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Slave Widow

Director: Mamoru Watanabe
Cast: Noriko Tatsumi, Naomi Tani, Masayoshi Nogami

(US DVD: 1 Apr 2008)

The opening shots resemble outtakes from “Hiroshima Mon Amour” or “Woman in the Dunes”—deep black and white closeups of naked backs and arms, dissolving into images of water. Thus begins the unappetizingly titled Slave Widow from Mamoru Watanabe.


He directed over 300 “pinku-eiga” or “pink films”, a softcore sex genre that would take over Japanese cinema like kudzu in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, especially after the old and respectable Nikkatsu studio switched over to what they called “roman-porno” (romantic porn). This earlier example from an independent studio anticipates them and demonstrates their link with the Japanese New Wave’s arty adaptions of Kobo Abe, Junichiro Tanizaki and Yukio Mishima. And as someone notes cannily on IMDB, it also bears a strong cross-cultural resemblance to the contemporary, intense product of Joe Sarno, that Bergman of American sexploitation.


In a brisk, orderly, and ravishingly composed 75-minutes, the movie tells the story of a Mitsuko Fuji (Noriko Tatsumi), the titular widow. Her husband’s chief creditor shows up and explains that he now basically owns everything, but he’ll let her keep the lovely lake house if she’s “nice” to him.


The man’s grown son (Masayoshi Nogami), who at first says he wants to be just like his successful business maven of a father, is shocked by this arrangement because he’s attracted to Mitsuko himself and would like to break his engagement to an heiress in order to run away with the widow. (Cult actress alert: this heiress is played by Naomi Tani, the prolific “queen of the pinks” who took her screen name from the early Tanizaki novel, Naomi.)


At one point the father explains to his son, and we quote the subtitles: “She is a vampire. She’ll follow me without my marrying her. There is an evil spirit under her skin. When a man touches her, it is awakened from its slumber. She’s sinful that way. I have pity on her. But she is worth loving. I will keep on loving her even after my marriage.”


There’s a festival of cultural and sexual messages in that little aria. The sex-as-demon mythology can be read as ironic coming from the mouth of the father, especially when every character in the film seems to be a slave to their sexual impulses. If we play the game of reading the film allegorically with the widow as the soul of a wounded and obsolete traditional Japan (note her style of dress), then the modern businessman who exploits her (note his western attire) becomes the cold materialistic force of spiritual decline, a selling of the national soul, and therefore his statements and opinions are undermined.


At the same time, the nympho mystique is always brought out to justify why a woman like Mitsuko would initially protest and then give in, basically under force and blackmail. But this folderol also masks the reality of how women’s desires are processed and controlled, whether traditionally or in the New Japan.


In the opening scenes, Mrs. Fuji (named for the nation’s defining mountain) feels lonely because her husband spends his time at work in the city, and she responds to the new maid by immediately adopting her as a “sister” and insisting they take baths together and wash each other’s backs. This implies at least that she’s starved for physical attention and that her husband has been staying away from her; that he later commits suicide, supposedly over financial problems, at least partly explains his lack of attentiveness.


Thus, when she responds physically to the advances of a man who clearly desires her (unlike her husband?), it clashes with the socially molded superego that tells her this is unacceptable behavior. She accepts the values of society but recognizes that her body has different values. She feels shame because she doesn’t question the system of values she has learned—her body’s values are sinful, society’s values are good. Like Huck Finn, she internalizes society’s judgment against herself and believes she is “bad”.


Of course, the film would be liberating, as opposed to merely illuminating the problem, if she could get away with this. Suffice it to say that the mightily foreshadowed ending is very Japanese. Some of the later pinks and other exploiters do push concepts of sexual revolution and empowerment, sometimes in very odd and controversial ways. It’s easier for western audiences to get a kick out of a violent action series like Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion than something as grimly transgressive as Wife to Be Sacrificed, but Slave Widow doesn’t go as far as any of these in any direction.


The film’s style reflects its dichotomy between the personal and the social. When people are talking, the camera plants itself in careful, arty compositions. When people are horny, the camera starts drifting in a handheld haze, focusing on details (ears are popular) and sliding into odd angles.


The sexual interludes aren’t as graphic as in later films. With all the abstract writhing in obviously non-coital positions, it’s more like people are having an aesthetic experience than an erotic one. One scene is scored by the calls of the wild from the lake—owls, loons, etc. Often we surmise oral activities. Although there is some breastage, these scenes basically follow the example of the films mentioned in the first paragraph.


Several scenes take place in a jazzy nightclub that has two LP sleeves on the wall. One is for Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and shows Monroe seated on a stool. The other shows someone on a horse, and we wish we could have seen it more clearly.


The package says this widescreen transfer comes from “the original 35mm film elements.” We assume this means a 35mm copy of a US export version, because there’s notable wear on the print, especially at the beginning, and the clumsy white-on-white subtitles are burned in. This is a subpar presentation compared to Japanese cult films from other companies, but the film is so beautiful and compelling that most viewers will be absorbed even if they have to squint at the titles.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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