Arts Magic DVD brings us one of the most extreme collections of films we’ve seen yet. The Angel Guts series includes five films all based off a popular series of manga from Japan.
In the mid to late sixties many film studios in Japan were suffering major losses due to television. The only movies that seemed to make money were monster movies like the Godzilla series. Many studios actually went bankrupt during this era. So, in the late sixties-early seventies a new form of cinema was established called Roman Porno. “Porno” is actually based on a French term that means something like upper scale erotica while “roman” is short for romance. These films were legitimate story driven big budget affairs unlike the European and American “skin flicks” of the same era that were low budget and often sacrificed story for skin.
Even this genre of films began to grow stale until a studio took notice of a manga (Asian Comic books) series called “Angel Guts”. The title can be misleading. Angel is meant to represent a woman as a perfect being and guts actually refers to her strength and tenacity rather than her literal guts. These comics and the movies were a study of the worst that can happen to a woman and how her “guts” get her through it. Each film features a heroine named “Nami”. There’s absolutely no relationship from one movie to the next, so don’t look for any continuity because a female character bares the same name as one in a previous film.
The first film High School Coed, feels very much like an American influenced Sexploitation film. There are shades of I Spit on Your Grave here as well as biker movies, and seventies style action. Nami actually plays a very small part in this film. She is more of a plot point, offering a pivotal moment for the members of a biker gang. One member, after the initial rape of a young woman at the beginning of the film begins to take notice of what he has become and the fact that his young sister could become a victim of the gang were they not related. He stops the rest of the gang from raping Nami in the presence of his sister. He actually seems to truly care for Nami, and feel regret for what his gang had attempted to do. But in order to regain their respect he finally agrees to rape Nami while they watch. The rape sequence that follows at a train station is devastating in imagery as well as within the story. It’s violent and dirty. After he has finished he refuses to allow other members to have a turn with Nami. He feels regret for what he has done, and after his sister discovers what type of person he is, he realizes that it all has to come to an end. His ultimate redemption in the extreme climax of the film is fitting and well placed.
I found the second film in the series, Red Classroom, to be much more interesting in story and style. Stylistically this film features some interesting camera work and sharp editing. The film begins with a group of men watching a “blue movie” (illegal porn film). In the film several boys dressed in school uniforms rape a girl in a classroom. One of the men watching the film immediately feels a strong connection to the girl. He decides that he must find this young woman, surprisingly named Nami.
Muraki, as it turns out knows a thing or two about porn because he runs a business taking photographs for girly magazines. His work stays within the strict guidelines of what is legal in Japan though. If that wasn’t enough to make me question his morality the fact that a married woman comes to visit him once a week to stay the night and have sex seals the deal. He has become so engulfed in the world of porn that his morality has long disappeared. Something about Nami, brings forth changes in him. He has no interest in his mistress and he only does the bare minimum to get by in a business that he used to be passionate about.
Through his numerous contacts in the industry Muraki is finally able to track down Nami. She is the receptionist at a love hotel. Love hotel’s are hotel rooms that are rented by the hour by couples seeking a little privacy. These became popular because in Japan the living conditions are so crowded that couples often live with their parents or other family members in very small apartments where they sometimes even share bedrooms.
Anyway, enough with the Japanese culture lesson! So he arranges a meeting with Nami. He finds her to be bitter and suspicious of men. She immediately begins stripping in a hotel room expecting that he is after sex, especially after he admits to seeing her in the movie. She reveals to him that the movie wasn’t at all staged, it was a real rape. She has been forever damaged by not only the rape but by the circulation of the film. It seems that everywhere she goes someone eventually recognizes her from the film. He tells her to put her clothes on, and asks her for a date on the next day. Both of them feel that they have found someone that can look beyond their checkered past.
