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 ani­mé, 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.