PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Slave Widow

Some of the later pinks and other exploiters push concepts of sexual revolution and empowerment, sometimes in very odd and controversial ways, but this film doesn't go so far.

Slave Widow

Director: Mamoru Watanabe
Cast: Noriko Tatsumi, Naomi Tani, Masayoshi Nogami
Distributor: Cinema Epoch
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1967
US DVD Release Date: 2008-04-01

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.