With my eyes fixed to the screen I could scarcely believe what was happening. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like as I watched Hanzo The Razor: Sword of Justice but I’ll bet I don’t look that way often.
I sat down to watch a Chanbara and as soon as the music began for the opening credits I knew something was wrong. Instead of a mystical sounding shakuhachi flute or some taiko drums the credits were accompanied by a funky blaxploitation groove that raised and furrowed my eyebrows at the sawed time.
Nothing can prepare you for this film. When it gets going you just have to hold on and hope you make it through. Its not long before the first sex scene begins. Hanzo is interrogating a young woman by raping/seducing her. Once coitus commences the film superimposes three images on top of each other. One is a close up of Hanzo’s determined face, lit in acid green and sweating while he presses forward. The second is the woman on the receiving end lit in cold white while she pants first out of fear and then out of lust. Lastly the third layer is a warm orange and red vision of the inside of her vaginal canal while the camera moves in and out to simulate intercourse.
This is Hanzo’s interrogation technique. We soon find out that Hanzo’s secret weapon is his enormous penis that he wields as both a weapon and a reward. He tortures women by forcing himself on them but then as the women’s fears turn to lust he tortures them by halting mid-stroke thereby denying them satisfaction. One woman is lowered down on to his monstrous member in a net, and made to spin around until she is breathless.
The film is relentless. The depiction of women and sexuality is most certainly problematic but you are so disoriented by what you are watching it is hard to get your bearings. In the end I was less concerned about the gender politics and just amazed at the unpredictable and bizarre turns the movie took.
The film was made in 1972 and directed by Kenji Misumi. Misumi was already famous for the many Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movies he had made. This meant he had a considerable history with Shintaro Katsu, the actor who played Hanzo. Katsu had acted the part of the titular character all through the Zatoichi series.
With all its socio-political problems the film is formally beautiful. Its expertly crafted. The colors are rich and saturated. The pacing keeps you hurdling forward into a world you just aren’t ready for. The lighting and cinematography are theatrical, dramatic and stark. Most of the film takes place at night so the screen can be pared down to the essential elements. In addition there are hyper-close, close ups of gritted teeth, squinting eyes, and sweating brows that read like staccato blasts of intensity.
There is plenty of Lone Wolf style violence where blood sprays and splatters like a firehose. Hanzo dispatches he’s his foes with James Bond like traps, a terrifying set of spiked metal knuckles and of course his speedy sword.
When the film was over I took a moment to collect my wits and then found the other two.
Unfortunately the second film, Hanzo The Razor: The Snare directed by, Yasuzo Masumura, tries to make up for its lack luster craftsmanship by heightening the shock value. We witness an eroticized prelude to an abortion, a prolonged and bloody beating of a naked woman, sexualized torture and more. The film may be in the Criterion Collection but it crosses the line and just becomes completely offensive.
Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold?, the last in the trilogy, was made in 1974, two years after the first. Yoshio Inoue was hired to direct it. Within the first ten minutes the film burns through most of the tropes from the first two films and then degenerates into a rape scene. It was tempting to just turn the movie off, but after the first half hour the film seems to calm down a bit and starts exploring different cinematic techniques. There are beautiful compositions and some wonderful editing. The camera seeks out surprising angles and plays with depth of field. Its as if Inoue just had to get all the stupidity of the preceding film out of the way for continuity’s sake and then started filming in earnest.
In both the two sequels the supporting actors get more screen time and development. Hanzo’s two assistants and his boss are funny and well rendered characters that are not fully realized in the first film.
Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice is far and away the best of the three films. Hanzo The Razor: The Snare can easily be skipped. Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? is uneven but at times is very good.
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