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The startling 1966 revenge thriller Irezumi ("Tattoo") is less a lurid bit of pulp fiction than an artfully mounted dark fairy tale for adults. Director Yasuzo Masumura (Black Test Car), screenwriter Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko), and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, A Story from Chikamatsu) craft an unsettling, dread-soaked expansion of an early story by Junichiro Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters).
Willful Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) leaves her merchant parents to elope with timid apprentice Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa). Unfortunately, they hide out with a real villain, who sells Otsuya to a geisha house and sets Shinsuke up to be killed. At the geisha house, Otsuya has a giant spider with a woman's face forcibly tattooed on her back. The image is supposed to mirror what Otsuya is supposed to do now: suck men dry to increase the wealth of the geisha house. Otsuya's transformation goes beyond that, however, and she plots to take the lives of the men who have made her what she is now. When Shinsuke resurfaces, wracked with guilt over killing his would-be murderer, it is uncertain whether Otsuya will be able to rebuild a life with her would-be husband -- or if he will become one of her victims.
The film is punctuated by outbursts of violence. Masumura stages these moments in decidedly inelegant ways and elongates them beyond the scope of typical movie scuffles. The added screen time and lack of concise choreography in these sequences is effectively discomfiting.
The whole film has an eerie Twilight Zone aura, even if it never fully manifests into a "proper" horror film. Wakao reads as a woman who is self-possessed but also offers the slightest suggestion that she might also be possessed by the evil spirit represented by the tattoo on her back. The resulting performance is totally magnetic and -- like the film -- often surprising.
Arrow's Blu-ray of Irezumi features reversible cover art, featuring the original Japanese poster design and a new image by Tony Stella. The first pressing comes with a booklet featuring essays by Thomas Lamarre and Daisuke Miyao.
The AVC-encoded 1080p 2.35:1 presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration and is impeccable. The colors are richly saturated, and Kazuo Miyagawa's high-contrast lighting is strikingly dramatic.
The Japanese DTS-HD MA mono audio (with optional English subtitles) is well-restored. Clean and clear, with no noticeable flaws.
- As he did for Arrow's Kiju Yoshida box set, Desser provides well-researched and engaging social and historical context for the film. He talks about the sexual politics baked into the story, as well as the careers of the major contributors.
A striking and spooky thriller that merges the sensibilities of high and low art. This is its first international release, and it well worth a watch. Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a frequent wearer of beards. He directed a folk-rock documentary called Making Lovers & Dollars, which is now streaming. He also can found be found online reading short stories and rambling about pop music.