Blind Beasts and Red Angels: Erotic Obsessions in the New Wave Gothic Films of Yasuzo Masumura
Bear with me for a bit here.
One of the odder personalities in the history of art is the Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich Fussli before anglicizing his name after moving to England). His most famous painting is The Nightmare, which has been haunting the gothic imagination since its debut in 1781, but especially since it was rediscovered, along with all of Fuseli’s other work, by the symbolists and the surrealists in the early 20th century. Ken Russell once themed an entire movie around it. It suited Russell’s aesthetic. It doesn’t take a deep dive into Fuseli’s reams of drawings to discover that he was kind of a pervert, one with a deeply fixed fear of being unmanned by women, either figuratively or literally. Take, for instance, this early drawing of a man being forced to submit to his mistress.
The caption reads, “You fool! Your mare rides you!” which is indicative of a lifelong anxiety toward strong women. Fear and desire vie for supremacy in Fuseli. Fuseli’s anxieties toward women veered into the pornographic and the ghastly. His drawings are replete with powerless, often prone, men being used by sexually voracious women. Sometimes, those powerless male figures are being used by women in darker ways than mere sex.
In the The Night Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, Fuseli depicts what looks like a human sacrifice, but the nakedness of the male baby in the painting and the prominence of the knife are suggestive of castration. This is also the case in Fuseli’s drawing of a woman dismembering a boy child:
And it’s reinforced by Fuseli’s various drawings in which phalluses are decorative objects or perhaps trophies, as in the portrait of his wife at her vanity. The vanity is perched on the tips of two giant cocks.
Fuseli was also taken with the idea of fragments, something he learned from some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures but which, taken in context of his other drawings, should be figured into an obsession with dismemberment. Hands and feet and phalluses disconnected from bodies are common occurrences in Fuseli’s work.
Another common occurrence in Fuseli’s work is a menage a trois in which a man is helpless before two sexually voracious women (or more than two as the case may be). This drawing, is typical, but there are a bunch of others:
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Japanese New Wave movies. Mainly this: the same castration anxiety that runs through Fuseli spreads through the Gothic imagination. It’s also at the root of the shame many maimed soldiers feel after returning from wars--especially wars that have been lost. Think Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and its impotent hero, Jake Barnes, a trope that became widely parodied in the mid to late 20th century. Or think of the figurative impotence of the disfigured monsters in the horror movies made in Germany and Hollywood between the World Wars. The Hands of Orlock and its cousin, Mad Love, both have a thread of castration anxiety running through their dismemberment Maguffins. As in Fuseli’s art, these films combine the erotic and the grotesque. In Japan, the combination of the erotic and the grotesque even has a name--Ero-Goru (literally erotic grotesque)--and it’s a dominant theme in the literary roots of the New Wave films of the sixties and seventies. The most important of these Ero-Goru authors are Junichiro Tanizaki and Edogawa Rampo, both of whom wrote stories of sexual obsession and fetishism that sometimes spiral out of control into horror. Add to that influence the psychic shock of the Sada Abe story (filmed as A Woman Called Sada Abe by Noburo Tanaka in 1975 and as In the Realm of the Senses by Nagisa Oshima a year later), and you have a deep well of masculine anxiety informing the imagination of a generation of filmmakers who grew up with the shame of losing World War II and of being occupied by a foreign power. Impotence and castration anxiety hold a firm grip on the films they produced.
Writing before he made his own first film, Nagisa Oshima once described traditional Japanese cinema as “foggy history and flower arrangements.” I am sympathetic to this criticism. One of the films I had seen recently when I first read this statement was Hiroshi Inagaki’s Chushingura (1962), which literally begins with a tracking shot of cherry blossoms swaying in the wind before embarking on yet another version of the story of the 47 Ronin. Oshima and the filmmakers who became known as the Japanese New Wave (after the French example) rebelled against this sort of thing. Even when they were working within that very idiom, they were defiant; for example: Oshima’s criticism of the traditions of Japanese cinema could very well apply to his own film, Taboo (1999), but for the story of gay samurai contained therein. One filmmaker Oshima exempted from his condemnation of traditional Japanese cinema was Yasuzo Masumura, whose early career must have been a shock to the system.
