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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Hanzo The Razor
Hanzo The Razor
Home Vision Entertainment // Unrated // April 19, 2005
List Price: $59.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Todd Brown | posted May 1, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Place yourself for a moment in the Japan of the early seventies. Sick of government corruption and fearful that rising capitalism will destroy their way of life the student protest movement has turned radical and violent. The Japanese film studio system, slow to adapt to the cultural changes, has failed with some studios going bankrupt and others surviving by making a wholesale switch to producing 'pinku' films - a wholly Japanese form of soft porn and exploitation film. While this time largely devastated the film industry in Japan it also allowed a small handful of performers and producers to launch the first significant independent film movement in the country's history. One such man was Shintaru Katsu.

Best known for his very long running role as Zatoichi - the hugely popular Blind Swordsman featured in a long running television series and a lengthy run of feature films, with Katsu's signature role recently being reprised by art house auteur Takeshi Kitano - Katsu was left adrift when Daiei Studios closed their doors. Perhaps seeing an opportunity in his new found freedom Katsu launched his own Katsu Productions, a production shingle soon to be responsible for a pair of now legendary cult film series.

With local cinemas flooded with pinku and imported blaxploitation films Katsu needed to provide comparable shock value if he was to succeed and with the film industry being largely unpoliced he was able to do just that, with manga artist Kazuo Koike providing the basis for the two series Katsu would release as hyper-violent double bills. Series one - the Lone Wolf and Cub films openly referenced in Kill Bill and whose basic story provided the base for Sam Mendes' Road To Perdition - starred Katsu's brother as a masterless samurai on a bloody quest for revenge accompanied only by his infant son. Series two starred Katsu himself as the titular Hanzo the Razor, a hard nosed police officer in Shogunate-era Japan.

Make no mistake about it: though dressed up as a period drama the Hanzo films are purely a product of their times. Featuring enough sex and graphic bloodletting to satisfy the exploitation crowd the films rest purely on Katsu's Hanzo. Openly disdainful of authority in general and his superiors specifically Hanzo is a hard boiled anti-hero in the Clint Eastwood / Charles Bronson mold. His only concern is the well being of the common man and he will use any means necessary to achieve his ends, trampling over jurisdictional boundaries, willingly torturing suspects and using his own special techniques to extract information from the ladies. Hanzo, you see, is remarkably well endowed and has developed his sexual powers through a strict training program involving wooden blocks and a straw basket filled with rice. When he needs information from a woman Hanzo simply trumps up a charge, brings her in for 'questioning', and inflicts such pleasure that the threat of his stopping is enough to prompt a full confession. His sexual prowess seems a clear - though far more extreme - nod to the Bond films of the day, as does his supply of hidden weapons and wildly booby-trapped home. Throw in a funk-based soundtrack and you've got a bizarre stew of ingredients that could only have come together in the seventies. Need a quick and dirty reference point? Hanzo is the Japanese answer to Shaft.

Sword of Justice, the first film of the trilogy wastes no time in establishing the character. The magisterial law enforcement officers have gathered before the head magistrate to renew their vows of service, a vow Hanzo flatly refuses to take arguing that he cannot swear to refuse bribes when the office he works for routinely accepts 'gifts' from wealthy businessmen and influential officials. When his superior later comes to threaten Hanzo with dismissal he is discovered inflicting torture on himself, using himself as a guinea pig to learn the limits of human endurance so that he can more effectively extract confessions.

Believing the he, along with his subordinates, will be fired for his insubordination Hanzo sends his underlings to trail the superior officer in hopes of finding enough dirt on him to save their jobs. What they find is something far larger, a conspiracy reaching all the way into the imperial palace. Rooting out that conspiracy will take Hanzo down a road including several impalings, eye gougings, massive sprays of blood, hidden wall spikes, a naked woman covered with invisible writing, and the same woman bound and suspended in a net spinning round and round on Hanzo's penis as part of her interrogation.

Sword of Justice functions best as an introduction to the character. Though highly entertaining it is a little uneven in its plotting, particularly when it comes to a lengthy epilogue tacked on to humanize the character that has no connection to the rest of the film whatsoever. While the sexual content is graphic it is less so than you might assume thanks to a complete ban on genital nudity in Japanese film. The sexual politics are sure to offend many as Hanzo is technically a rapist, forcing himself on to women in his interrogations, an act the film mediates some by having Hanzo be resolutely businesslike through the whole process - this is clearly about information and not pleasure for him - and having the women be hugely appreciative afterwards, a fact that in itself is sure to offend some.

The second film in the series - The Snare - ups the sex and violence quotient right out of the gate. The film opens with a bloody sword fight brought on when Hanzo - in pursuit of a pair of suspects - refuses to give way to a high ranking government official. Those suspects lead Hanzo to the naked corpse of a young girl, which leads him to a temple being used as a front to perform abortions which leads, in turn, to another temple used as a front for a high priced brothel catering to the rich and influential with the priestess as the madam. Things ultimately wrap up with Hanzo laying a trap for a master criminal planning to rob the national mint.

What unevenness there was in Sword of Justice is gone in The Snare. The character is well defined and the script crackles along at a ferocious pace. Everything is tighter and the extreme elements are, well, more extreme. The Snare stands comfortably as the ultimate Hanzo experience. Beautifully shot, tightly edited and overloaded with skin, blood and attitude. Those offended by this sort of thing will find this film easily the most offensive while fans will revel in the trash.

