THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET (KOJI WAKAMATSU, 1966)
It's ironic that the films of the 60s and 70s steeped in sado-masochism are today relegated to the trash heap by serious film connoisseurs, as most, through the depiction of the relationship and often times quirky dialogue, will rise to the same level of intellectualism as the 'heady' art films of the time. And while it remains true that, through a lack of understanding, many individuals regard the sadomasochistic pinku films of Japan's cinematic golden age as overly misogynistic and worthless, many of these titles well deserve a second look.
Koji Wakamatsu is often considered an enfant-terrible of Japan's studio system early on in his career, and his experiences in the studio affected him so much that he abandoned it all together, financing his films through outside sources so he would have total control over his final product. The Embryo Hunts in Secret, while not as politically charged as many of Wakamatsu's films, retains it's own sense of poetry through it's depiction of a harrowing situation.
The film opens with a man and woman passionately groping each other in a car; outside, it is pouring down rain. The man grabs for the woman's sex, but she denies him the pleasure, insisting that they go inside. The man takes the woman to his apartment. It turns out that the man is the owner of a department store where Yuka, the woman, works in the men's clothing department as a sale girl. The two know little about each other, other than what is knowable from an outsider perspective; they know their power relations in the business, and they know they are attracted to each other.
The woman takes a bath, and after some fairly rough sex, the man starts to ask Yuka fairly personal questions about her own sex. How many men has she done it with before? Is it always 'like this'? Yuka feels uncomfortable answering the questions, but through the mans force she eventually complies with an answer. After the sex the man gives the woman a sleeping pill so she can fall asleep and wake up by 11:30 the next morning; she has a lunch date. While the woman is getting ready for bed, the man comments on how she 'looks just like her,' though at this point in the film we're not sure who it is that Yuka resembles.
Once the woman is in bed and more or less passed out, the man ties her arms and feet to the posts of the bed, and then whips her. While whipping the woman he exclaims commentary on his relationships with all the women formerly in his life; his mother who hung herself after the war, his wife who left him so she could have a baby. The man seems to consider life more or less pain, and it is his goal to teach the woman this, to force her into becoming his wife (as he is still hung up on the wife who abandoned him in order to have a child).
When the woman wakes up the next morning she is appalled to find her body covered in bruises from the whip. The man, in a demeaning gesture, throws 30,000 yen at her and says that it was worth it. The woman rejects the money and begins to leave the apartment, but the man breaks down. He virtually throws himself at her asking her to stay, saying that she can have the apartment for herself, and offering his love. She still rejects the man, so through use of force he gets her back into the bed, where he once again ties her down.
Through an extended period of time the audience is given a window into the arena in which the man is attempting to make Yuka his slave, his 'dog.' He rewards her with food and water when she behaves, and punishes her with the whip when she doesn't. All the while still recounting his family relationship, his oedipal relationship with his mother, and his estranged relationship with his wife, all at the cost of his utter rejection of a child.
Time passes and the woman seems to be becoming more and more passive, but in actually, once the man lets his guard down, Yuka gets her revenge, coming out on top.
The film is very claustrophobic, set entirely in the man's apartment, with the only characters being the man and the woman themselves, with occasional flashbacks of the man's wife (who may very well be the same actress playing Yuka) and a brief flash of his mother. Such claustrophobia severely helps in extending the severe atmosphere in which the two characters are existing.
Returning to a comment I made at the beginning of this review, Wakamatsu imbues a large amount of poetry into this claustrophobic nightmare. The first bold move Wakamatsu makes is using a classical score to back the action, creating an awkward sort of tension that mirrors the dichotic state of the male protagonist. At one moment the man will be viciously torturing the girl, the next crying in her lap while he reminisces on his past. The dialogue is also beautiful at times, intensely focused, the viewer gets the opinion that the man has no other thoughts entering his head outside of his entire warped view of birth and the female gender. The beauty of the dialogue stems from the fact that the man's thought process borders on the metaphysical at time, approaching abstract concepts in relation to what he needs things to add up to.
As usual for a Wakamatsu film, the cinematography and level of experimentation is full force. The stark black and white photography will segue into bleached out whites to indicate the passing of time, Wakamatsu will hold freeze-frames at specifically relevant climactic moments, and during one scene the audio is dropped completely while the viewer watched the woman screaming in pain. It all adds up to a unique vision of the utterly claustrophobic world view; everything that exists within the frame is consistent.
Another thing to comment on is that a majority of other reviews available on the internet of the film were written by non- Japanese speaking individuals who watched the film without subtitles. This tends to lead to an interpretation that the man and woman in the flashback scenes are not the business man and his wife, but rather the business man's father and mother. This is important to note, as if that were the case the film would lend itself to falling back on the old "runs-in-the-family" excuse that relates to spousal abuse, which isn't half as complicated (and expressively more cliched) as what is actually occurring in Wakamatsu's film.
Also, as a strike against those who accuse this film (or even pinku films in general), it is very obvious, as the film plays out, that the woman is the one who's in control of the man. All of the man's actions are directly related to his response, and obsession, with Yuka, and even women in general. And in the ending, in a far more complicated manner than a straight-forward revenge flick, Yuka does get a form of "revenge," but it's not so much of 'revenge,' per se, as it's really more of a metaphorical 'return to the womb' (in direct connection to the embryo of the films title) for the man. The woman has enveloped this man who was trying to use his obsession to control her.
While being a remarkable film in itself, it helped Wakamatsu pave the way to his further, more developed and important films such as 1967's Violated Angels and what could be considered his masterpiece (in regards to stylistics and character depiction), 1969's Go Go Second Time Virgin. There are not many of Wakamatsu's films available with English options, but as the number increases, it's more and more possible to view Wakamatsu as the genius auteur that he really was.