Author/director Oniroku Dan’s “Hana to Hebi (Flower & Snake)” is the recognized classic of sadomasochistic literature in Japan, probably equal in reputation to Pauline Reage’s “Story of O.” While the novel has been brought to the big screen in many guises — and to the small as well, in an pervy video game by erotic-games studio elf — it was the 1974 “Hana to Hebi” that first saw Nikkatsu studio’s roman poruno (big-budget adult movies) series move profitably into sadomasochism, and made its lead actress — Naomi Tani, the queen of sub sensuality — an Asian Bettie Page for the ’70s.
Of course, that was then, this is now. Much of the charm of the old roman poruno films lies in their retro-chic appeal, which leaves would-be remakers grasping for an angle. 2004 saw a retread of “Hana to Hebi” that proved it is still possible, even in the age of the Internet, to make a cinematic splash with a moderately-budgeted, well-shot softcore porn spectacle.
Directed by Takashi Ishii (“Gonin”), the new version’s ace in the hole was actress Aya Sugimoto, a former J-pop star and accomplished tango dancer who had just gone through a very public divorce, the reason for which she cited as being a lack of bedroom activity. The media portrayed her, rather sympathetically, as a sexually voracious woman, and her casting in “Hana to Hebi” played off this, as if taking such a role was a way of releasing years of pent-up sexual frustration. (And it’s no surprise she wound up playing the notorious real-life murderous man-eater Sada Abe in 2008′s “Johnen: Sada no Ai [Johnen: Love of Sada].”)
True or not, Sugimoto embraced the “Hana to Hebi” role boldly, baring her (then) 36-year-old body for nearly all her screen time, and subjecting herself to all sorts of stressful shibari (rope bondage) that was nothing short of fearless, which she reprised in a 2005 sequel as well.
“Hana to Hebi 3″ sees Sugimoto replaced by former swimsuit model Minako Komukai, a 25-year-old “actress” whose talents are best displayed in a strip bar. Komukai’s move into the S&M series seems less an enthusiastic exploration of kink, a la Sugimoto or Tani, than a lack of career options following her 2009 drug bust. One would think this would give her some insight into her character, Shizuko, who is similarly at the mercy of men who wish to see her publicly humiliated; but if so, Komukai doesn’t show it.
In fact, Komukai seems limited to but two expressions: First is a permanently freaked-out and wide-eyed state of shock; the second is the sly, carnivorous grin of the femme fatale.
Komukai deploys the first for most of the film, as Shizuko — an accomplished classical cellist — sees her elderly CEO husband die, becomes a virtual prisoner of a rival company’s president, and is kept in a remote rural besso (villa), where a group of servants who have spent too much time watching “Eyes Wide Shut” subject her to lessons in discipline and sexual degradation.
Her second expression comes into play as Shizuko — par for the course in this series — learns to enjoy submission and finds her long latent libido awakened and ravenous. As far as dialogue goes, there’s not much beyond “Iya!” (“No!”) and “Yamete!” (“Stop!”). (They apparently forgot that other old standby, “Hazukashii!” ["I'm so ashamed!"].)
Director Yusuke Narita (of the TV series “Abunai Keiji,” and plenty of straight-to-video stuff) has claimed that this “Hana to Hebi” sequel is less full-on than the Sugimoto chapters, and more of a psychological thriller. What this means in practice is you’ll be wishing you had the remote to fast-forward through all the horribly pretentious bits involving cello playing and computer-generated snakes in order to get to something, well, remotely erotic. Surprisingly for an adult film starring a stripper, you will be well past the halfway point and still wondering whether there will in fact be any flesh bared on screen.
The film’s meager pleasures lie in a pulsating electronic score by Ko Ishikawa that’s often reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream, and the always elegant rope-work of bakushi (rope-bondage artist) Go Arisue, though the latter isn’t deployed until far too late in the film.
What’s more interesting than the film itself is the persistence over the years of certain tropes unique to the series: As usual, there’s the wince-inducing pairing of soft nubile female voluptuousness with withered, aged male impotence; there’s the voyeur’s idea of getting some other men to “train” one’s female partner, an idea that invariably backfires as badly as any Wile E. Coyote rocket; and courtesy of the Marquis de Sade, there’s the belief that corruption and decadence will triumph over modesty and prudishness every time.
One wonders, though, whether in the Japan of 2010, where nikushoku-onna (“carnivorous women”) are the latest phenomenon in a changing sexual landscape, these old tales of sexually repressed women needing to be forced into recognizing their capacity for lust still have a place.