Yazuzo Masumura got his start in film as an assistant director for Daei Studios primarily working on Kenji Mizoguchi’s last three films and on three films for Kon Ichikawa. He directed his own first film, Kisses, in 1957. Prior to his employment in Japan, he studied in Italy and is said to have counted Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti among his teachers. Although the tenets of neo-realism didn’t take root in Masumura’s cinematic style--a style that varies wildly between films--Visconti’s appetite for near operatic melodrama sometimes did. Masumura also took from his European experiences a desire for a freer mode of expression than that provided in most Japanese films of the classical era. One need only look at the riot of color and the speed of the images in something like Giants and Toys (1958) to see how radically Masumura departs from the stately art cinema of Mizoguchi or the austere formalism of Ozu.
There’s a kinship with Ichikawa, though, and like Ichikawa, Masumura had a particular interest in Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s psychosexual melodramas. Although Masumura was making his own films by the time Ichikawa made Odd Obsession (1958), it serves as a prototype for the erotic films that Masumura would make in the 1960s and beyond, including more films based on Tanizaki than by any other filmmaker.
Odd Obsession concerns an aging businessman who has become impotent. He seeks out a doctor to treat his flagging virility--these are the days before Viagra and similar drugs--to no avail. What does get him off is watching his wife in the act with other men, and he recruits his handsome young doctor to have sex with his wife while he watches. There are two themes here that Masumura would adopt: impotence as a catalyst for obsession, and “gaze’ as a means of reconstructing masculinity. Masumura wasn’t the only filmmaker to adopt these ideas. You can see the frequent motif of blindness in the films of the New Wave directors--sometimes in pop cinema like the Zatoichi films or the blinding of the warden by the castrating avatar of feminism, Scorpion, in the first of the Female Prisoner Scorpion films, but more often in tragedies like the queer Oedipus of Funeral Parade of Roses. Being blinded, like being dismembered, is a blow to manly potency. For all Zatoichi’s lethality with a sword, he’s a curiously sexless character.
All of this would show up in Masumura’s films eventually, culminating in a hilariously over the top reconstruction of masculine potency in the Hanzo the Razor films, in which the title character--played by Zatoichi himself, Katsu Shintaro--bullies his way through mysteries by interrogating his subjects with his gigantic penis. The rape narrative goes part and parcel with Hanzo’s toughening of himself with ever more elaborate mortifications of his flesh, until he’s a kind of hyper-virile superman. If the driving engine of the Japanese New Wave is the loss of the war and the feelings of being unmanned by that loss, then Hanzo and the persistent rape imagery in the films of the New Wave and the Roman Porno and Pinky Violence films of the 1970s is a fantasy of that potency reconstructed for Japan’s economic rebirth and a filmgoing audience of unmanned salarymen.
Masumura’s films of the 1960s, though, are another matter entirely.
Odd Obsession’s inheritor among Masumura’s own films is Manji (1964), in which his frequent leading lady Ayako Wakao and Koyoko Kishida (who Masumura first met working for Mizoguchi) play lovers trapped in a four-sided relationship with their respective husband and fiance, a tangle of relationships that quickly spirals into fetishistic codependence and tragedy. Sonoko (Kishida) is trapped in a passionless marriage with her husband and finds release in an art class, where she meets Mitsuko, whose face she draws on her version of the goddess of Mercy. There’s a rumor going around the art school that she and Mitsuko are lovers, and soon enough, they decide to make the rumors into something real. And then the games begin.
