Tattooed Flower Vase (1976)

In the 1970s, Japanese studios, faced with mounting pressure from television and Hollywood, surrendered and just gave what the teaming masses what they wanted — softcore. And thus, the pink eiga (pink movie) was born. What followed could either be viewed as the beginning of a golden age of Japanese cinema or its ignoble demise. It definitely seemed like a bizarro-world version of Japanese cinema popularized by the likes of Donald Richie. Movies like Wife to be Sacrificed — featuring sadomasochism, enema use, and hints of necrophilia — became blockbuster hits while Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima were forced to go abroad to find funding. Pink eiga were first vilified by scandalized Western critics (like Richie) as being little more than exploitation flicks. And sure, they are exploitation flicks with all the lurid sex and sexism that the genre dictates. It doesn’t mean that they’re not interesting.

The other day I watched Tattooed Flower Vase directed by Masaru Konuma (who also directed Wife to be Sacrificed). Michiyo (played by Naomi Tani) is a kimono-clad widow who makes traditional Japanese paper dolls in an old fashion corner of Tokyo that has no doubt been since paved over to make condos. Her nubile, thoroughly modern, daughter Takako (Takako Kitagawa) comes home from college and promptly the two take a bath together in a traditional Japanese wooden tub. As Takako soaps up her mom’s ample breasts, she admonishes her to go out date. The sweaty middle-aged guy who sells Michiyo’s dolls has the same idea, and with the charm and aplomb typical to sweaty middle-aged men in these sort of movies, he drugs and violates her. The rape begins a sexual awakening in Michiyo — a particularly loathsome, if common, cliche in pink eiga — that is intensified by the presence of Hideo, the son of the kabuki performer who loved/raped her when she was young. She falls completely and utterly for the lad, even though she keeps calling him by his father’s name. The problem is that Hideo has already shacked up with Takako. When Michiyo witnesses — while tearfully masturbating — Hideo doinking her daughter, she snaps and, um, gets a full body tattoo. Her transformation from being a prim upstanding matron to being a sex-crazed tattooed hellcat is complete. She ravishes the youth as if she were in heat. When Takako bursts in upon the copulating couple, Michiyo snaps out of her frenzy and either through anguish, remorse or sheer embarrassment proceeds to disembowel herself on a shard of glass.

Michiyo is the ideal of the “traditional” woman. She wears a kimono, lives in an old beams and tatami style house, and surrounds herself with traditional arts. She’s also demur and at least initially, chaste. And when her libido finally comes to a rolling boiling, it is something deep, elemental and frightening. Takako, who spends much of the movie either listening to pop music, demanding sex from Hideo, and/or pouting, seems vapid and superficial by comparison. Hideo, the clear stand-in for the male audience, is callow, passive and, well, dull. The character and his masculinity seem overwhelmed by the Takako’s bluntness on the one hand and Michiyo’s Krakatoa-like fount of feminine sexuality on the other.

This fault line between modernity and gender relations is something that runs through most of modern Japanese art. Or rather, Japan’s sudden and disorienting modernization is frequently seen through the prism of gender relations. Japan’s first novel Ukigumo by Futabatei Shimei is about one hapless schmuck trying desperately to understand a beautiful and thoroughly modern young lass. The tropes in the this film — modern girl vs. traditional girl, rape as sexual awakening, passive reserved male, a woman the slave to her passions — are so pervasive that I’m inclined to think that pink eiga is a churning reservoir for Japan’s collective unconscious. I need to think this through some more, but I think there’s something there.

Konuma direction is spare and elegant. Naomi Tani — whose beauty only really becomes apparent when she’s either writhing in pain or sexual esctasy — gives a memorable performance. But what I find really interesting about Tattooed Flower Vase is not what makes it remarkable; it’s what makes it typical.

The Garfield Factor: President James A. Garfield would no doubt dismiss the whole genre as ungodly smut and return to his beloved ancient Greek.

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