Flower and Snake (2003)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 26, 2009  | 
DVD
Tokyo Shock (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). Japanese DD 2.0. 115 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Takashi Ishii
Starring: Aya Sugimoto, Hironobu Nomura, Renji Ishibashi, Kenichi Endo, Misaki Yozaburo Ito
Screenplay: Takashi Ishii
Country: Japan
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
Japanese cinema has never baulked at excess. If you were to have even the most cursory glance at the more lurid end of the Japanese film industry's output, you'd find titles with some truly outre names like Beauty Reporter: Live Hook Up For Rape, Legendary Panty Mask, Mad Masturbator in a Gas-Mask, Serial Rape of Office Ladies: Devour Big Tits or Widow In Mourning: Shaven Rope Bitch. And that's without getting into the XXX industry. The Japanese, without wishing to generalise, have a different and in many cases more liberated view on extreme cinema than us in the West. Joe Bob Briggs once said in his wisdom, "If you like what you're seeing, you call it romance and adventure, if you don't, you call it sex and violence." And both sex and violence are what the Japanese do well – there seems to be an understanding of the indivisible link between the two that Japanese directors, indeed artists from all points of the spectrum – manga, anime, music, film, poetry, drama and prose – are able to tap into with elegance – yes, even despite what the titles listed above might indicate – but which Western directors flounder with, either steeping themselves far too much in one or the other (Paul Verhoeven is a rare example of a Western director who can marry the two, but even that's nowhere near the same mindset). That, to me, is one of the reasons why Japanese art has always enthralled Western audiences, whether from Yukio Mishima's beautifully tragic novels of love and death like Runaway Horses, Merzbow's or Masonna's pulverising post-industrial symphonies, the simple beauty of a Basho haiku, or the heinous illustrated excesses of Rapeman or Ultra-Gash Inferno – Japanese art in its purest form is a celebration of the two greatest drives a human has: towards death or towards sex – or sometimes, sublimely, towards both.

So where does Flower and Snake fit in? Snugly, between the two. While it thankfully avoids the somewhat disturbing excesses of the aforementioned films, it's a movie that, while visually stunning, could never, ever, not even in a million years, have been made by a Western company. Nope, not a chance. Maybe, just maybe in the 70s, but it would have to have been directed by a very soft-core fella like Just Jaeckin or the like, and would have lacked any of the oomph necessary to make the film's point. Maybe Radley Metzger could have given it a red hot go, but it wouldn't have turned out like this. Oh no.

The film is not an original tale by any means. Based on the rather Story of O-style novel by Oniroku Dan, it was first filmed in 1974 by Masuru Konuma as a rather faithful adaptation of the novel, and one that Nikkatsu studios must have been rubbing their hands with glee over; many Japanese studios had started seeing the fiduciary benefits of making roman porno (romantic pornography, to you) films. Flower and Snake was a big hit, and spawned a bit of an industry at the time. Given that precedent, it was realistically only a matter of time before someone tried re-making it, and that someone came in the form of Takashi Ishii, a dictatorial martinet of a director (if you've seen any of the infamous Angel Guts films, you know his work, either behind the pen or the lens – or maybe you've seen Evil Dead Trap? Or Gonin?) and manga artist. He's not known as a model of restraint.

The basic plot of Flower and Snake couldn't be simpler, even if it's more than just a little bit pervy: Toyama is an industrialist with big debts to the Yakuza. Tashiro, the local 95 year old Yakuza boss, will waive Toyama's debts, if he can have Shizuko (Toyama's world famous Tango dancing wife, played by the almost unbearably sexy Aya Sugimoto – yes, she's attractive, but just check out the raw sensuality she exudes) for his own. It's not a request, either – it's a demand. Would you say no to the Yakuza? Seeing as these are people who give each other presents of their own body parts when they fuck up, I'm suggesting not. Toyama is a narrow-shouldered boyish wimp; the Yakuza guys look harder than a coffin nail, and twice as final. His "choice" is no choice. Regardless of what he might like anyway, Shizuko's already had a kidnap attempt on her person, while on the way to a public appearance – foiled by her new manager and bodyguard Kyoko, a hot arse-kicking babe in a pink baby-doll t-shirt. Basically, they're informing him as a courtesy only – his wife will belong to their boss.

