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Sunday 19 April 2009

Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972)

Director: Kenji Misumi
Stars: Shintaro Katsu, Yukiji Asaoka, Mari Atsumi and Ko Nishimura

I'm a fan of the long running Zatoichi series with Shintaro Katsu as the blind swordsman of the title, so the opportunity to see his three Hanzo the Razor movies was too good to pass up on. This first one was fascinating from moment one, because of its unholy and bizarre mix of genres. On the face of it it can't possibly work that, given that we're set in historical Edo but with a blaxploitation soundtrack probably lifted straight from an early American original, but that's just the start. This is a swordplay movie, as you'd expect with Katsu in the lead and Kenji Misumi as the director, but the sword of the title is not what you think.

But more of that later. Before we reach the sexploitation side of this film, we establish Hanzo the Razor as the Dirty Harry character of our drama. We begin in the office of the north magistrate, home of the cops who keep peace and order in Edo. They're taking their annual oath to uphold the honour of the office, which seems pretty standard for about thirty seconds. Chief Magobei Onishi recites the oath, all about hating the crime not the criminal, not taking bribes, not compromising authority, that sort of thing. Then he signs the oath, in blood no less, wearing traditional garb plus yellow John Lennon glasses.

But Hanzo Itami, alone out of all the officers, refuses to sign this oath. Now this isn't because he's corrupt, it's because he's the only one who isn't, given that the entire office receives bribes from brothels and tradesmen and what seems like everyone else in Edo. He's been on the force for four years but has managed to avoid signing the oath thus far by calling in sick or being on duty but this time round he's there, he really speaks his mind and he refuses to sign. Naturally this causes something of a scene, with him hurling accusations at everyone from the chief on down, but that's nothing to the next one.

Next we find Hanzo, this tough and uncompromising cop, being tortured. He's stripped mostly naked, exposing scars and body damage, he's kneeling on pointed wood and having his assistants pile stone slabs onto his legs until his shins bleed. 'Are you out of your mind?' asks the chief as he discovers this scene, but Hanzo explains that he's testing himself, to find the limits that can be gone to during torture sessions without sending the subject into a state where the torture means nothing. The scars come from hanging upside down and going through the water and basket tortures.

So Hanzo's a tough cookie, no doubt about it, but this is still only the beginning. Here's the sexploitation angle: Hanzo discovers that he gets erect when under pain, so he puts himself through another bizarre ritual to take advantage of that fact. He pours hot water on his apparently rather large member, beats it with a stick on a dedicated beating block and then makes love to a sack of rice. This brings a whole new meaning to the term 'beating it' and I don't remember the Karate Kid going through this particular ritual, even in the sequels. Also, while we don't see this magic member, this not being a porn movie, we do get some surprising shots via silhouette or even penis cam. No, I'm not kidding.

The other character setup we get is the introduction to his assistants. He has two of them already, one a former thief and the other a former white slaver; they're the ones helping him torture himself with the stone slabs. On a vagrant round up he acquires a third. He's refused to take part in such a thing, because it's beneath the stature of an officer, but turns up at the periphery when one is trying to escape from the law. He catches him but rather than hand him over for deportation to the prison island of Hachijo, he breaks the man's nose and pretends that he's dead, carrying him off on his shoulder.

The reason for this is our real plot. In his fear, this vagrant speaks of a man named Kanbei Harada, a former samurai and notorious killer for hire. Kanbei was long wanted by the police but they had caught him and sent him off to Hachijo years before. However this vagrant points out that Kanbei is back in Edo, because a pickpocket friend of his saw him very recently. Given that a month of pain is preferable to four years of exile on a prison island, this vagrant happily becomes assistant number three and off we go to investigate the mystery of Kanbei the Killer.

As Hanzo has had his assistants trailing the chief, we almost instantly find a link between him and Kanbei: the same woman seems to be the mistress of both, highly recognisable because of her lack of pubic hair. This is hardly a downturn for Hanzo, who really doesn't like the chief. During their argument over the vagrant roundup, he even tells him that he's known as Snake Magobei, a man who solicits bribes even from his own men, given that he has to approve their continuing on the force on an annual basis. So with the chief as a suspect in this growing mystery, Hanzo may even get a chance to do something about him.

His next step though is to interrogate Omino, the shaved mistress. And if they weren't already, here's where things get truly bizarre. First he has her kidnapped, by setting up a corpse in her rooms, the corpse not being real but the bloody and mangled form of assistant number three. Then he has her brought to his boat to be interrogated, his technique being to rape the truth out of her. No, I'm not making this up. Women just can't get enough of Hanzo's large and thoroughly conditioned member, so end up telling all just so he won't stop. Anyone discovering Shintaro Katsu through this film could be forgiven for thinking that this film, which he produced and starred in, may be little more than a manifestion of his ego, but given the selflessness of Zatoichi, perhaps this is more a deliberate change of pace.

The story leads us to not just to Kanbei the Killer but to the inner castle and the lords of power. Given that this is film one in a series of three, it's obvious that Hanzo is going to win out but there are some good surprises to come. Some are very welcome indeed, from the hidden armouries to the key hidden messages. Much is hidden in this film and I wonder how much won't see the light of day until the sequels. Luckily I have those on my DVR also ready to go. I don't know if they're going to be as outrageous as this one but I'm looking forward to finding out.

As a film this has problems. It has high production values and is shot well, acted well and written well, but all that assumes that the viewer doesn't have a problem with the exploitative factors involved. Exploitation fans are likely to love this; I know I did. But mainstream fans are not even likely to get to the penis toughening scenes which would likely have them switching off then and there. They're going to quit during the title sequence, where the music is most obviously and stunningly inappropriate. Whoever thought to limit the audience of the film by playing blaxploitation music over a period Japanese film may be an exploitation genius but he alienated the mass audience at the same stroke.

The music remains amazingly out of place throughout. My favourite inappropriate use goes far beyond the cheesy Charlie's Angels type themes to the music used during Hanzo's rape interrogations. In one such scene he has a haughty young lady stripped naked, wrapped in a net and hauled up in the air. He then strips naked himself and lies down on his back underneath her, so his assistants can lower the net onto his waiting manhood, where he proceeds to bend her to his will. And as he's spinning her round and she's moaning in ecstasy, we're treated to soft romantic mood music which is as hilarious as it is inappropriate. But such is the mindset of this film.

It has some sex, though there's not much nudity and most of it is suggested. It has some violence, which bizarrely ranges from the old school approach where slashing someone to death with a razor sharp sword miraculously leaves the outer clothing completely intact to the new school approach of spurting blood and gruesome special effects. We have a number of instances of both here, the latter most prominent. Some of these scenes are cleverly done too, with those secret weapons I mentioned earlier: spears coming out of the ceiling and spikes coming out of the walls.

So, as a film it has problems; but as an exploitation film, it is amazing stuff. It's definitely cult material, that I'll have to recommend to the Midnite Movie Mamacita for potential screening at Chandler Cinemas. Even after one film of three, a Hanzo the Razor triple bill sounds as magnetic to me as the Street Fighter triple bill that Tarantino had Christian Slater attend in True Romance. Here's to hoping.

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