It’s rare for filmmakers to get the combination of aesthetic freedom and high production values that Nikkatsu offered the directors of their roman porno film line. As long these directors delivered the expected amount of sex and avoid showing the pubic area of its cast, they could get away with anything. Absolutely anything.
If you want a prototypical example of these principles in action, just take the 70 minutes necessary to watch Zoom In: Sex Apartments. Like many of the edgier examples of Nikkatsu sexploitation, this film begins with a rape. Erina Miyai plays Saeko, a housewife visit a lover she abandoned years ago when her husband goes on a trip. En route there, she is attacked and raped by a sadistic, black-clad mystery figure. Surprisingly, she doesn’t allow this to stop her from meeting with her old flame (Yoko Azusa) and the two resume a torrid if rather uncertain affair.
Concurrently, her rapist begins attacking and murdering women in the area. To make matters worse, his flamboyantly brutal methods of murder always involve setting his victims on fire. Saeko begins to suspect her current lover as the victims pile up because he dresses similarly and even owns the same tool that the rapist used on her. However, nothing is what it seems in this nightmarish tale – and it all culminates in an unpredictable ending that forces the viewer to question everything they’ve seen.
In short, Zoom In: Sex Apartments feels more like a horror film with an overactive, demented libido. As many have noted, there is a strong Argento/giallo influence at play in how the killer is presented but this film goes to places that even Italian filmmakers would think twice about. Screenwriter Chiho Katsura’s storyline has a mean streak a mile wide and takes a dreamlike approach to its tale, never allowing things to add up in a simple fashion and spiking the storyline with all manner of symbolic visuals that lend a Freudian bent to all the madness going on.
This tricky state of affairs works because Director Naosuke Kurosawa uses this odd, manipulative storyline as a vehicle for his visual flair. The early scenes between Saeko and her lover shows that he can direct straightforward scenes of eroticism with skill and intensity but it’s the murder setpieces where he is at his most inspired. They’re full of avant-garde visual devices, unique transitions and tautly rhythmic editing that offset the DeSade-ish level of cruelty they depict.
Kurosawa applies a similar level of flair to even the simplest scenes, particularly when he gets to use fire as a visual motif: for example, there is a memorable moment where Saeko walks in on her lover in a dark room as he cradles a flaming glass of brandy and a shot of a dead victim where flames seems to be erupting from her groin. The grim, sometimes off-putting nature of the story is offset by the manic, inventive joy he applies to his visuals throughout the film. It’s also worth noting that Kurosawa gets strong performances from Miyai and Azusa, who play their roles straight and avoid the kind of hysteria that could have pushed the film too far.
In short, Zoom In: Sex Apartments is no simple slice of sexploitation. It pushes the envelope with confrontational glee as the filmmakers allow their collective artistic id to run amuck. That said, anyone who can hang in with its odd style will be rewarded with an intense, visually striking experience that represents the artistic freedom of Nikkatsu roman porno filmmaking at its fullest (and freakiest).