Monday, September 12, 2016

Women of Whirlpool Island, aka Jotai Uzumaki-to (Japan, 1960)

After cutting his teeth on the Super Giant movies (that’s Starman to you, yankee), Teruo Ishii went on to direct a wide variety of genre pictures for Shintoho, including a series of film noirs. All of them, to some extent, bare traces of the perversity that Ishii would later give free reign in his euro guro films of the 70s, 1960’s Women of Whirlpool Island included.

Women begins with Okami (Yoshido Teruo)--a classic hoodlum with a conscience, laconic and steadfast--returning to the island hideout of his gang, a shady nightspot called Club Seaside. Here he attempts to reconnect with his former lover Yuri, who is played by Mihara Yoko, a later Pinky Violence mainstay. Yuri, sadly, has been reduced to a heroin dependent slave of the gang, and is being forced by them to help recruit the young women of the island to act as drug mules, sex slaves, or both.

One of these young women is a fiery dock worker named Shima, who is played by Masayo Banri (Tane in the Zatoichi movies). Through Shima, we see the cruel process by which these girls are inducted—lured with promises of travel and adventure, and then, for those destined for the sex trade, raped by one of the gang higher ups before being forcibly hooked on drugs and shipped out to wealthy clients overseas. Yuri, for her part, is sick over her complicity in this racket, and begs Okami to end her life upon their first meeting. Instead Okami helps her to get clean and, then, after befriending Shima, partners with Yuri in bringing the gang down through a series of violent escapades.

In Ishii’s hands, Women of Whirpool Island is a film noir swathed in a fog of melancholy. The island setting seems primarily intended to represent a place isolated from law, where evil enjoys free reign. There is no literal whirlpool here, only a metaphorical whirlpool of vice and degradation that is impossible to escape once one dives in. The righteous have little hope in a place like this and, for them, the island’s sheer cliffs, towering over a roiling sea, represent an ever-present invitation to suicide.

At the same time, Ishii’s approach to this material explodes with visual invention. Much of the film’s first half involves scenes of two or more characters talking, and the director enlivens these potential longueurs with dramatic, deep focus compositions and inventive lighting schemes involving the use of colored gels (in one shot, Yuri is illuminated by a single, pure white spotlight, while the rest of the gang is bathed in a deep red.) He also employs so many low angle shots of his actors that he at times appears to be paying homage to Ozu.

As for the director who would later make Horrors of Malformed Men, he is evident in a druggy dance sequence reminiscent of the alien dance troupe (or, as I like to call them, the Alvin Aliens) in Invaders From Space and the wave of sadism that sweeps through the film’s final act. The latter occurs after the gang’s uber boss arrives on the island in the wake of repeated failed attempts by his underlings to keep Okami in check. The boss has a glowering teddy-boy enforcer who is quick to dole out consequences. First, he viciously whips the lieutenant in charge and then literally grinds his face into the dirt with his shiny Cuban heel. Then Yuro is hung from a chain and whipped. This being a Japanese film, the preceding is all aestheticized to some extent, but, as it’s also a gritty film noir, it is not aestheticized to the point that it doesn’t provoke a few grimaces.

Unless you are someone completely devoid of imagination—or who has never seen a movie --I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Women of Whirlpool Island ends in a hail of bullets. All I’ll say beyond that is that it is a satisfying conclusion to the competent genre exercise that has preceded it. The film’s main attraction may be its controversial director, but it is nonetheless strong enough to stand on its own—itself an island, distinct from Ishii’s larger body of work. In that metaphor, I guess that body of work would be some kind of larger land mass. A continent, I guess. Anyway, good movie.

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