Thursday, October 18, 2012

Watch and Wait

There's a fine line between an exploitation movie and an art movie. Walking that line is a tightrope act. Sometimes, it seems to me that the Japanese walk that line better than anyone else. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unique genres of erotica that grew up as the studio systems collapsed during the 1970s. Toei's "pinky violence" films and Nikkatsu's "roman porno" movies have no equivalents elsewhere, really, and showcase the dance between art and exploitation as a matter of course. On balance, Nikkatsu's films were probably more geared toward art, whatever you might want to use that word to mean. 1976's The Watcher in the Attic (directed by Noboru Tanaka) is a case in point. It has a deliberate, artfully composed visual image paired with an erotic impulse that slowly evolves into a death wish. It's certainly perverse.

In some ways, The Watcher in the Attic is a classic porn film. It consists of a series of erotic scenes at about ten minute intervals (Nikkatsu insisted on sex every ten minutes in these movies, but otherwise didn't care what else went into them). It takes a while to find a plot among its various vignettes, a fault compounded by the portmanteau nature of its screenplay, adapting as it does several separate Edogawa Rampo stories. The over arching narrative finds landlord Saburo Gouda peeping at the sexual antics of his tenants from a vantage in the attic. Prime among the objects of his voyeuristic attentions is Lady Minako, an upper class lady who uses his boarding house as a getaway for erotic adventures. Also among his tenants is an artist who paints various combinations of humans and animals (and appears to be a lesbian to boot) and a hypocritical clergyman. Of the inhabitants of the house, only the servant girl appears to be an innocent. Lady Minako's lovers include a clown hired to pleasure her, her chauffeur, who likes to secret himself inside chairs up on which she sits, and her husband, who gets off on the idea of her pleasuring other men. One night, Lady Minako kills her lover at the time--the clown, it turns out--all the while knowing that Gouda is watching her. It gets her off. It gets him off, too, and soon, this lethal couple is collaborating on murders...

The Watcher in the Attic is certainly bound by the rules of its genre. It dutifully stages an erotic scene at each reel change, whether the plot requires it or not. This imparts a weird formalism on the film that it might otherwise lack given the scattershot nature of its literary source. It acts a bit like the film is composed in movements, with a crescendo at the end. The end of the film is downright apocalyptic, as well it should be. It's set in 1923, just at the end of the Taisho era, a period not unlike Weimar Germany, in which a kind of decadent liberalism was the culture of the day. It was during this period that Rampo himself wrote, but this film has the benefit of hindsight. The next era, the Showa era, was the era of military dictatorship and fascism, of war and imperialism, and of the calamity of WW II. This is all symbolized by the Great Kanto Earthquake that levels not only Tokyo, but the whole of Taisho culture. Certainly, it's a more personal apocalypse for our pair of perverted lovers, and there's a simultaneous sexual catharsis and aura of divine punishment when it happens, like the earth literally moves when they consummate their passion, and recoils at the nature of their sins. They sow the soil with their blood and with the blood of their victims, a fact elided by the mysterious image that ends the movie, in which the maid, the only innocent in the whole rotten milieu, pumps blood from the ground.

This probably makes the film sound more interesting than it actually is. Or, rather, it's a film that's more fun to think about than to actually watch. It shares the great drawback of all erotica: most sexual tastes are so specific to the individual that porn that doesn't tickle those specific tastes is likely to bore the audience. Maybe that's just me. I'll freely admit that my own sexual appetites are specific and singular and that this film never occupies even the same time zone. Your mileage may, of course, vary. And even beyond that, this film's specific perversions are fairly unique. Lady Minako's chauffeur, for instant, has a fetish for being the lady's chair, a fetish he acts upon with a chair designed specifically so that he can hide inside it. It's a kink unlikely to find many adherents. The scenes with the artist might appeal to the furries in the audience, but not to many people who are not furries. And with that, I think I should probably leave things when it comes to this film's erotic content.

It works better as a thriller, I think, and as a portrait of two needy, utterly broken people finding in each other a kindred spirit, much to the sorrow of them both. Doomed love is better than doomed sex, maybe, and doomed compulsion is always fascinating to watch. This occupies the last part of the film, and those twenty or so minutes are worth all the rest. It's fun, too, seeing yet another instance of poisoning by thread show up here (a la You Only Live Twice and Shinobu No Mono). The film also works as an evocation of the Taisho period. It resembles in some respects Seijun Suzuki's Taisho-period films and shares something of their perversity.

As a final thought, I was about an hour into the film when it occurred to me that there hadn't been any rape imagery in The Watcher In the Attic. This is kind of a sore spot with me regarding Japanese exploitation. Some years ago, a friend of mine suggested that he thought there was a rape scene in every Japanese film ever made. It can certainly seem that way if all the films you see come from the exploitation sector. I'm uncomfortable with rape scenes, and question the necessity for most of them. As soon as I framed the thought, The Watcher In the Attic dutifully provided me with such a scene. A nasty one, at that, though perhaps not as graphic as some. Noboru Tanaka is the director who made A Woman Called Sada Abe, after all, and no one in this film winds up wandering the streets of Tokyo with their lover's severed penis in their hand. So there's that, I guess.

Current tally: 15 film

First time viewings: 13

From Around the Web

Dr. AC snores through a trio of stinkers over at Horror 101, but comes up with a fourth film he likes.

The Rev. Anna Dynamite has still more movie marathon goodness at Dreams in the Bitch House, crossing the finish line for the challenge in high style. Hopefully, she'll have more later in the month.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter checks out The Puppetmaster, and finds it to be typical Full Moon fare.

Tim over at The Other Side heads into the heartland for Children of the Corn.

Alice over at Pussy Goes Grrr loses herself in The Phantom of the Paradise.

Wednesday's Child over at In It For the Kills isn't doing the Challenge per se, but she has an awesome blog anyway. Her latest post looks at Strigoi: The Undead, but she's been rocking things all October long.

Likewise, Toxaemia over at Splatter is Better is a true student of the genre and runs a pretty awesome blog. Her latest is a look at The Undertaker and His Pals.


Toxaemia said...

I love this movie so much and you did an excellent review!

Also, I appreciate you mentioning my blogginess. It means a lot coming from you!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Toxaemia,

Thanks. And the mention is well-deserved.

Oh, and still absolutely adore your profile icon. Sweet!

Wednesday's Child said...

Thanks for including me! I knew I couldn't keep up the intensity of 31 movies in a month but I applaud those who do. Some good stuff at these links.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

No prob. The Challenge isn't for everyone. It's barely for me right now, since I'm balancing it with duties as a film festival screener. It's not easy. Anyway, great blog.