Yasuzō Masumura’s Irezumi (1966) has been called “proto-feminist”, “subversive”, and “ahead of its time” by audiences and critics since the beginning of Masumura’s reappraisal in the 2010s. These descriptors of Masumura’s tale of vengeance and frustration are both accurate and deserved. Masumura’s versatility as a filmmaker and the diversity of the genres in which he worked make him a difficult figure for easy auteurist labels. Yet, when his vast filmography is viewed as a whole, the connecting thematic tissue of his life’s work is a commitment to socio-political critiques and an uneasiness with the status quo of post-war Japanese culture.
In Tony Rayns’ introduction to Irezumi on the excellent Arrow Video Blu-Ray release, Rayns alleges that Masumura saw men as primitive brutes who abuse their political and social powers while he believed women were more cultured, intelligent, and resourceful. Over the course of its eighty-six minute runtime, Irezumi does a good job of conveying Masumura’s perceptions on gender.
In many ways Irezumi is remarkably similar to Masumura’s later film Chijin no Ai (1967). Both films follow female characters who rebel against the social and political constructs of patriarchal Japan through subtle manipulations, cold calculation, and always at the expense of a buffoonish male counterpart. But where Chijin no Ai is satirical, Irezumi is tragic. Like Street Of Shame (1956), Irezumi charts the downfall of a woman within society.
Masumura cast his muse and frequent collaborator Ayako Wakao as Otsuya, a woman whose affair with her father’s apprentice Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) leads to murder, a sinister spider tattoo, and a life as a geisha. With her agency constantly under threat, Otsuya must appear passive while manipulating the men around her to gradually restore her autonomy. Again and again, Otsuya’s change from refined lady to man-eater is attributed to the spider spirit that resides in the tattoo branded upon her back. The spider becomes the central metaphor of Masumura’s film, representing the proto-feminist assertions of Otsuya that threaten the patriarchal status quo around her.
Irezumi, a film that celebrates the resilience and cunning of a woman, is executed in claustrophobic frames with theatrical lighting and production design. Irezumi is set in an unreal, highly expressionistic world of torrential lightning storms and heavy rain where the atmosphere is literally as oppressive as the men in Otsuya’s orbit. Otsuya may not be permitted to survive that shadowy world, but she will claim as many men’s lives as possible before Masumura slowly fades to black like some final curtain fall.
Irezumi can end no other way if only because Otsuya’s rebellion was on a purely intimate scale. A lone subversive in a hostile environment cannot survive in Masumura’s estimation. Her death, her martyrdom can, however, through the film invoke outrage and reflection in the spectator that hopefully plants the seeds of change. This is the gift of so many of Masumura’s pictures. These are entertainments with a strong moral center that condemn the past and present in order that the audience may dream a better tomorrow.