The origins of the Japanese pink films (pinku, pinky, or how about just plain sex or naughty?) is interesting because it was actually spawned by serious cineasts. While nudie shorts popped up in Japan just like they did everywhere else in celluloids early days, in the early 60's, mavericks like Tetsuji Takechi (the Daydream films, Dream of the Red Chamber) opened the floodgates for more explicit (and in his case- fully explicit) content ranging from the salacious (Teruo Ishii's Torture films) to the serious (Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses) to the subversive (Koji Wakamatsu, Tatsumi Kumashiro, etc). By the early 70's, it was solidified enough to have its own famous "Roman Porno" production outlet at Nikkatsu studios and, though mostly resigned to direct to video, still remains a strong genre where many serious directors dabble and/or use as a springboard for their careers.
I've seen my fair share of pink film's, but one name within the genre that has always escaped me is Mamoru Watanabe, director of some 200 films, most of them pinku's. Needless to say, I was excited to hear of Cinema Epoch's release of Watanabe's Slave Widow (1967).
Following the sudden death of her husband, Mitsuko Fuji is left a widow. She learns that her husband business finances were in ruins and he was heavily indebted to Mr. Kito, nicknamed within the corporate world as "The Devil." Mr. Kito puts his son, Kasuhiko, in charge of Mr. Fuji's company and while inspecting the Fuji home makes advances Mitsuko, forcing himself upon her. Mitsuko gives in to becoming Mr. Kito's mistress, the only way to keep her home, the only way to avoid her husbands debts.
The further wrinkle to the story is that Kasuhiko becomes enamored with the widow Fuji. He recognizes that she is not the usual trollop his father has dalliances with. Couple that sympathy and lust with the fact that Kasuhiko is being forced to marry the snobby daughter of a wealthy business friend of his father, and you have all the makings of a good drama.
The DVD is labeled as part of Cinema Epoch's "Grindhouse Sexsploitation Collection," which may be a tad misleading. The terms grindhouse and sexsploitation usually conjure a much more dirty and cheap image than you will find in Slave Widow. Really, though it is an erotic film, the sex scenes are of the subdued variety, skin is tastefully displayed, and the tone and direction is more Crazed Fruit than Angel Guts or Tokyo Deep Throat. Here you definitely have the more straightforward, serious drama, aiming above the gutter variety of the Japanese pink film.
I was highly impressed with Slave Widow. It is a good erotic-drama-tragedy and though it was clearly low budget and the storytelling simple, the impression I was left with was that Mamoru Watanabe was economical in these aspects as opposed to just plain cheap.
Viewers will easily predict the films final outcome. Mitsuko is entranced by a lake that lies near her home. She tells Kasuhiko the local folk tale about a princess who went to drown herself in the lake rather than enter into an arraigned marriage. Rather than die the princess "merged" and became one with the water. See, even reading that, you probably have an idea of the finale, but it is effective due to the precise poetry of Watanabe's handling of this obvious metaphor, including a great opening credit sequence of flexing flesh in blackness, accompanied by the sound of a woman sensually breathing, which fades into shots of the lake water with wind rippling its surface.
While the plot mechanics were a bit conventional- the son falling in love with his overbearing father's mistress, "The Devil" claiming that Mitsuko enjoyed the physical affections because there was something sinful and vampireish within her- I appreciated the subtle touches. For instance, there is a great moment between Kasuhiko and his finance at club, calamitous bebop filling the soundtrack suddenly goes dead silent so the finance can dryly say, "I cannot wait until we get married." It is those kind of moments and the controlled, formal direction and pitch perfect performances that viewers will find rewarding.
The DVD: Cinema Epoch
Anamorphic Widescreen. Black & White. The films age and low budget definitely shows. Cinema Epoch deals with very fringe films and if you have any of their other releases the quality here should be expected. The print shows some wear and tear, dirt and lines, and at least one scene exhibits some yellowed damage on the corner of the frame.
Mono. Japanese with burned-in English subtitles. Considering the films age, the mono track is fine. Some distortions are present but not to a severe or annoying degree. The subs are a problem, typical of older films with on the print subs, there are some legibility issues where the white subs fade into the background.
While I really enjoyed the film and recommend fans of classic Japanese cinema check it out, the basic presentation and lack of any extras, let alone significant ones, is a bummer. A bio, maybe some Watanabe trailers, I'm sure Chris D. Or Jasper Sharp would be open to dish out a couple of paragraphs for some liner notes, all seem like reasonable options. But, it remains that Watanabe is a film maker who has a large body of work not well represented on DVD, so I am grateful for the release of anything, even if it is piecemeal.