By their very design rape/revenge films are bound to be divisive no matter the original intention of the filmmaker. Its always fascinating and at times maddening to hear debates on the artistic merits, or lack thereof according to the subgenre’s detractors of films like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) just to name three of the most famous examples. More often than not the arguments for and against these type of films return to the same talking points. Defenders of the subgenre say the films are empowering to victimized women and hail the directors as feminist friendly while the opposition claims the films are misogynistic and the (primarily) male directors depiction of rape glamorizes the act. In many ways Takashi Ishii is the perfect director for the subgenre. Rape has always been a prominent theme in Ishii’s work going all the way back to his Angel Guts manga series and the films made from said manga and a good many of Ishii’s films inspire the exact same debates as rape/revenge films with many praising Ishii as a feminist filmmaker and others dismissing his work as merely sexist exploitation. Freeze Me, Ishii’s first “semi-traditional” rape/revenge film proved not only to be just as polarizing but also easily one of Ishii’s best films and one of the most confrontational films the rape/revenge subgenre has to offer.
Five years before moving to Tokyo to start a new life, young Chihiro was gang raped by a group of childhood friends who also videotape the incident. Fast forward five years and Chihiro is accosted by one of her former assailants in her apartment building. It turns out one member of the group that raped Chihiro has just gotten released from prison and as a celebration the rest of the gang has tracked Chihiro down and made plans to meet up and relive the assault. Pushed too far, Chihiro eventually snaps and begins to murder her attackers as they arrive, in the process discovering just how handy industrial sized freezers can be.
For a rape/revenge film, Freeze Me (Furîzu mî, フリーズ・ミー) is slyly unconventional in that despite following the familiar trajectory of the subgenre, that being victimized woman has enough and exacts righteous revenge on her wrong doers, with this being an Ishii film its agenda is far greater. At its core, Freeze Me is a vicious attack on the social stigma faced by victims of rape and abuse, also touching upon the typical societal view of women and while Ishii’s main target is Japanese society, the theme is universal. Its fairly obvious that Chihiro’s main concern is victim blaming and the damage that can be done to her reputation because of it and because of this some of the directions the film takes will no doubt frustrate many, particularly Chihiro’s motivations behind her actions. Chihiro is a fascinatingly contradictory character in that in the more emboldened she becomes in her self-defense the more her mental state deteriorates and the keeping of the bodies of her rapists in freezers goes against her trying to escape her past. Its these contradictions that really make the point Ishii is trying to make about victim shaming heard all the more louder and clearer and psychologically places the film at the same level as Ms. 45. Ishii balances the gritty story with instances of high style, wisely waiting until the films closing moments to really let loose with the chromatic neon visuals, the effects of which are brilliant and makes the ending of the film all the more powerful.
Again, reaction to Freeze Me was and still is divided every which way with some reviews being insightful and thought provoking to others being mind-numbingly moronic. Among the more interesting is film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse’s take on the film in her excellent House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films where Janisse cites frustration at Chihiro’s thought process and specifically mentions the freezing of the bodies. In a phenomenal piece for Senses of Cinema, James R. Alexander contextualizes the film along with a detailed history of the rape/revenge film along with a thorough exploration of the depiction of rape in Japanese exploitation (“pink”) films. Of course there are also the reviews which on one hand should be called out for their idiocy but on the other really don’t deserve the attention. A constant source of amazement however is seeing how many reviewers throw out the word “misogyny” without having the slightest clue as to what the dictionary definition of the word is. Interpretation of a film is one thing and with films like these there’s always going to be differences of opinion but blatant ignorance is another thing entirely. Freeze Me is not a misogynistic film. Although difficult, challenging and unflinching it also happens to be one of the most intelligent rape/revenge films making it an essential film from the subgenre and an essential Ishii title.