Nikkatsu’s “Roman Porno” line of sexploitation films could incorporate many genres into its carnal stew: comedy, melodrama, even spy film.  However, this type of film was frequently at its best when set crossbreeds aside and concentrated on delivering a dark, adult take on sexual obsession.  For example, Fairy In A Cage is considered one of the finest Nikkatsu films from the Roman Porno era. Another strong example is Sex Hunter 1980, a tightly-controlled piece of work that uses the most disturbing elements of this cinematic style to startling effect.

Sex Hunter 1980 begins in the world of high art, with ballet student Miki (Ayako Oota) performing impressively in a production of Swan Lake. Her skills are noticed by Akiko (Erina Miyai), a well-to-do woman who runs a new ballet company out of a castle she owns.  It just so happens that Akiko is the sister of Miki’s boyfriend, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances while abroad.

Akiko takes Miki to her school and offers to make her the lead dancer in a new ballet company – but when Miki passes out from a spiked drink, it is revealed that Akiko has sinister, sexually predatory plans for Miki. The young girl finds herself thrust into a dark world of S&M and prostitution, one that will transform her as fate hurtles SexHun80-dvdher towards the discovery of what happened to her boyfriend.

Sex Hunter 1980 is an overpowering experience, in the best sense of that phrase. Masahiro Kakefuda’s script, adapted from an anime, takes the S&M undercurrent of many Nikkatsu films and puts it front and center. It hurtles from one perverse plot point to the next, constantly upping the ante of its own debauchery until it culminates in an overheated erotic/brutal pileup of a finale that would have made De Sade smile. The elements and scale of the story are simple but it quickly immerses you in a world of sexual obsession that is as hypnotic as it is disturbing.

Better yet, this script is done justice by artsy, smartly crafted direction from Toshiharu Ikeda, who would later move into horror with the popular Evil Dead Trap.  Much of the action occurs in the castle’s ballet training room: in lesser hands, this could have look cheap but Ikeda makes it a stylistic choice by using it as ironic backdrop for a series of startling yet artfully crafted scenes of torture. These moments have the frenzied rising energy of a good action sequence, particularly a staggering moment where a certain soft drink is used in a way that puts a perverse spin on the concept of “product placement.”

Ikeda also sprinkles in some surreal flashbacks on a beach and throws out the stops for the aforementioned finale, which works in everything from shattering mirrors to a thunderstorm.  His stylish work is bolstered by some impressive sets – the ballet studio with a double-sided mirror is used to memorable effect – as well as lush, ‘scope-format cinematography from Yoshihiro Yamazaki and a gorgeous, Rick Wakeman-esque keyboard score by Hachiro Kai that mixes classical elements with synth fantasias.

Finally, the film is anchored by a few impressive performances that anchor the film’s flights of Sadean fancy. Oota gives a fearless performance, spending much of the film naked and tormented and bringing a convincing physicality to the scenes where she is put through the story’s S&M paces.  However, she also builds an impressive character arc as she transforms from hapless victim to sexually savvy manipulator. Miyai hits the right note of menace as her tormentor, using her almost aristocratic beauty as a sphinx-like mask before revealing the character’s perverse streak of cruelty. Seru Rando is also impressive as Akiko’s servant, who also serves as Miki’s gleefully perverse instructor in S&M.

In short, Sex Hunter 1980 is bracing stuff, the kind of film that raises sexploitation filmmaking to a pinnacle of dark art.  Anyone with a serious interest in Japanese erotica needs to put it on their viewing list.

DVD Notes: This title just made its U.S. home video debut via a new DVD from Impulse Pictures as part of their Nikkatsu Roman Porno line. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced, and looks gorgeous.  Color, detail and celluloid texture are all spot-on. The Japanese soundtrack is presented in mono with English subtitles. The wild trailer is included (dig those crazy captions) and an insert booklet with notes by Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp are also included. The notes offer an informative, absorbing capsule history of director Ikeda’s career and how his status as a second-generation Nikkatsu Roman Porno director shaped it.