Following the doomed and star-crossed love between the feisty daughter of a wealthy merchant and the timid clerk that works for her father, IREZUMI is cut from the mould of classic Shakespearean tragedy but with a distinctly Japanese spin. For reasons that elude me, the Japanese have taken quite an affection to their idea of the deceitful femme fatale, the "spider woman". Here the feisty daughter becomes one quite literally by having a grotesque "spider woman" tattooed by force on her back on orders of the pimp she's sold to. While her lover prowls the red districts of Yoshiwara looking for her, she leads a luxurious life as a geisha by scamming people off their money with her pimp as an accomplice.
Weaving together a typical revenge plot and the idea of psychosomatic auto-suggestion as the woman starts to believe that she's "really" a spider woman after being tattooed and urged by her pimp to leech money off her clients, director Masumura and writer Kaneto Shindo (who also scripted MANJI for Masumura and directed some very famous Japanese horror movies like ONIBABA and KURONEKO) create in IREZUMI a bold, beautiful, no-nonsense revenge drama that doesn't skimp on the violence. When people get killed, it's ugly and messy. When they don't, they weave around them webs of lies and deceit or find themselves caught in one.
Masumura's assured but laconic direction (no tracking shots, no moving cameras - his camera remains locked on a tripod with the occasional imperceptible pan) is a masterclass in miss-en-scene, careful framing and pacing a movie without calling attention to his work as director. Simply put, the guy knows how to take a great shot and he knows how to pile great shots one upon the other to make a great scene and he knows how to orchestrate his scenes to make a great movie that moves effortlessly from start to finish. Add to that the superb editing and some great acting by Ayako Wakao (gorgeous in the lead role) and you've got yourself a proper forgotten gem from the classic epoch of Japanese cinema. I'm looking forward to catching more of the director's work.
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