One of the most invigorating cult-movie rushes Your Humble Reviewer has enjoyed in the last few years was his indoctrination into their outrageous, eccentric world of 1970’s Japanese exploitation films. They were made at a time when the major Japanese studios were fearing obsolescence due to television challenging their market dominance so they let their filmmakers off the leash to create the bloodiest, sexiest, most berserk exploitation films imaginable. These wild, colorful yet stunningly disciplined films are some of the most gorgeously stylized deviance a schlock addict could ever hope to see.
A great example of the distinctive Japanese approach to exploitation can be found in Teruo Ishii’s amazing Bohachi Bushido: Code Of The Forgotten Eight. Ishii throws us in at the deep end with a manga-styled titles sequence that features Shiro (Tetsuro Tamba), our grimly cool anti-hero, lopping off a series of hands, arms and heads as he hacks his way through an endless string of attackers. When he realizes he is still surrounded by enemies no matter how hard he fights, he resigns himself to the idea that “life is hell” and plunges himself into a nearby river to meet the afterlife.
But the afterlife doesn’t come. Instead, Shiro awakens in a bed with three prostitutes rubbing their naked bodies on his to revive him. He discovers that he has been rescued by the Clan Of The Forgotten Eight, a group who have abandoned all decent human values to reign supreme over Japan’s prostitution industry. Their clan is suffering from competition that is cheapening the value of the flesh they peddle so they recruit a reluctant Shiro to wipe out their opponents. Unfortuantely, Shiro’s stubborn refusal to abandon his own eccentric code of honor ensures that there will be a conspiracy against him, one that involves a bloody sword-slashing finale…
The end result is crazy and lurid but also highly artful. The storyline, adapted from a manga by Kazuo Koike of Lone Wolf & Cub and Hanzo The Razor fame, piles on the gore and a buffet of lurid, S&M-suffused sex but it also satirizes government corruption and the ruthless, corrosive nature of capitalism. It even makes room for meditation on trying to maintain a code of honor in a honorless world (a classic samurai-film theme). The densely-structured storyline keeps the film from being a string of setpieces and gives it an internal complexity that allows it to hold up to multiple viewings.
The film also boasts dazzling, go-for-broke direction from Ishii. He splashes the film’s lavish sets with primary-colored lighting and tells his story in a style that is baroque to the point of abstraction. It’s a brilliant choice because it takes material that could have come off as silly if played straight and transforms it into something surreal and strangely, decadently beautiful. A great example of his technique is a scene where a rival clan member does battle with a gang of fully-nude Bohachi female assassins. Ishii concentrates his visuals around the extremity of the contrasts between the ladies and the attacker, skillfully utilizing Peckinpah-style slo-mo and trippy, echo-drenched sound effects to up the scene’s surrealistic ante. You might be chuckling at the start of the scene but your jaw will be on the floor by the end.
Most importantly, the performances anchor the material. Everyone plays their roles straight, each knowing that the wildness of the material and Ishii’s direction will sell itself without their help. Tatsuo Endo is delightfully sleazy as the Clan’s Machiavellian boss, smarm oozing from every pore as he purrs each corrupt line of dialogue through a leering grin, and Goro Ibuki lends a solid presence to his role as the second-in-command, a company man who quietly admires Shiro’s independence.
However, the top honors go to Tanba. Even when the story around him gets so unhinged that it threatens to fly off into the stratosphere, Tanba grounds it with his effortlessly convincing version of world-weary cool. He wanders through the film’s hellish bordello world with a stone face and an endlessly supply of nihilistic/philosophical quips for each freakish situation. He’s the guy you want on your side when the shit goes down.
In short, Bohachi Bushido: Code Of The Forgotten Eight tosses you headfirst into a world of unrestrained delirium. It begins with and ends with sword-slicing massacres and packs in mindboggling amounts of carnal depravity inbetween. However, its biggest surprise is that it is as beautifully made as any high-style cult flick you care to mention.
If that’s not a recommendation then Your Humble Reviewer doesn’t know what one is.