical performance, throwing herself into the role with abandon proving just how admirable and dedicated a performer she is.

Naturally there was to be another sequel five years later with Flower and Snake 3 (2010) which was in turn followed by Flower and Snake: Zero (2014). Before those films however there was incredibly although not unsurprisingly an anime version entitled Flower and Snake: The Animation (2006). Unfortunately neither of the two live action films were directed by Ishii nor did any feature Sugimoto. This film also marked their last collaboration which is a shame as they made for the perfect director/muse pairing with Sugimoto willing to follow Ishii down any fetishistic rabbit role. Its funny to think that when Ishii’s first film was made Oniroku Dan was unsure about Sugimoto playing the lead due to the films content which amazingly proved to be too strong even for Dan! Sugimoto has gone on recording saying she chased the role and as long as Ishii was the director she would do anything for it. The results in both films speak for themselves. Sugimoto has had quite the interesting career from being a model, J-Pop singer, actress, and writer. Hopefully another film with Ishii will happen at some point down the road. While Flower and Snake II is a good enough film to stand on its own, when paired with Ishii’s first film, both stand as examples of what’s possible with material that has been filmed several times before with the right artist behind it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Flower and Snake (2004)

One of the most famous, if not the most famous S&M novel in Japan, Oniroku Dan’s Flower and Snake established Dan as Japan’s number one writer of S&M based fiction and is easily ranked alongside the likes of other S&M classics such as Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Anne Desclos’ (Pauline Réage) Story of O, and Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s (Jean de Berg) The Image. There have been numerous films either based on Dan’s book or inspired by it going back to the 60’s but perhaps the most famous film version of the book was made by the Nikkatsu corporation in 1974 staring the queen of pink herself Naomi Tani. This film has widely been credited with saving Nikkatsu from bankruptcy and as a result of its success led to an entire series of sadomasochistic pink films and although Dan objected to the changes made to his story, so much so that he refused to be involved in the making of Wife to be Sacrificed (1974), he would later give Nikkatsu the rights to other stories of his. Other Flower and Snake films would follow and the novel would eventually be re-worked again in 2004 with Takashi Ishii, a true master, at the helm. Flower and Snake was somewhat of a new beginning for Ishii and would not only become a career defining film but it also broke new ground in the field of S&M films.

After having some shady past business dealings uncovered, successful business man Takayoshi Toyama finds himself in serious debt to the yakuza. Toyama is given two options, either pay the money or offer his wife Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto) a popular tango danger whom the yakuza boss is quite fond of as a form of payment. Upon discovering that the boss in question is in his 90’s, Toyama figures there’s little risk and agrees for Shizuko to be “borrowed”, however he quickly regrets his decision when Shizuko is kidnapped and finds herself the main attraction in the “coliseum”, a secret club operated by the yakuza where the rich and powerful indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies.

Reaching levels of artistry both visually and thematically that other films of this sort wouldn’t even attempt to reach with a lesser talent behind the camera, Flower and Snake (Hana to hebi, 花と蛇) easily transcends the usual “exploitation” and “pink film” genre tags that are normally attached to it, although Ishii clearly never forgets what type of genre he’s working in. Whereas past films saw Ishii dealing with the damaged psychology of his female protagonists, Flower and Snake differs in that the character of Shizuko’s mental state isn’t damaged, yet there is clearly a side of her that’s yet to come to the forefront and Ishii uses sadomasochism to explore that side of Shizuko as well as examine the state of Shizuko and Toyama’s marriage. Visually the film sees Ishii as a manga artist turned phantasmagoric painter with the elaborate S&M set pieces of the coliseum crossing over into surreal territory with the centerpiece being an astonishing montage of Sugimoto dressed in traditional geisha garb in a series of rope bondage scenarios culminating in a jaw dropping crucifixion. The element of fantasy plays a major role in the film which goes back to the psychology of Shizuko and the more the film goes on the more Ishii obscures what may or may not be reality or fantasy. Obviously Sugimoto delivers one of the most psychically demanding performances in all of film and deserves nothing but the highest amount of respect for all she goes through. Her level of commitment is astonishing and admirable.

Flower and Snake is an important film in that at the time of its release it really tested the limits of what was acceptable without having to be censored in terms of full frontal nudity which is normally blurred or pixilated but with this film all was on display. While pink films in general are normally incredibly explicit in their content, this film also seemed to take it just a bit further, a fact made even more surprising by the film being released by a major studio and playing in mainstream cinemas. The celebrity status of Aya Sugimoto also played a big part in the films notoriety. On a humorous front, even Oniroku Dan was shocked by what he saw in the film! During a question and answer session before a screening of film Dan recalled when he first visited the set and was surprised that the first thing he saw was Sugimoto tied to a post, and that after the press conference he would leave before the film started which resulted in quite a bit of laughter from both Ishii and Sugimoto. Out of all the adaptations of Dan’s novel, Ishii’s film stands out for a variety of reasons, whether it be Ishii’s brilliant direction or Sugimoto’s fearless performance. It might be as niche as niche can be, but for those that belong to that niche, Flower and Snake is a masterpiece.