Sonoko has nothing but contempt for her husband, Kotaro, and when he finds out about the affair, he is helpless to do anything about it. He throws a dish at the wall like he’s a housewife when she tells him that she won’t give up Mitsuko for any reason. He’s essentially weak, and he gets weaker as the film progresses. The two women contrive a story about Mitsuko becoming pregnant to assure Kotaro that his wife is keeping their relationship chaste. Mitsuko, for her part, has Watanuki, her fiance. Sonoko meets Watanuki when she’s summoned to a bath house when Mitsuko claims that her clothing--and his--have been stolen, causing a rift between Sonoko and Mitsuko. Watanuki is a conniver. It was his idea to spread the rumor at the art school that broke up Mitsuko’s prior engagement and brought Sonoko and her together. He wants to marry Mitsuko--he says--even if that means sharing her with Sonoko. Sonoko will have none of it, until Mitsuko shows up pregnant and sick on her doorstep. Sonoko knows she’s faking, but forgives anyway. Besides, Watanuki is impotent and sterile from a case of the mumps as a child. Watanuki casts doubt on Mitsuko’s motives, though, and forms a pact with Sonoko to keep Mitsuko happy. But Watanuki has an ulterior motive and he presents the pact to Kotaro, ensnaring him in their entangled relationships. When, in the end, their menage becomes public, it ruins them all and they vow to kill themselves, but Sonoko is left out. Her drug is faked, and she endures knowing that she wasn’t wanted and dared not die lest she intrude on them.
I describe this film as a Gothic, and so it is in its way. There are themes of confinement, echoes of the madwoman in the attic, and it has a psychoanalytical structure. Sonoko relates the events of the story to a therapist and circles around the central horrors, much as Gothic novels from Melmoth the Wanderer to Absalom, Absalom digress and circle around their horrors and come to them at oblique angles. The prime mover in the plot is Watanuki and his inability to have children. He translates this as an inability to engage in physical love and rationalizes it as more spiritual that way, much to Mitsuko’s frustration. Kotaro is a different kind of eunuch, unmanned by a woman preferring the company of other women to him. This is a bundle of male anxieties acting as the frame in which the women are constrained. It deranges their relationship, and rather than living a normal happy life with one another, they descend into a drugged obsession. Eventually, even sex itself is banished as only the idea of a perfect goddess remains. The film begins and ends with Mitsuko assuming the role of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which is one of the film’s bitterest ironies because Mitsuko is anything but merciful.
Elements of Manji will recur in later Masumura films, particularly impotence and the ritual drinking of blood (suggesting the impotent oralism of a vampire) and art as an erotic outlet.
In Red Angel (1966), one of the root causes of the Japanese New Wave’s castration anxiety is confronted directly. Set in Manchuria during the Sino-Japanese war immediately prior to World War 2, Red Angel follows Nurse Nishi (Ayako Wakao again), who works, alternately, at a military hospital in Tientsin and a field hospital near the front. Her charges are soldiers who have been wounded in a theater without adequate supplies to treat them. The stock solution to even a minor infection is to amputate the offending limb. With Dr. Okabe at the front, she amputates hundreds of limbs. At the time, the policy of the Imperial Government was to keep these soldiers from returning home lest their mutilation depress the national resolve. It’s a particularly ghastly Catch-22. Masumura isn’t interested in simple anti-war, anti-Imperial rhetoric, though there’s certainly an element of that. Simple depiction of the horrors involved is enough. But, like Manji, Red Angel is a film about erotic obsession framed against masculine follies. The ghastliest of masculine follies. War changes and warps people, and so it is for Nurse Nishi and her lovers.
Nurse Nishi’s lovers are men she cannot save. First is Private Sakamoto, who rapes her on her first night on duty at the main hospital for the amusement of the men on her ward who stand by and watch. Sakamoto is mostly recovered and is shipped back to the front. Nurse Nishi encounters him again at the field hospital, where he comes in with a gut shot that Dr. Okabe deems terminal. She impresses on Dr. Okabe her need to save him, and he agrees if she’ll come to his quarters that night. Nurse Nishi doesn’t love Sakamura, or even respect him. She just wants him to know that she’s not taking her revenge. He dies anyway. Dr. Okabe turns out to be addicted to morphine and impotent. Nothing happens between them. When she’s shipped back to the main hospital, one of her charges is Private Orihara, who has lost both arms. Orihara is one of those men abandoned and in limbo because the ruling junta doesn’t want maimed soldiers to be seen. He’s desperate and despairing. At first, he asks her to “relieve” him--he’s still a man, he says, but he can’t do anything about it without arms; he, too, is functionally impotent--but she goes farther than that. She takes him on a trip out of the hospital to a hotel room. She allows him to gaze at her body and touch her with his feet. He says his toes have become overly sensitive since losing his arms. The next day, he throws himself from the roof of the hospital and dies, leaving a note for her to thank her for her kindness.
