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.


  1. Superb review of this amazing film.

    Ishii still has a lot of life left in him.

    Sure would have been interesting seeing Sugimoto in a 70's Nikkatsu flick.

    1. Thanks!

      Of course Ishii remains one of the most consistently fascinating filmmakers still working today. I love that hes more recent output has been so polarizing. Signs of a true maverick. I'm still wishing for another film with Sugimoto. Not necessarily another Flower and Snake film, although that would be amazing. They made a great artist/muse pair.