Wakamatsu's first self-produced film blurs the line between art and pornography
"The Embryo Hunts in Secret" is the type of film that critics can have a field day with (especially if they weren't limited to a thousand words). It raises all the controversial issues in cinema: art versus pornography, gratuitousness, pretentiousness, violence, et cetera. As a community of film lovers, how do we judge a film like this? Certainly, the issue of artistic merit being sacrificed for less noble purposes goes all the way back to the first primordial twitches of the cinematic medium, when Edison/Dickson/Heise films were being churned out in the mid-1890s almost entirely for the sake of profit, with little to no regard for artistic legitimacy. Of course, one could argue that artistry is too much to expect from an art form still in its infancy, but Lumière and Méliès proved otherwise (it should be to no one's surprise that the roots of art in cinema are French, while the roots of capitalism in cinema are American).
In any case, we have here a much more complex issue than the mere streamlining of commercial films for profit. Wakamatsu can be and has been criticized on many levels, but artistic corruption for monetary gain is not one of them. He began his career at Nikkatsu, prolifically churning out pinku eiga for the studio ("pink films", generally referring to the Japanese genre of softcore sex films, from my understanding). While these films were beginning to dominate domestic cinema in Japan, the government did not like them, and they weren't considered critically or artistically legitimate. As a result, when Wakamatsu submitted one of his films to the Berlin International Film Festival in 1965, Nikkatsu gave it a very quiet, low-profile release, and Wakamastu was not happy. He quit the studio, formed his own production company, and began self-producing films.
The first of these films was "The Embryo Hunts in Secret" (1966). The film is about a man who brings home a woman that physically resembles his ex-wife, who ran out on him. He proceeds to drug her, tie her up, and torture her. This constitutes the entire length of the film, start to finish, although there's much more to it, otherwise I wouldn't even be bothering to review it. Wakamatsu imbues his films with undeniable poetry, and as harsh as his films may be in content, they are formally much more comparable to respected art house films than they are to traditional exploitation films, or what some have dubbed "torture porn". Moreover, Wakamatsu is interested not only in the violent/sexual act itself, but in the psychology that produces it. His deconstruction of the basic human need to self-destruct leaves him open to comparisons with the great Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Ôshima, who once said Wakamatsu was the only pink film director that interested him. In Wakamatsu films, there is more of a focus on sadomasochistic tendencies, and issues of dominance and submission, but both filmmakers analyzed human self-destructiveness with political overtones.
There's no doubt that there's more here than just pornography. There is art present in Wakamatsu's films. Anyone at all versed in artistic cinema will recognize that instantly. The question is, what kind of art? True art? Pornographic art? Artistic pornography? I don't pretend to have the answer. Wakamastu, thankfully, is not so easy to classify. Is he just another shameless filmmaker bastardizing the medium by exploiting the darkest of human desires? Or is he an artist that is simply willing to explore aspects of humanity that others refuse to address? Pasolini believed fervently that burying ugliness and depravity — hiding it away from human sight — was the one surefire way to ensure its continued existence. That's why he repeatedly showed us things we didn't want to see. It's also why so many of his films ended on an unnerving note of conspiratorial silence. Wakamatsu's cinema, however, can not be categorically called art as simply and obviously as Pasolini's can, even "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom". I know many have quite ignorantly called that film pornography, but one glance at a dictionary will dispel any such notions. Pornography is defined as material that is intended to be erotically stimulating and sexually gratifying. Needless to say, there is not one single image anywhere in Pasolini's film that can be considered remotely erotic, or even slightly gratifying on a sexual level. Wakamatsu's film, however, isn't as easy to defend. Yes, there is art here, without question, but there is also a definite sense of an individual purging on screen his darkest desires. In my opinion, "The Embryo Hunts in Secret" is actually surprisingly unerotic, certainly by comparison to what it could have been, but we do get the feeling that Wakamatsu is, at least to a certain extent, exploiting the uglier aspects of human nature and desire.
Overall, I really can't categorize Wakamatsu's films. They are art, certainly, but they also possess a pornographic element, admittedly. Somehow, they utilize pornography and transcend it simultaneously. Wakamatsu is truly an enigma. I think "The Embryo Hunts in Secret" is a legitimately good film, and while there is a certain degree of gratuitousness that would be hard to deny, I don't think it's a fully, overtly gratuitous work. By and large, there is substance beneath the violence on the screen. Nevertheless, the element of exploitation is present, so ultimately I call it a good film that falls short of being a great film. I definitely thought it was better than his 1967 film, "Fallen Angels". Wakamatsu is working with much better actors in this film, and the female lead, unlike in the other film, actually seems to mind being tortured. She did quite well with a difficult role here.
I'm out of space, so suffice it to say that this is a film worth seeing, so long as you're not too squeamish.
RATING: 7.33 out of 10 stars
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