Back at the front, Nishi and Dr. Okabe resume their grim business. They are dispatched to an outpost at the front lines that is beset by a cholera outbreak, where Nishi forces Okabe to go cold turkey from his morphine addiction so he can love her as a man, and while he manages to kick, they are in the midst of an impending attack. Okabe, at least, she saves, and he is able to make love to her. Their pleasure is fleeting, though, because the attack comes, and Nishi is the only survivor.
Nishi’s guilt drivers her obsession with Dr. Okabe, and while she professes to love him at the end, she’s still obsessed with his impotence and her own impotence in the face of the war. She can’t save anyone--she doesn’t save anyone--and it skews her sexuality. Masumura provides still more signifiers of the sadomasochistic derangement at the heart of his films. Private Sakamoto is determined to assert his masculinity after he’s wounded and Nishi acquiesces to being raped. Orihara is literally unable to hold her--amputation imagery is littered throughout the film--and even allowing him to reconstruct his sexual potency doesn’t save him. Dr. Okabe tells her that whatever pleasure she is able to take or give is fleeting, and the film is at pains to illustrate that with each of her lovers in turn, culminating in Okabe’s restoration under the threat of annihilation. The film offers a pointed criticism of the institution of comfort women and of the role of women in Japan’s patriarchy when Nishi fights off the soldiers at the outpost who are denied the services of the comfort women afflicted with cholera. This part of the film reminds me a bit of Seijun Suzuki’s The Story of a Prostitute, which features similar scenes of erotic obsession under the threat of annihilation, and includes a parallel scene of a woman running across a battlefield as the battle rages, though Suzuki had his own row plow in that film.
This is a deeply pessimistic movie, replete with vivid, ghastly images. One particular cut finds Nishi climbing into bed with Okabe with the sound of a saw cutting a bone appears on the soundtrack, a few seconds before it continues in the surgical scene afterwards. After their lovemaking near the end of the movie, Nishi bites Okabe, leaving a mark. Okabe returns the favor. This is an image that is transmitted to this film from Manji (and the drinking of blood) and one that recurs later. Masumura also equates the gaze of men with their sexual potency in the initial scene when Sakamura rapes Nishi, and again in the scene in the hotel between Nishi and Orihara. This is a trope that aligns his films to the cinema of voyeurism.
Blind Beast (1969) finds Masumura embracing the ero-guro of Rampo, though somewhat altered to suit his own cinematic needs, and the Gothic images created by Henri Fuseli two hundred years before. Rampo’s story follows a blind sculptor and killer of women--multiple women--while Masumura’s film revolves around a blind sculptor’s obsession with one particular woman. Masumura consciously mixes the Rampo story with Wyler’s The Collector, a big hit in Japan which it superficially resembles. The center of Masumura’s film is not the collector/sculptor, though. The film is told from the point of view of his victim, Aki (Mako Midori), a model who is famous for a series of erotic art photographs. The sculptor, Michio, can’t see the photographs, but he can feel the contours of the sculpture of Aki that accompanies the exhibition of the photographs. He develops an obsession for her, poses as a masseuse, and under that pretext first touches her body. When she resists, when she recognizes her as the man who was so rapturously rubbing his hands over her sculpture, he uses chloroform to subdue and kidnap her. Michio has an accomplice: his mother. When Aki comes to, she’s in a dark space filled with vast sculptures of body parts. Michio tells her that she is the perfect model for his project of tactile art and if she won’t agree, he’ll never free her. Aki acquiesces while plotting her escape. Her first attempt is foiled by Michio’s mother, so, instead, she tries a different tactic: she pretends to fall for Michio and enrages his mother by attempting to pull him from under her thumb--Michio is a bit of a momma’s boy, she discovers. This backfires when, during another escape attempt his mother is killed. Michio determines never to let Aki go. She submits to his project as the only way to appease him, lest he kill her and bury her under the studio as he has done with his mother. Soon, trapped in the dark, she begins to go blind herself, and opens up to Aki’s world of tactile pleasures. Eventually, the pair require more and more extreme sensations to get them off, and biting each other and drinking each other’s blood only lasts for a while before they move on to more overt S&M practices. Eventually, Aki decides that her death would be the ultimate ecstasy, and implores Michio to amputate her arms and legs. All of this takes place in a studio filled with two mammoth sculptures of women without heads, feet, or hands, and overseen by Michio’s disembodied eyes and noses and arms and legs and breasts.