Sadly enough, Toyama even considers giving her over willingly, telling the gangsters she's not worth the debt he owes, given that she's, in his words, "an ice-queen". Men in this film are not viewed well – thugs, bullies, impotent, old or weak – there's no middle ground. When Toyama learns that Tashiro is 95 years old, he seems to view things in a different way, laughingly thinking that if the Yakuza boss even sees Shizuko naked he'll die of a heart attack, and then all goes back to happy families. Is this the sound of a fella trying to convince himself he's doing the right thing, or what?

However, Shizuko is not the submissive de-sexualised Japanese wife of stereotype. She has all kinds of fantasies about being punished by men, as in her loopy acupuncturist dream, or even those long, lingering looks she shares with Kyoko tell of something a little more complex than her husband's simple summation of her as frigid. There's all kinds of sexuality in this woman, and it's waiting to explode. I guess director Ishii is trying to subvert the predominant notion of women as passive in sex, and men as the aggressors, by including these fantasy scenes – it also calls into question who's the boss here? Surely the person who rules the roost is the person who's having the fantasy? After all, if you're the other person, surely you're pandering to someone else's desires, meaning they're the boss and you're the bitch. Ultimately the masochist runs the show, not the sadist – if the bottom isn't giving the right reactions, then the top is obviously doing something very wrong indeed.

Toyama has accepted the idea of selling off his wife, and sells it to her as an invitation to a masquerade ball. She's thankfully oblivious, until the horrors start, and the director really rubs our noses in the dramatic irony of the fact that Shizuko's decided to spend less time on her career in order to help Toyama with his. Feeling guilty? He fucking well should be! He tries to justify things with a bit of predictable male self-pity, but the audience ain't buying it. He's a loathsome cunt of the first order, and we know it. Even though attempts are made to make him seem sympathetic, they fail badly – he's nothing but a contemptible worm and the Yakuza's bitch, and there ain't nuthin' you could say to make me, or any other right thinking person, think otherwise.

Once they arrive at the masquerade, all bets are off, and the film begins its' black slippery-dip into Hell, or maybe it's Heaven for the repressed Shizuko. Whatever it might be, it's a trip to the Colisseum for Shizuko, and from there on in, she's going to have to deal with badness. She enters the Colisseum to the sight of a woman hanging from a cross-beam being whipped to death, and from there it only gets nastier – because she's involved. Basically, she has to strip to her bare arse or her driver Eguchi will be killed, and she's told so by the cross-dressing tu-tu-wearing commentator of the Colisseum. But can you trust such people? And oh, what they do to Kyoko...

Not everything is as it seems in this Sadeian hell-hole Shizuko seems to have found herself in; but certain things are for sure – Shizuko is forced to piss herself while being anally and vaginally raped at the same time by fellas wearing masks with huge lubed-up elephant-trunk dildoes. That can't be denied, for starters. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I thought sex was meant to be an intimate thing between two people, not a spectator or team sport. She's then submitted to a whole other range of sexual badness against her will, none of which adds to the narrative; I mean the point had already been made and moreso, by this point. I mean, by now, who cares about the main plot-point that Shizuko's husband sold her out – when Tashiro appears on the screen, it's a moment for the audience to go: "...oh, oh yeah, he's that dude from before!" Basically, we're just here now for the depravity, and it's depressing, to say the least.

Have you ever read Villiers de'Lisle Adam's story "Torture By Hope"? I think that the writer of this film had, because we get a good example of it right here. And boy, does it prolong the agony of what one of the characters refers to as the "Rape'n'Snuff show!". By this point watching the rest of the film had become a chore rather than an engaging cinematic experience. I was loathing it. I mean really, really hating it to the point where I was going to fling it over the balcony. The inexorability of the story, the fact that Shizuko had no mastery over her fate, really made it grind, and made me more than rather bored, not to mention frustrated. Okay, she has no control over her immediate future – does this need to go on for two hours? Personally, I don't think so. All could have been told in a much more brief fashion.

