Flower and Snake (2004) is based on the notorious S&M novel by Japans premiere kink writer Oniroku Dan. Probably no one could be more fitting to helm such a feature than director Takashi Iishi (Freeze Me, Gonin, Black Angel). A former manga writer whose first feature was the roman porno Angel Guts: Red Vertigo, Takashi Iishi had the resume and mind set to mount another cinematic adaptation of the material.
Takayoshi Toyama (Hironobu Nomura) is the president of a large corporation who is struggling with life at home with his beautiful wife, a famous dancer, Shizuko (Aya Sugimoto), and at work where some shady business transactions land him in trouble with the yakuza. His wife is beautiful but cold. Her career puts her in the public light and draws the attention of a much feared and powerful gangster Ippei Tashiro (Renji Ishibashi). Morita (Kenichi Endo), a representative for boss Tashiro delivers Takayoshi an ultimatum, either let them "borrow" his wife or they will publicly reveal his dirty business dealings and ruin him.
Though a hired bodyguard, Kyoko (Misaki Mori), does a good job protecting his wife, Takayoshi decides to play their game and give in to their demands because he figures there is not much a 95 year old man can really physically do. However, Shizuko is taken to a dark underground S&M club called The Coliseum where she is subjected to various tortures while Boss Tashiro and a black robed, masked audience of select clientele watches.
The tortures in The Coliseum are, pretty much, the bulk of the film. A blank circular gray stage, black background, illuminated by spotlights, the atmosphere is somewhere between Robert Mapplethorpe and Cirque du Soleil. The ringmaster is a bespeckled geek who appears in various get-ups from schoolgirl, to pink tutu, to a Sailor Moon-ish outfit. Shizuko is suspended from a cross-like contraption, forced to drink a diuretic, worked over by two dwarves wearing phallic masks, put into a leather bondage outfit and made to make out with her similarly captured body guard, she's temp tattooed and kinky-crucified, dressed like a geisha and put into extreme bondage positions and edo torture situations, and finally gang-banged by the various patrons.
Obviously not very politically correct and overtly sensational, the forced torture and sex flick has been a staple of Japanese cinema since the 60's when audiences clamored for more extreme films after the censorship laws relaxed. For all its perversity Flower and Snake doesn't stray into the more grotesque areas like a Shogun's Joy of Torture or Guinea Pig: Devil's Experiment. The film makes some remarks in the end that are typical cliches of the genre, like, "She still hasn't shown her true face." Basically this alludes to the frigidity of the character and that somehow through being tortured sexually she will have some kind of awakening. Yeah, right. This reasoning is, of course, total bullshit probably concocted by sexually ineffectual or insecure males.
I am not particularly reviled by this kind of stuff. I'm not really turned on by it either. I do tend to lean towards the side of seeing why most people would be sickened by it, but I think that has more to do with people not wanting to recognize the twisted, slobbering sections of their psyche. The demeaning "true face" reasoning aside, Japanese kink flicks like this do recognize that part of our nature, that no matter how much we may love our loved ones, there is some little part of us that wants dominance over them or sublimation for ourselves. That I can respect. Yes, it is the woman who is victimized for most of the film, but the men do not fare much better. One of the films more lasting images is that of the old impotent yakuza boss literally crawling, fumbling, and salivating in desperation, even in old, dementia-riddled age, still consumed and transfixed by feminine beauty.
Takashi Iishi does quite a good job, finding that line between sex as either a dark, elegant, velvety mystery or... you know, just about sticking things in lubricated holes. Technically his direction is very solid, though the films final act has a sloppy rhythm like some of the sequences weren't fully completed. Aya Sugimoto should be commended to for all the punishment she had to endure and flesh she had to expose. It was no doubt difficult to maintain some sort of noble face in the midst of all that sleazy action.
It should be noted that Takashi Iishi has already begun (possibly finished?) shooting a sequel with much of the same cast.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. First thing to note for you flesh mongers out there, showing pubic hair is a no-no in Japanese cinema, but Flower and Snake gets away with showing a lot of it, with only a few bits of minor optical fogging.
Overall, the image is very crisp and detailed. Sharpness and colors are especially vibrant. I wasn't expecting an import of a cheaper budgeted Japanese film to be quite this rich and expressive. The only glaring technical fumble is with some contrast and grain issues. Perhaps more due to the actual filming than a conversion issue, darker lit scenes (of which there are a lot in the last half of the film) exhibit heavy grain and weak contrast.
Sound: Dolby Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Good audio, sticking to the basics. Dialogue is nice and clear and the subtitle translation appears to well converted. The musical score has some very carnival-ish themes that add a light underscore to the seedy onscreen antics.
Extras: Trailer— Photo Gallery— Making of Featurette (26:28). We get the usual interview stuff and behind the scenes footage, but with this kind of salacious material it is more interesting than usual to hear the cast discuss it and see the footage (including a doc cameraman with an eye that seems to always roam to the women's groins). — Interview with lead actress Aya Sugimoto (15:18). Again, considering the material and what she was subjected to, a very intriguing feature. — Press Screening (14:05). The entire cast is present, along with director Iishi and writer Oniroku Dan, who starts things off with an amusing, embarrassed introduction that ends with his insisting the film is too much for him to watch.
Conclusion: Well, clearly this is not for everyone. If just reading "she was hung up, spread eagled, so that two dwarves with phallic masks could forcibly rape her vaginally and anally until she ejaculated" then you certainly don't want to watch it. But, for the rest of you, the ones that dine on fetishistic art and go to museums naked except for a trenchcoat, this one is right up your alley. The DVD is a solid presentation with good audio and visual quality and some informative extras.