Blind Beast acts a bit like a catalogue of Masumura’s own obsessions during the 1960s, too. The act of two lovers biting each other reappears here, as does the drinking of blood. The idea of disability as impotence appears here, too. Most striking is the way it converts the amputation imagery into art objects, though it recoils from the horror of actually amputating someone’s limbs. In spite of its reputation as an extreme movie, Blind Beast is reticent here, and instead of the ghastly imagery one finds in Red Angel, it uses a contra-punctual cut to the limbs falling off of Michio’s sculpture of Aki to represent the actual act. Erotic art as obsession is carried to a logical next step from the erotic art in Manji. Artists are another kind of madman in these films.
This is a movie about a sexual gaze, too, which is ironic given that it’s about blindness. Michio’s gaze is from his sense of touch, and is more overtly sexual and intimate than the gaze of the soldiers in Red Angel. Blindness is a sexual dysfunction in Blind Beast, too, as catalogued by the experiential shortcomings of Michio’s other senses. As Aki experiences this, too, it drives them to more and more extreme fetish behavior in order to get that next sexual high until even maiming each other isn’t sufficient to get them off. Erotic obsession in this film, to an even greater degree than in Red Angel and Manji (whose heroines survive), is a downward spiral into oblivion. It is likely not an accident that Michio’s studio resembles the conceptions of hell and the supernatural in films like Jigoku and Kwaidan.
Rewatching Blind Beast for this article is what sent me back to Henri Fuseli. Parts of this film resemble his art to an uncanny degree. The various scenes using the two headless limbless giants are of a piece with Fuseli’s artist mourning amid the ruins of vast sculptures. The eyes and limbs and features disconnected from bodies are reminiscent of Fuseli’s drawings of dismemberment. And the sexual power dynamics are similar. Michio is obsessed with Aki and controls her, but he desires to be her slave, as well, and says so outright, which jibes with Fuseli’s drawings and paintings of men prone and abject before dominant women. Fuseli was certainly aware of the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and his art is influenced enough to transmit Sadean ideas into the culture at large. The sleep of reason breeds monsters, as Goya said, and de Sade and Fuseli were the id the enlightenment was trying to supress. In vain, as it so happens. The continuity of the Gothic imagination from Fuseli unto Masumura and beyond to the present is a raging viral infection in our cultural massmind.
“Fuseli, Another Nightmare: The Night Hag Visiting Lapland Witches” by Lawrence Feingold, The Metropolitan Museum Journal, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984.
Fuseli: The Wild Swiss by Franziska Lentzsch, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2005.
The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film by Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp, Stone Bridge Press, 2005.
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Ritchie, Kodansha International, 2001
Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema by David Desser, Midland Books, 1988.
Tokyo Scope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion by Patrick Macias, Cadence Books, 2001.
“Tales of Ordinary Madness: Films by Yasuzo Masumura” by Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader, 1998.
“Yasuzo Masumura: Passion and Excess” by Tom Mes, Midnight Eye, 2010.
Christianne Benedict is a cartoonist and writer who lives with her partner in rural Missouri. She has been published by Indiewire and Filmmaker Magazine, but usually writes at her own blog at krelllabs.blogspot.com. Her comics have appeared in anthologies from IDW, Prism Comics, and Stacked Deck Press. She used to post her comics on Tumblr before they turned into a bunch of puritanical poopy-heads. She occasionally screens for film festivals. She has a dog and several cats. Her safe word is "platypus."