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Angel Guts: The Nikkatsu Series
What makes the Angel Guts series of films stand out is that they are adaptations of manga author Takashi Ishii and includes his first film as a director, Red Vertigo. Over the past decade, he has become a successful director with films like Freeze Me, the Black Angel trilogy, and Gonin. Each Angel Guts film has a central female character called Nami, lots of bared flesh, rape, some more rape, and straddles that exploitation line between pure tastelessness and saying something about the darker sides of the human sexual psyche. It ain't easy stuff folks.
High School Co-Ed (1978)- A trio of no good hooligan bikers run around beating people up and raping women. The "sensitive" member of the gang, Tetsuro (Sansho Shinsui), seems to be living a dual life, one violent and debauched with his buddies, the other seemingly well-adjusted, caring for his younger sister, and working hard at a factory so he can pay off the families debt. The gangs brotherhood is fragmented when Kajima, the leader, attacks a schoolgirl, Nami (Machiko Ohtani), that bears resemblance to Tetsuro's sister. This doesn't sit well with Tetsuro and it fractures the group. Kajima proposes that Tetsuro must rape the same girl in order for to win himself back into the fold. When he refuses and takes it upon himself to protect her, Tetsuro finds himself questioning his way of life... The least sex-filmish of the set- it is more like a straight, rebel youth film- with Tetsuro coming to the realization that he is trying to protect his sister from guys like himself and his amoral buddies. Though it is the most straightforward, dramtic film in the bunch, it still gets the ball rolling with its in your face, often unsettling approach.
Red Classroom (1979)- Muraki (Keizo Kanie) is one of a trio of pornographers dabbling in fetishistic photo spreads. When the guys watch a stag film of a schoolgirl getting raped, Muraki becomes fixated on the girl in the film and begins to try and track her down. When he does finally find her, the girl, Nami (Yuki Mizuhara), confesses that she was not a willing participant in the film. Though she seems ready to give into his advances, Muraki insists that it is more about sex and arranges a more romantic tryst with his dream girl. He misses their liaison because the cops arrest him for violating the "Protection of Minors Act" because he unknowingly hired an underage age girl. Cut to three years later and Muraki is a married man with children, though he is still obsessed with Nami and will be shocked when he does find her again... The premise here is a variation on the old Laura standard, a man becomes obsessed with some kind of fantasy. In this case, he becomes obsessed with an image, not the person, and becomes intent on saving her from a seedy life that she might not want to be saved from.
Nami (1979)- Along with High School Co-Ed, my favorite of the films. Nami (Eri Kanuma) is a reporter for THE WOMAN magazine and is in the midst of a series of articles called "Rape and its Consequences." She is cold and callous, tracking down former rape victims, ambushing them with a camera crew, effectively badgering them into recalling their terrible stories. Naturally her brick wall demeanor and lack of sympathy comes back to bite her when one interviewee goes psycho on her and rapes her, leading to a downward spiral where her life becomes a living nightmare... Wins bonus points for Eri Kanuma's performance, the surrealism of the ending, the Hunter S Thompson-ish rival tabloid reporter, and its twisted take on journalistic ethics.
Red Porno (1981)- This time out Nami (Jun Izumi) is a hostess who takes a side job as a nudie model and finds herself in a bondage shoot she is uncomfortable with. The magazine with her photos becomes the obsession of a introvert named Muraki, who has caught the suspicious eye of his neighbors who are on the lookout for a panty sniffer and rapist who has been in the area. The photo spread is also used as leverage to get her fired by her boss, who she has been having an affair with. Meanwhile she still has the advances of her stalker to deal with... This one really didn't do anything for me, and aside from a female masturbation scene involving a condom, an egg, and a couple of No. 02 pencils, there really wasn't anything all theat memorable (and that scene is memorable for all the wrong? reasons). Could have been a decent little thriller if the sicko's "is he the murderous stalker?" plot had been beefed up.
Red Vertigo (1988)- The final Nami (Mayako Katsuragi) is a nurse. One night while on the nightshift she is attacked, and matters don't get much better when she goes home to find photographer boyfriend diddling one of his models. As if her luck were not bad enough, she is then the victim of a hit and run by Muraki (Naoto Takenaka), a stockbroker who is on the run with his life threatened by his firm and clients who have lost a fortune due to his embezzling. Rather than- oh, I don't know- taking her to a hospital, Muraki kidnaps Nami and takes her to a secluded hideout. The traumatized duo of the captor and the captured, end up falling for one another... Visually there is a lot going on, from wonky camera angles, surreal dream sequences, and expressive lighting. It actually makes a fairly good case for why the two would fall for each other. Cult fave Naoto Takenaka makes Muraki a very pathetic figure and despite her role as the bound, demoralized captive, Mayako Katsuragi's Nami ends up being the stronger of the two. Next to Red Porno, this film is the most light on plot in the series, with most of the running time involving sex scenes, to the point of tedium.
