Review: Female Demon Ohyaku (1968)

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Perhaps, as some of my enemies have no doubt observed, I am a simpleton, but I absolutely love a well-made genre picture like Female Demon Ohyaku.  It has everything that drew me to chambara to begin with – beautiful women, cool fights, and best of all – REVENGE!

The complete title of this film is Legends of the Poisonous Seductress: Female Demon Ohyaku.  In Japanese, the subtitle is Hannya Ohyaku.  Hannya is a famous demonic image used in classical noh theatre and woodblock prints.  Here in the west, most people mistake it as an image of “the” devil.  It’s actually the personification of the spirit of a vengeful woman.  If you’re interested and would like to know more about the history of the Hannya image, there’s a pretty good wikipedia article HERE.  In this film, it’s the face that’s tattooed on Ohyaku’s back as well as the nature of her role in the story.

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And what a story it is!  At the beginning of the film, Ohyaku is revealed to be the child of a prostitute who tries to kill both of them by leaping into a river.  The little girl survives and becomes a con woman and a tightrope walker for a travelling circus.  When a group of ne’er-do-wells taunt her at a performance, a handsome, young ronin named Shinkuro steps in and helps.  Even though Ohyaku can clearly take care of herself, she’s impressed with the ronin and soon becomes a part of his plot to steal a gold delivery that’s going to the local mint.  It’s important to note that Ohyaku is presented as a thief to begin with although her heart of gold shows through when she gives her ill-gotten gains to a single mother who’s living on the streets.  Likewise, Shin is stealing in order to punish the corrupt village leaders.  There’s definitely a Robin Hood vibe to this pair and they quickly fall in love over the course of a particularly moving scene where they each reveal their own heartaches and agree to trade them with one another.

Of course, they’re betrayed and caught when the heist takes place.  Both are tortured by the evil Sengoku and Shin is beheaded right before Ohyaku’s eyes.  She’s then sent off to a mining camp prison where she begins to plot her revenge.  While there, the wife of the camp’s warden takes an interest in Ohyaku and plans to sell her after she’s enjoyed her herself.  She’s enamored of Ohyaku’s pristine skin and uses her back as the canvas for her demonic tattoo masterpiece.

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It’s important to remember that tattoos are not acceptable in Japanese culture.  Many business establishments ban customers with even a small tattoo.  In Japan, tattoos = yakuza = criminals.  It’s a simple equation that would have been obvious to the Japanese viewer in 1968.  That’s why it’s such a big deal that Ohyaku accepts the full back tattoo of Hannya.  It just shows how far she’s willing to go to get her revenge.  And she does go after it with gusto, but to tell you more would spoil the ending.

This film is truly a treasure for those of us who prefer energetic momentum to plot complications.  You know who you are.  It’s a rocket ride from beginning to end, with just the right amount of character development to make the protagonists sympathetic.  It’s no work of art but it’s a well crafted and highly entertaining 90 minutes.

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Director Yoshihiro Ishikawa is listed on IMDB as the director of only four films.  In an era when many directors made hundreds of films, this is curious for someone who was so obviously talented.  Apparently, he was about to become a director at Shintoho (literally New Toho) just before it went bankrupt in the early sixties.  He had a hard time joining another studio without a proven track record as director and must have filled the interim years with television duties or below-the-line chores.  I’ve found very little information regarding his work but I’m glad this gem still exists.

As to star Junko Miyazono, she appeared in 22 titles between 1958 and 1969.  She was only 26 years old in 1969 so I can only imagine that she chose to leave acting.  Like Ishikawa, there’s very little info about her floating around the internet.  If you’re privy to more, please let me know.  I found her beautiful and engaging here and I very much look forward to her appearances in the subsequent Ohyaku films.

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The only person in the cast to go on to great notoriety is Tomisaburu Wakayama.  Besides being the brother of Zatoichi star, Shintaro Katsu, Wakayama went on to great fame as Ogami Itto in the Lone Wolf and Cub films and TV series.  He was also featured in a couple of Sleepy Eyes of Death pictures and the Ridley Scott film, Black Rain.  All told, he was in almost 150 projects.  His turn here is short but he’s convincing as the benevolent oyabun who helps the unlucky couple.

The music is fairly typical fare but the sound design is a standout here.  I especially liked how the impending thunderstorm is used to heighten the action during Ohyaku’s prison escape.

If you like fun, explosive, sexy action, then this is the chanbara film for you.  Very highly recommended.

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