Madame O (US - DVD)
You see, this is exactly why Gabe keeps handy STD testing kits beside his bed...
At the tender age of sixteen, Seiko (Michiko Aoyama) was sexually assaulted on a beach by three men. This horrifying attack scarred her mentally and resulted in unwanted pregnancy and a syphilis infection. Now a well-respected OBGYN in Japan, she practices medicine by day and prowls the city streets at night in search of lovers. Possessing a raging desire for revenge against men, she destroys them with the one weapon they cannot resist...sex (or more specifically her raging case of syphilis)! Finally marrying and settling down, Saeko’s life changes for the better, but her new husband (Akihiko Kaminara) may have a dark secret of his own…
Do all Japanese exploitation films have to be about bloody vengeance?
No, just the good ones.
Seriously though, every single Nihonjin grindhouse classic from 1960 to the present I can think of comes down to some kind of revenge or retribution. Even the ones that don’t seem to be about vengeance at first end up with some kind of third act plot reveal that is based on some kind of vengeance. Actually, there are dozens of books on this very subject, and most of them seem to come to the conclusion that this is all America’s fault. I suppose something good came out of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, other then, you know, the end of World War II.
Madame O is a pretty early entry in the sweepstakes, and seems to be a front runner to a lot of the popular tropes. The basic plot is a familiar one (a bit like Able Ferrara’s Ms. 45), but apparently the film was more or less ‘lost’ shortly after its initial release (hence the reason Synapse isn’t releasing the original Japanese version), so its imprint on future releases is hard to gage. Director Seiichi Fukuda (who didn’t make very many films, especially for a Japanese director in the late ‘60s) was surely a head of the curve (the Pinky Violence and Girl Boss films didn’t catch on until some time later), but he isn’t exactly an innovator.
For a country still behind in its sexual politics, Japan’s presentation of strong female characters, in both the physical and emotional senses, never fails to fascinate me. Madame O is especially fascinating because Seiko isn’t just a violent vigilante, she’s a professional business woman, and respected doctor, in charge of others, including a man. Despite the bawdy, topless dry hump scenes, and surprising gore (including a real C-section at the film’s top), the love story is old fashioned, and even respectful. For the intents and purposes of the place and time, Seiko acts very much like a male protagonist for the first two thirds of the film, though the loss of her ‘masculinity’ seems to be a positive development according to the narration, her eventual comeback is the closest we get to a happy ending.
Fukuda uses mostly black and white stock, and creates a decidedly European noir look, but he puts a Japanese twist on things with his occasional choice of arched camera angles. The director also uses gaudy colour stock several times throughout the feature, but I’m not entirely clear on his reasoning. I could assume that Fukuda had an artistic reason for choosing his colour shots, but something tells me it was something to the effect of budget constraints. That ‘something’ is the fact that most of the colour scenes are ‘money shots’, including mostly the film’s most graphic moments, more or less. Fukuda is more comfortable with the black and white shots than the colour shots, which actually ends up adding to the film’s appeal. When things become colourful the film takes on a more ‘realistic’ look
For the most part the black and white sequences fair the best on this disc, though there are some major fluxuations in light consistency and focus throughout the entire runtime. Both problems are likely due to the quality of the source material. There’s a lot of grain in the print, specifically in the grey mid-tones, but it’s all rather fine in texture, and doesn’t interfere with the otherwise strong and smooth contrast levels. Most surprisingly, the black and white scenes appear genuinely black and white, with only the slightest hint of purple tint. The colour scenes don’t fair quite as well, displaying more obvious print damage and inconsistency, but details are quite sharp (so long as the camera stays in focus), and the colours themselves are rich. Flesh tones and blood are both a tad on the yellow side, but not terribly so.
Sorry purists, but it appears that English dubbing is our only choice here. I’m a little torn myself. Usually I enjoy watching dubbed tracks if the film I’m watching is particularly silly, but Madame O teeters on the brink of respectable art so often I found the presence of mismatched lips a bit jarring. The voice casting isn’t bad (except for vocal effect, like vomiting or sexual grunts, which sound terribly unnatural), but the mix never properly integrates the original and post-dub material. I also wonder if the narration was part of the original production.
Regardless of post-release jiggering, this mono presentation is very clean, with only a few of the highest register musical cues causing any real distortion. The sound effects are minimal and quiet, which isn’t at all surprising, and actually adds to the strange, stage like feel of the film. The music is, like some of the visuals, pretty European sounding in origin, including clean electric guitars and jazz drums, but also includes some more traditionally Japanese sounding subtle cues. There isn’t a lot of music, but what’s used is used very effectively.
The only extra is the original US trailer, which is full of spoilers and mostly covers up the fact that large sections of the film are black and white. The trailer can also been seen on Synapse’s website.
I wouldn’t call this one a lost classic, but Madame O is an enjoyable romp in the Japanese vengeance pantheon. I’m not going to recommend it to folks with passing interest, or to those just dipping into Japanese film, but those of us looking for the stuff we may’ve missed should be happy enough with at least a rent. Just imagine if someone tried to make this in the post-AIDS era. Now that would be a memorably sleazy grindhouse classic.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th July 2008
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Seiichi Fukuda
Cast: Naomi Tani, Michiko Aoyama, Akihiko Kaminara, Yuichi Minato
Length: 81 minutes
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