The merits of the genre, like most exploitation is debatable. Japanese nudie flicks like Angel Guts definitely stray into territory US viewers will never see popping up on Cinemax at 2AM. This is no soft focus, slow motion, narcissistic, smooth bodies grinding, Zalman King view of sex. Its often pretty ugly and odd, sometimes forced, deviant, or shameful sex being done by people that are under the grasp of obsessions they cannot or face and could ruin them. Yes, the Angel Guts films are part of a titillation genre, first and foremost, and the plotting is pretty much: sex scene, little bit of plot, sex scene, little bit of plot, sex scene. Red Classroom, for example, has a 15 minute long sequence in the 80 min film that just pads the running time. And then there is Red Porno which is just over an hour long. But, like the best exploitation, it manages to slide in some interesting observations inside its reptile brain appealing plotting. Subversive. Bizarre. Difficult.
The topic of rape is naturally uncomfortable, and its depiction in Japanese culture can often be downright unsettling in its near-glorification. The only reference to the series title comes in the first film, where one of the gang offers the desensitized view that girls are after all just a "bag of guts." But, for all of the films bared flesh and kinky antics, when rape is depicted in the films, it is never salacious and always brutal. High School Co-Ed and Red Porno do show some sympathetic tendencies towards deviants and/or rapists, like Red Porno's good stalker pervert/bad stalker pervert ideas. But, by large, the series does use the overtly sexual genre as a tarnished and unsteady platform to explore the after affects of rape on the victimized. And, that is at least a bit more than you can say of Busty Bikini Girls 18.
The DVD: Artsmagic
Picture: All of the films are presented in Anamorphic Widescreen. Now, there are some general low budget quirks that are expected, the odd bit of specks on the print or the badly photographed bit here and there. High School Co-Ed seems a tad cut off, and the aspect ratio does tighten after the opening credits, but the loss of some side picture information doesn't hurt it too much. Technically, the films are free of any glaring problems other than some minor edge enhancement. Considering the material, it is a very good job, and any lacking sharpness, deep contrast, or solid colors is more due to the low budget nature of the films.
Sound: Each films comes with the dual option of either a Japanese 2.0 track or 5.1 track with optional English subtitles. Again, considering the nature of the genre, the tracks are quite good, generally clean, and very well presented. The 5.1 remixing didnt open the soundscape up very much, and in the terms of one film, Nami, I felt the mixing was poor, making the fx and scoring a little too loud. But, overall, the only real quirks are products of the genre, like the often post dubbed dialogue track for High School Co-Ed.
Extras: Each film has Bio/filmographies, Original Sleeve Art (with translated Japanese text- a very nice feature), and Original Trailers.
All of the films have commentary by Midnight Eye editor/writer Jasper Sharp. Sharp really knows his stuff and is well prepared, but to such a point that the track lacks casualness and does have that academic dryness of someone reading notes. I found it to be a nice, if weird, contrast to have such a conservative commentary on kinky sex films. He sometimes gets a little sporadic, like the notes are slowly coming to him down a telegraph line, or downright pauses and lets the film take over. Still, a very informative feature.
By far the most interesting extra feature is the interviews. Director Chusei Sone, who helmed the first two films, is sadly M.I.A. (They literally could not find him), but High School Co-Ed has an interview with scriptwriter Toshiharu Ikeda (7:14) and Takashi Ishii (21::24) and Red Classroom has two interviews with Takashi Ishii (17:17 and 10:05). Red Porno has another interview with scriptwriter/director Toshiharu Ikeda (36:17). Nami an interview with director Noburo Tanaka (39:58). Finally, Red Vertigo has another interview with Takashi Ishii (32:30).
Conclusion: Okay, you dirty, dirty, pantsless monkeys out there- this one is for you. The Angel Guts series is not for everyone, but those interested in the films get their moneys worth with this set. Artsmagic definitely delivers and gives these very difficult to digest films good treatment and some great, educative extras. If you watch/listen to them, you will definitely learn a lot about this largely underground genre. Giving hope to cult film fans out there, this set has been made with the kind of attention that says someone out there cares.