Ishii's camerawork veers between the sublime and the amateur, but when it's good, it's amazing. Certainly it leers on its subject a lot, but it also allows her a great deal of sympathy. There's no one-dimensional direction at work here. If anything Shizuko becomes an even stronger character through her ordeals. Watch it and tell me I'm lying.

Yes, there's a strong level of violence, and much of it sexual, but there's much more to Flower and Snake than that. The beauty of this film is in what it does psychologically to the characters and to the audience. As opposed to the original version of the film where Shizuko becomes what the male characters want her to ("As you wanted, I am reborn as a lustful woman" - please note the first clause, because in the second film it simply doesn't exist – Shizuko couldn't give a rat's arse about what men wanted here; like I said before, it's the victim who runs the show), here she becomes empowered by herself, albeit by herself being put through various tortures ("Do me...just do me") - she wants fucking because she needs fucking, not because the male characters want her to fuck, or even want to fuck her. She's been born into her own sexuality. But at what cost does your sexuality pay for your humanity? You can tell a man made Flower and Snake. It's certainly a man's take on female sexuality. Or what a man would like female sexuality to be like.

Yes it's a well-made and beautifully shot film, but I really didn't enjoy watching it. Everybody has their sticking point, and I think I just found mine – to be quite honest I found this as equally as distasteful as all those August Underground films, albeit for completely different reasons.
Video
The 1.85:1 anamorphic picture is flawless, if a little dark for my taste. I mean, I get the whole idea that it's a dark story and such, but I like to see what's going on more clearly – a little light's not too much to ask, surely? Or maybe watching this in the daytime was a bad idea.
Audio
The audio track is pristine, with nary a glitch in sight. The use of waltzes and other old-timey music helps to reinforce the horrors on display via contrast – elegance versus brutality; not a bad metaphor for Japanese cinema as a whole, really. A clever conceit, if one that's rather obvious.
Extra Features
There's a pretty good package on display here. There's a 30 minute "making of" documentary, which I guess is worthwhile for the fans. We also have a photo gallery, the theatrical trailer (and remember that this film was so successful as to credit a sequel: Flower and Snake: Paris (2005), an interview with actress Aya Sugimoto (quite interesting – except I'd read it all before in a Jack Ketchum article he claimed as being his own work, interestingly enough), and a featurette from the press screening of the film (again, Ketchum freely adapted the speeches by various cast and crew members here as his own writing). There's also a bunch of trailers for Kekko Kamen ("she's the woman of love and justice" - a movie about a naked female masked superhero with nunchaku? I'm there!), One Missed Call (I liked it, even if nobody else did), Spanking Love (umm...right...), and Freeze Me (another Ishii film, which looked kinda cool – no pun intended).
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
The older I get, the less I want to see this kind of thing; I guess even this version I only watched out of morbid curiosity. I read The Story of O years ago and it bored me. I watched the original Flower and Snake years ago and it bored me, too. Watching this version, I just kept asking myself "why?". Ultimately, this kind of film just simply bums me out – I just don't get any kicks out of this kind of thing; why would I possibly want to watch someone piss herself? Or be gang-raped? It bills itself as an erotic film, but honestly I could have a more erotic experience with a plate of Jell-O. Simply putting naked women into a violently sexual situation does not make a film erotic. Eroticism comes from the subjectivity of the senses, and this film does not tap into mine. Quite seriously, if this film turns you on, then I think that a) you really ought to go and see someone in a professional capacity, b) you're a deeply, deeply sad and truly pathetic person, and c) your take on gender politics is probably only two steps away from Genghis Khan's. I'll go back to the 50s sci-fi creature-features, thank you – I like women, and I don't want to see them so utterly sexually degraded. Despite the technical merit I saw in this film (and there's a lot of it there), I hated this – each and every 115 minutes of it.

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