Directed by Norifumi Suzuki, Sex and Fury is one of the most renowned of the pinku eiga films to be produced by the Toei Company. Featuring a screenplay by Suzuki, Tarō Bonten and Masahiro Kakefuda, this 1973 motion picture melds the sensibilities of Meiji period Japan with the splaying sex and violence of exploitation cinema.
As with most American exploitation pictures, like 1971’s The Big Doll House, there are political and cultural considerations tucked into the sex and bloodshed. There is a tendency to get swept up in the outlandish content of Sex and Fury, but Suzuki’s approach is still derisive, dark-hearted and blissfully cynical.
The story begins in 1886 as a daughter watches her father get murdered by three assailants. Fast-forward 19 years and the daughter has grown up into Ochō Inoshika (Reiko Ike), an instinctual pickpocket and gambler. Ochō has never quit looking for the killers of her father and even her name points the direction to the perpetrators.
Along the way, Ochō comes across a plot involving the yakuza, western spies looking to wage a second opium war and a troubled young woman (Rie Saotome) forced into prostitution. There’s also a dissident (Masataka Naruse) in love with a hot London infiltrator (Christina Lindberg).
Suzuki and cinematographer Motoya Washyo start with a visually striking sequence of murder, establishing an awareness of disordered violence. The camera twirls, gets too close, sits overhead. Sometimes it focuses on the feet, like when young Ochō scurries to her father’s bloody corpse and picks up the evidence she’ll need for reprisal.
These activities are wisely framed, with a narration telling the audience that Japan is a “small country” but the recent winner of two wars. Indeed, the Meiji period found the Japanese at a period of transition with feudal seclusion in the rearview mirror. Modernity was on the way, whether it was wanted or not.
Sex and Fury explores this conflict with the burden of libidinous men and the rise of empowered women. Men like Naozô Iwakura (Hiroshi Nawa) and Yoshikazu Kurokawa (Seizaburô Kawadu) represent traditional authority, as they rape and pillage with impunity. Women like Ochō and Christina, with their swords and guns and poisons, represent active resistance.
And Japan as a whole is emerging with something to prove in the eyes of Suzuki, who continuously reminds his audience of both the power and resolve of the “tiny nation.” He has westerners consider the country as “barbaric” and has Christina don western movie garb to dominate the tattooed Ochō.
To make the point stick, Suzuki’s villains ply their trade in view of a glossy depiction of Christ. Ochō is strung up in front of the cubist mural for another flogging and her mother – her real mother – is brought before her like Mary to supplicate and divulge deeply-held truths.
Sex and Fury has a lot to offer and that’s part of the problem. Suzuki’s determination is to be applauded, but it also drags this picture through an awful lot of stuff. There’s too much plot and too many directions, with the kitchen sink detracting from the vicious transparency of Ochō’s quest.
Still, Sex and Fury isn’t too heavy to work. Suzuki’s knack for functional violence results in a number of incredible action pieces and his inclination to push the envelope leads to all sorts of subsidiary roughness, from death by cunnilingus to a mob of knife-wielding nuns. There’s a lot of bloody fun to be had, even with Jesus ever attentive in the Land of the Rising Sun.