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Bakeneko Toruko furo
DIRECTED BY: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
FEATURING: Naomi Tani, Hideo Murota, Tomoko Mayama, Misa Ohara, Taiji Tonoyama
PLOT: A prostitute reincarnates as a vengeful ghost cat to seek revenge on her abusive pimp husband.
COMMENTS: A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse is the softcore/yakuza/melodrama/horror mashup obscurity you’ve been waiting for (if you’re the “you” in the above formulation, you’ll know it). This breathless nonsense hits its soapy plot points with ruthless economy as it rushes towards its demonic vengeance, with nothing to interrupt the flow except for gratuitous rape, torture, and sex scenes. The lavish sets and painted sunsets make it look as good as a mainstream film of the era, but make no mistake: this ain’t art, it’s overproof exploitation.
Japan’s 1957 ban on public prostitution supplies the initial plot hook, as brothel workers migrate from legal sex work to going undercover at a “Turkish bathhouse” serving as a front for prostitution. Only Yukino (Tani) refuses to make the switch, preferring to take this as an opportunity to retire and spend more time with her husband (and her black cat). Hubby (a scenery-chewing Murota) is no prize, however; he stages an elaborate ruse to fake a debt to the yakuza to convince Yukino to go back to work, then invites her virgin sister to live with the couple so he can rape her. He’s also somehow hiding the fact that he’s second in command at the brothel Yukino’s been working at for years, while simultaneously starting up an affair with the bathhouse madame and owner’s wife. After Yukino gets pregnant and refuses an abortion, he and the madame make sure she’s taken care of (in a very sick torture scene), walling up the corpse a la Poe. In the second act, Yukino’s disgraced sister shows up and goes undercover at the bathhouse looking for revenge, but when she proves the most popular courtesan, the other girls get jealous and decide to beat her, until Yukino’s cat flies (literally!) into the brawl to scratch up hooker faces. As you can see, there’s a lot of plot going on here, but nevertheless the script finds time about every ten minutes to squeeze in a scene of bathhouse girls lathered up with soap, rubbing their naked bodies over clients who mug for the camera with expressions of comical ecstasy. And so it goes until the third act, when the vengeful cat spirit finally arrives in all its Kabuki kitty glory, turning the final twenty minutes into an intense stalking scene (interrupted by only a single bubble bath sex romp). Having sliced up the evildoers with cat claws or burned them to a crisp, an angelic Yukino recedes into the painted sky. Roll credits.
Production values—the bright cinematography, imaginative camera angles, relatively extensive sets and costumes, and a screechy, psyched-out rock soundtrack—are vastly superior to what you would find in a Western sleaze movie. In the Japanese studio system, there was less of a budgetary distinction between, say, a historical drama and a raunchy “pink film.” With one studio (here Toiei) making both prestige and exploitation movies, productions shared casts, directors, crews, and sets; a stalwart like Taiji Tonoyama could act in an S&M-tinged pink movie like this in-between roles in Nagisa Ôshima films. This gives a quickie like Bathhouse an unusual aura of professionalism, for a movie that’s basically a wacky, hastily plotted romp designed to put butts in seats and boners in pants.
Mondo Macabro puts out another fine-looking, expensive-feeling disc. The main bonus here is a passionate commentary from film writer Samm Deighan, who provides a great deal of context and information about the Japanese industry, the players, and the history of the various subgenres colliding here (while also, I would say, overselling the movie as a serious artistic effort.) A couple of featurettes from Japanese cult movie historian Patrick Macias, one on horror at Toei Studios in general and one specifically devoted to A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse, further supplement Deighan’s extensive background information. About fifteen minutes of trailers, for Bathhouse and other sexy/violent Mondo Macabro titles, round out a presentation that makes for a satisfying night at the movies for those willing to overlook the violent misogyny inherent in the pink genre.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an outrageous horror-sex Toei production that packs more into 80 minutes than many viewers’ brains will be able to handle.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)