Woman With Red Hair (1979) sees filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro returning again to the fringes of Japanese society to tell a tale of sexual comodafication and societal oppression. Like the torrential rains of the region, the social expectations and cultural norms of Japan close in and suffocate the working class characters of Woman With Red Hair. In the vise of economic instability and thwarted expectations Kumashiro’s cast of characters strike out at one another violently in an attempt to grasp some form of order or some means of escape.
Woman With Red Hair is the Nikkatsu pink film as high art and social commentary. In this genre of erotica Kumashiro found a means of expressing the darkest and most self-destructive aspects of the popular Japanese psyche. The cyclically repetitive nature of the narrative of Woman With Red Hair coupled with Kumashiro’s unique eye for gritty detail imbues the film with a literary quality. A kind of social-realist soft-core melodrama that is determined to follow its cast of characters into oblivion. But this is not the oblivion of utter destruction but rather one of remorseful stagnation; a state of perpetual death at the bottom of society’s pecking order.
Kozo (Renji Ishibashi), the male lead of the film, uses women for pleasure and social currency. His partner and counterpart, the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), employs her sexual prowess to obtain social and economic security through her partner. Kumashiro, like R.W. Fassbinder, views these power dynamics and the manipulations that go with them as natural extensions of the characters’ social and economic oppression. Despite acts of rape and physical abuse Kumashiro does not judge nor invite the audience to judge his characters. Kumashiro’s cinema merely documents and observes the everyday cruelties of the poor as Kumashiro imagines them; a kind of stark and sadistic allegory.
Time in a Kumashiro film is so ill defined that the characters seem adrift in a temporal void. Woman With Red Hair opens with a scene of a rape that cuts back and forth from the assault itself to its prologue and epilogue to trace a link of causality rather than a clear linear progression. Kumashiro is far more interested in motivations and results than in acts of violence themselves. This approach is echoed later where transitions from a scene of rape cut from one scene to the next with great rapidity before settling into the new temporal locale. It is as if Kumashiro is suggesting that these characters, and Kozo in particular, are physically losing themselves in these acts of desperate and depraved violence.
Within the dramatic scenes that make up Kumashiro’s dense cinematographic complex, Woman With Red Hair addresses sex, the single purpose of a Roman Porno, with a blunt frankness. Kumashiro limits his visual stylization to how he censors explicit genitalia, preferring acts of sex to play out in long takes. Sex is just a part of the natural order of things in a Kumashiro pinku film and that is reflected visually and in the dialogue. The characters casually comment on the taste of semen, the smell of menstruation, and so on and so forth. These scenes with the sustained gaze of the camera and the matter-of-factness of the performers makes them the most “realistic” in the film.
Political correctness and glossy stylistic gestures are totally absent from Woman With Red Hair. Kumashiro is often compared to Shōhei Imamura and Walerian Borowczyk because he rejects the blatant artifice of the mainstream cinema in favor of something far more subtle, erotic, and ultimately intimate. Kumashiro is a filmmaker wholly invested in showing small, insular worlds that exist almost beyond society and Woman With Red Hair is no exception.