It almost feels like it’s not only too late to save Nami, but that it’s too late for Muraki as well. Just as he prepares to meet Nami, his past decisions come back to haunt him. One of his models lied to him about her age and he is arrested. When Muraki doesn’t show up for their date Nami is devastated and not surprised at the same time. She drowns her sorrows at a local bar and takes a man back to the hotel. At first the sex scene that follows is typical erotic fare but then it changes to something different. It turns to something desperate and overwhelmingly sad. Nami feels that the only way she can successfully be close to someone is through sex. The one man she didn’t have sex with left her stranded so she will have sex with this man over and over again and maybe he would stay. After they have sex the first time he wants to rest but she wants to do it again and again. He doesn’t want to hurt her, but he doesn’t feel that he can keep going over and over. What follows is virtually a rape scene with Nami raping the man. This may seem odd or far fetched, and it is, but for her mindset it makes sense. It isn’t sexy, it’s sad and hard to watch because he can’t give her what she needs either.
This isn’t the end of the film, not by a long shot. Without spoiling it, suffice it to say that Muraki and Nami do see each other again but they would have both been better off if they hadn’t. Something about it reminded me of the remake of Lolita starring Jeremy Irons. These two couldn’t move beyond the decisions they made in their past so they had to settle for something less, something heartbreaking. I was surprised at how moving this film ended up being. The last scene lacks closure and makes the story all the more sad. Without a doubt Red Classroom is my favorite of them all.
Nami finds our heroine a magazine reporter, writing a series of articles on rape victims. She handles the article in a fairly cold and insensitive way chasing victims and trying to force them to give her an interview. Her articles are massively popular so her boss pressures her for more stories. It becomes quickly apparent that she appreciates these stories from a much different perspective, creating fantasies of the stories for herself.
After chasing an insane rape victim into a hospital morgue she is awakened to the reality of what these victims have gone through and forced to see beyond her fantasies. Nami actually demonstrates what the original Manga had set out to do. It not only demonstrates the brutality of rape but it also observes that those who can find pleasure in it, even those who “enjoy” these movies should truly consider the experience and know that no pleasure should be taken from it. Nami pays for her fantasies in the truest of movie morality in this film to make that observation glaringly clear.
These films should be disturbing and should push buttons. If they don’t, and you’re watching them as a fetish you may learn a hard lesson just like Nami did in this installment. This may be the bravest of the films as it actually turns its eye on its own audience and forces them to consider why they are actually watching the film in the first place.
From a strictly story perspective this installment offers a more complex Nami than the other films. Here she’s not our heroine, exactly. She doesn’t deserve what happens to her but at the same time she not only trades on the victims but she takes sexual pleasure out of their tragedy. The other films have a more straight forward morality to them. There are good guys and bad guys. In Nami however the girl we are used to seeing as the woman who must rise above what has happened to her to become a hero is actually a flawed person to begin with. For this reason this film may be the most realistic of the series.
Red Porno is easily the most far fetched of the series. In this installment Nami agrees to fill in for a friend of hers at her job. When she arrives at the job she learns that her friend is a model for an adult magazine called Red Porno. She is to do a series of bondage photos where she will be tied to a chair in the nude. She reluctantly participates in the photo shoot screaming her head off the whole time. The photographers seem to be blocking her out. Do they work like this all the time? See what I mean by unrealistic?
As unrealistic as the setup is it does create some palpable tension when Nami discovers that her picture is picked for the cover and many people start to recognize her. As expected one fan starts getting way to close to her, encroaching on her personal life.
This film has a surprisingly conservative morality in regard to the bondage underground in Japan showing it in the worst possible light. What’s interesting and funny about this though is bondage fanatics might not even realize it because the morality is often portrayed by showing some quite disturbing scenes. If you are someone who is into torturous levels of bondage will you realize what a bad light these scenes paint your hobby of choice in? Maybe, but more likely you’d just love to see some of this stuff for real. So whether the moral observations work or not this movie is very successful in disturbing the viewer with its overall nihilistic atmosphere and shocking pictorals.
Red Vertigo takes the series up another notch as far as production values featuring some great lighting and use of color. In this film Nami is a nurse who nearly gets raped by two patients. After escaping she gets home to find her boyfriend in bed with another woman. When she storms out of their home she is hit by a car driven by who else, Muraki. When she awakens she finds herself bound with Muraki preparing to rape her. After a major fight he finally gets his opportunity and he can’t, well, he can’t “get it up”. He admits that all he wanted was to be with someone. Maybe because of the events that came before or because of a history we never learn she actually takes sympathy upon him. Or it may just be that Nami isn’t making wise decisions due to her fatigue and lack of sleep which is where the title Red Vertigo (sometimes called Red Dizziness) comes from. She was working full time as a nurse and spending every extra minute helping her photographer boyfriend develop images.