Following the rush of The Snare the third and final Hanzo film, Who's Got the Gold, is a bit of a step back. Though Who's Got the Gold is still worthwhile viewing it is clearly the weakest of the three films on a number of levels. The direction here isn't nearly as crisp and the character seems to be getting a little bit tired. The film makers also get away from the Hanzo formula a little bit, stepping down the action content in favor of more open attempts at humor – particularly with Hanzo's two lieutenants – and a much more open attempt at social commentary with a plot line that openly addresses issues of westernization. This is also the only one of the three films that attempts to set Hanzo in a larger context, introducing a childhood friend as a significant secondary character. It seems as though the film makers were trying to broaden the character some, make him more of an actual human being rather than a two dimensional mass of id, but in the process ended up diluting and weakening some of the elements that drew audiences to Hanzo in the first place. A character like this succeeds because he lives in a sort of fantasy world similar but significantly different from our own and subject to its own distinct set of rules. Make that world and the character too much like reality and the illusion begins to crumble …

Who's Got the Gold begins with Hanzo's two lieutenants getting drunk while fishing in a pond outside the royal treasury. When a ghostly figure rises up out of the water – if you think Hideo Nakata started the whole long haired female ghost rising out of the water thing with The Ring you are wrong, wrong, wrong – the pair panic and run back home to tell their master. Hanzo, interrupted in the midst of his sexual exercises, is intrigued by their story and, wanting to see what it feels like to make love to a ghost, has them take him to the spot. When the ghost returns Hanzo immediately sees that she is a fake and sets of in pursuit, a chase that eventually leads him to a cache of stolen treasury gold hidden in bamboo tubes beneath the surface of the water. The investigation of the theft leads him to a conspiracy within the treasury itself, a blind music instructor / loan shark and, in a side note that becomes increasingly important as the film progresses, a disgraced doctor that believes Edo is headed for destruction and colonization if it fails to recognize the technological superiority of the west.

As I have been watching and writing about these films one very simple question has been running through my head: why am I not finding this offensive? Violence against women is a hot button issue for me and I was thoroughly expecting that the Hanzo films would, at least, make me angry once or twice each. But they didn't. Is it simply that I've been desensitized to this sort of thing? I don't think so. My first theory, and I think there's some truth to this, was that the films never ask you to enjoy someone else's pain, at least not in the sex scenes. There is some truly violent sexual content in the films, particularly in The Snare, but when it crops up it never involves Hanzo himself and is very clearly portrayed in a negative light, the film makers are clearly saying that the people involved in these things are degraded or openly evil. But that explanation only takes you so far: what is the quantitative difference between a thief raping a women violently and painfully and Hanzo raping her in a way that brings pleasure? Rape is rape, yes? Well, yes and no …

Hanzo the Razor, as is the case with virtually all quality genre film, functions at least partially as allegory. These are films made during a time of great disillusionment and political unrest and Hanzo, as with most anti-heroes of the time, stands in for the common man. He has lost control of his world, the power and beauty has been taken from the common people and hoarded by the corrupt elite. Despite being surrounded by the corrupting influences of power Hanzo has remained untainted, a champion for the common people. Though greatly out numbered and often believing that he is doomed to fail, Hanzo continues to fight his battle to bring honor, dignity and justice back to the common people. If Hanzo is meant to represent the common people, what of those he comes in contact with? There are three main categories: the corrupt, the desperate, and the women. He deals with all three in very distinct and deliberate ways.

Though every film has some sort of titular villain, Hanzo's obvious target, they all also feature the common theme of the corrupt establishment. Whether it be a politician, a religious or financial figure every film also features at least one character with power and influence who uses their power purely for their own gain. These are Hanzo's real targets and every film concludes with him somehow taking at least one of them down, whether it be through death, imprisonment, public humiliation or by using his knowledge of their misdeeds as leverage to force them to do good for the people.

All films also feature the desperate, poor people who have broken the law because it is the only way to survive. On these people Hanzo always shows as much mercy as he can – his two subordinates are both former criminals he freed from a penal colony – while using their plight as fuel for his rage against the corrupt establishment that put them in such desperate straights in the first place.

And what of the women? The women, I believe, represent what is beautiful and good in Japan and Japanese culture. But, in a culture that treated women subordinate to men, powerful men, these representatives of beauty and culture have been held captive and subordinate to the corrupt men of power. There are those held by threats of violence, those held by financial bonds, those who have been corrupted by men, but in all cases the women Hanzo deals with have been subordinated by the more powerful corrupt forces he fights against. Seen in this light what Hanzo is doing is liberating by force. His treatment of women is an image for the activism of the time, a burst of violence that is ultimately good for all involved. He bursts in, takes them away from the captors by force, shows them something better, and they ultimately all switch allegiance, moving away from the established powers and on to the side of the common people. View the film as nothing but wish fulfillment – and it absolutely does function on that level to a degree – and the content is troubling for good reasons. Take is as a subversive social commentary, however, and it opens a new layer of meaning.

Though the set is light on extras - it includes only the theatrical trailers for all three films - HVE has given these the deluxe treatment where it counts, restoring and remastering the films from the original source materials. There are some slight flaws on Sword of Justice due to damage on the original negatives but these films have never looked so good. The transfers are crisp and clear, showcasing the excellent cinematography to full effect. The original audio tracks are included and the subtitles are flawless. It's not for the squeamish or faint at heart but for cult film fans the Hanzo box is a gold mine.
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