Called a ‘pink’ movie response to the hit 1960s Red Peony Gambler series starring Fujii Junko as a wandering gambler in the mid-Meiji Period (1868-1912), Watanabe Mamoru’s Women Hell Song (1970) was no mere rip-off.
True, Katori Tamaki, a genre veteran who had starred in Flesh Market (1962), considered the first-ever pink film, plays a Fujii-like gambler, but the film is quite different in look, tone and story from the series. Fujii’s character was a paragon of yakuza virtue, always parting from her yakuza romantic interest without a single steamy bed scene. By contrast Tamaki’s Okayo, nicknamed Benten for the Buddhist goddess of love (as well as everything from music to good fortune) tattooed on her back, is on the run from the law after killing numbers of yakuza and considers herself a lost soul bound for hell.
While on the road to the town of Shibukawa Okayo is arrested by a crooked detective, Honda (Muto Shusaku), who turns her over to a brutish gangster, Ginji the Viper (Yoshida Jun), and his henchman in exchange for money. Promising to skin her alive in revenge for her murder of his boss, Ginji drags her to the bottom of a darkened slope and proceeds to rape her. But a mysterious man with a pistol appears just in the nick of time.
Three years later Okayo is again on the road to Shibukawa when she encounters Denpachi (Nogami Kisayoshi), a pushy, loud-mouthed chimpira (apprentice gangster). Easily delecting his threats, she arrives safely in Shibukawa, but Denpachi pals up with Ginji, now even more bent on payback. Meanwhile, Okayo becomes friends with Osayo, an impressionable teenager who views Okayo as a wise older sister.
While the women are bathing in a hot springs, Denpachi and Ginji attack. Okayo survives yet again, but her past is not yet done with her. Honda, now a wealthy cotton mill owner, has bought Osayo’s virginity from a slimy flesh peddler and is determined to claim his purchase. Meanwhile, Okayo reunites with Seigaku – the mystery man of three years before, now a wearing the uniform of a schoolboy. But his intentions toward her are anything but innocent.
Shot mostly in black-and-white, with color used for the softcore bed scenes, Women Hell Song combines low comedy and rough sex with shadowy atmospheric shots that evoke Japanese Golden Age classics, if more the ghost story movies than the sword actioners. Also, in everything from Akayo’s poetic musings about her dark fate to the painting of a fleshy Benten in the background of a futon romp, the film abounds with references to traditional folklore, culture and religion. The first is Okayo’s threat to haunt her tormentor, Honda, after her untimely death, the last is her plea for Buddha’s mercy on her lover, Seigaku, as he lies dying.
Already a pink film veteran at the time of Women Hell Song’s release, Watanabe Mamoru would go on to direct many more films in the genre until his last, Parting Present, in 2008. But he also had a special regard for this extraordinary pink period film, keeping a print in his collection until his death in 2013 at age 82. The digitally restored version of the film, screened at the 20th Udine FEFF, was only possible because of this print, the last in existence.
Watanabe Mamoru was born in Tokyo in 1931. His father managed a movie theater in Tokyo’s Kita Ward and Watanabe grew up watching films. He worked as an actor, scriptwriter, and assistant director for TV before making his directing debut in 1965 with the pink film Hussy. Over the next four decades Watanabe would direct nearly 200 pink films, together with a scattering of straight commercial features. He made his last pink film, Parting Present, in 2008. On 24 December 2013, he died during pre-production for Treasure Ship: Latitudes of Lust (2014). Ikawa Koichiro, who directed the film, also made a documentary on his life and work, Watanabe Mamoru: An Autobiographical Documentary.
1965 – Hussy
1967 – Slave Widow
1970 – Women Hell Song
1970 – Abnormal Eros: Assault with No Tomorrow
1970 – Secret Hot Spring Town: Nightly Starfish
1980 – Virgin Rope Makeover
1980 – Apartment Wife Bondage
1993 – Crimson Lotus Blossom
2008 – Parting Present