This film being the last in the series released in 1998 is interesting because it seems to be the least exploitative of the series and it’s the first in the series to be directed by the original creator of the manga. The story telling is surreal and unpredictable. Often watching the film I was unsure which characters were truly important to the story and which were just decoration. It often changes with a character that seemed unimportant previously suddenly making an important impact on the film. Nami is her strongest here, ready to fight at any moment even though a great deal of the situations she finds herself in are of her own doing. We see the world through her warped view and some of the decisions we might not make seem to make perfect since in this world. Bad events that she finds herself in actually lead to better outcomes. Red Vertigo is the most surreal of the series and offers a different take on the subject matter.
Wow, what did I think of these movies? Is it right to say that I liked them? I’m a fairly desensitized guy and all of these films found a way to disturb me with many scenes staying with me for some time after I watched them. It would be easy to overlook these films as simple smut but there’s more to them than that. Most of the sex scenes are more painful to watch than they are titillating. So, if you’re looking for some simple T&A fun, you’re looking in the wrong place. Granted there is T&A here but if you pay attention to the story you’ll feel guilt for any pleasure you take in seeing it. This is sexploitation, but it’s sexploitation with consequences. Each of these films carries with it a strong moral view and a variety of social commentary.
Speaking of the sex scenes specifically brings up the odd Japanese censorship of films. Pubic hair is considered obscene in Japanese cinema so throughout these films either fogging or camera tricks are used to cover any potential revealed pubic hair. But at the same time the most violent of sex acts can be portrayed on screen, as long as there’s no pubic hair. I found this odd because I was much more offended by the act I was witnessing than I would have been a little exposed pubic hair. The camera tricks can be a bit amusing and might actually withdraw you from the scene until you get used to it. Most often the corner of a table in a room is strategically placed to cover any pubic hair. As odd as that is it’s preferable to the fogging.
The goal must have been to make rape seem horrific and in all five films it does. The films also maintain an either overwhelmingly sad or nihilistic attitude, or a combination of the two throughout making me feel completely exhausted after viewing the films. I guess after all of my rambling I have to simply say that these films offer one of the most unique experiences I’ve had watching films. They successfully evoke strong emotions and maybe even a little nausea and that is a sign of a well made film, or in this case series of films. I’d much rather vomit after watching a film than come out unaffected like I am after most current Hollywood efforts.
The newer the film in the series the better it looks but they all look fairly nice. You’ll see grain, dirt and scratches, and soft black levels in all of the widescreen transfers but you’ll also see nice color representation and even some vibrant colors in brighter scenes. These aren’t Lowry digital quality transfers but they are some of the best we’ve seen of films of this type.
Audio presentation is pretty basic but fairly clean with dialogue chiming in nicely over sound effects and score.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The hands down best extra is the audio commentary with Jasper Sharp from Midnight Eye. He offers commentary on each of the films and throughout not only disucsses what’s happening on screen but he also shares a great deal of history on the series and the film industry in Asia. He is able to describe where the films should fall and deserve to fall in the history of film, and even better than I’ve done in this review he shares why these films are important. His commentary isn’t super conversational. In fact it sounds like he’s reading from notes, but the notes hold a lot of great information.
There are also a series of interviews with some of the filmmakers sharing stories of making the films and where the ideas come from. The most important of these interviews is that of Takashi Ishii, the man who wrote the manga on which all of the films are based along with screenplays and finally directing Red Vertigo.
There are trailers for every film, biographies/filmographies and various other promotional materials.
Without the Angel Guts series there wouldn’t be films like Irreversible out today. Some might say that would be a good thing but others would say it’s better to exorcise one’s demons than to bottle them up. In fact it’s noted in one of the commentaries how much lower the number of cases of rape are in Japan than in other countries. These films are shocking, disturbing, thought provoking, and sad. After viewing them I knew that I had been through something with Nami, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10
The Movies 8/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 7/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 8.5/10
Overall (Not an Average) 8/10