Review: White Uniform Rope Hell

It is generally regarded that 1980 was the beginning of the end for Nikkatsu and the Roman-Porno series. The proliferation of VHS video, and some staggeringly stupid management decisions would lead to the studio's closure some eight years later.

Closer to home, there was the retirement of Tani Naomi. Now Naomi was the symbol, the icon of Nikkatsu SM porn; what the Bell UH-1 was to the Vietnam War or the Saturn-5 to the Space Age, or the AK-47 to Revolutionary Communism. This was an age when exploitation cinema had the most astonishing, exotically beautiful women: Soledad Miranda, Edwige Fenech -- and Naomi was Queen of them all. How do you replace an icon like that?

The long answer is: you don't try.

Naomi was aristocratic and unapproachable, the kind of woman you need a welding mask to look at without scorching your retinas beyond hope of repair. She was constantly cast as bored, idle trophy wives in Toyota Crowns with drivers, attired in obscenely expensive kimono and mink capes, pearls and opal rings: just the kind of people that Nikkatsu's target audience slaved away to pay for their indulged lifestyle.

(1980) 団鬼六 白衣縄地獄

And despite Naomi's own poor, rural background, she pulled it off perfectly. But the 80s were coming, and that kind of figure was becoming outdated as more women entered the workplace, earned their own money and obtained higher education, and the metaphor of marriage-as-bondage became increasingly redundant.

So what do you do? You replace her with an upper-working/lower-middle class working girl in a 'respectable' woman's profession; secretary, nurse, beautician, teacher, air hostess. Not a stunning beauty, but the kind of pretty, approachable woman you might actually meet, or work with, or even date yourself, who looks nice in pants suits, OL skirts-and-blouses, sexy disco dresses, and all kinds of uniforms, and who looks like she might have a boyfriend, play tennis, go dancing with her friends, and enjoy her life. And who happens to have a body which is custom built for being tied up.

The short answer is: Mabuki Junko.

In this film, Junko plays Toshiko, who is a nurse, who is about to get married, but has no intention of breaking off her gal-gal intimacy with the insanely cute little student nurse who's interning with her (and sharing her dormitory!). The next break from Naomi's movies is that her future husband isn't a repulsive old impotent pig, but a doctor in her hospital, and they actually bothered to cast a decent-looking guy for the part. They really make a nice couple, and there's a really sweet sequence early on where they do the business in the empty, unfurnished new apartment they're about to move in to, and not only does it look romantic, it looks like sex.

R-P films get bashed all the time for being 'misogynistic', and I'm not ignorant as to how people could come to that conclusion. But the one thing this film never does is 'punish' Toshiko for having a sex drive, or for being a naughty lesbian, or even for having an affair behind her husband's back. It doesn't try to make her manipulative, or unpleasant, and that's the core of its appeal. It looks like someone paid attention to what the 'R' in R-P stood for.

So put simply, one of Toshiko's patients is a nasty dragon lady (Tachibana Yukiko) who runs a secret SM club in her basement. She tricks her favourite nurse into visiting her house after discharge, where poor Toshiko stumbles upon an aggravated burglary apparently in progress (cue older lady tied up bit.) She's immediately pounced on by the robbers, has her panties photographed, and gets raped. Twice. Or three times, I can't quite tell, since I'm a softie and I have to watch rape scenes through my fingers. Brrr. But she also gets tied up and ball-gagged, which is great. Ten minutes into the film and we've already had some great softcore girl-girl, a plump naked mama and Junko with plenty of rope. That's some pacing right there.

But please. Couldn't you have at least got some stylish clothes for the guys? Those static-crackly polyester pants are not exactly what's needed.

Anyway, the scene is great cinema. The delightful thing about Toshiko is that she is so eminently likable, and you really don't want anything bad to happen to her; the shot where she gets the letter inviting her to the older lady's house sets up what a sweet person she is, and the shot where she's walking down the street towards the trap that's been set for her is great; she looks happy and breezy and actually like a woman off to meet her friend, with gorgeous dappled morning light on her face.

Then there's this nasty, sinister musical sting on the soundtrack, and you just know that it's going to go bad from here. You're actually shouting "Don't go in the house!!" at the screen at this point. When she stumbles across the 'robbery in progress', and Tachibana in a slightly uncomfortable-looking hogtie, her first thought is for her patient, and not herself, and she dashes in to help, even though this is clearly a very unwise thing to do, since there is ample evidence that the burglars are still in the house; the cognitive dissonance is massive: you really don't want anything horrid to happen to Toshiko, but, of course, you do want to see Mabuki Junko get stripped and tied up.

What follows is equally interesting: Toshiko's molestation has an aftermath. She doesn't suddenly become a cock-crazy sex vixen, but behaves something like a real person might actually do after that kind of experience: she goes for comfort from her girlfriend. It's a lovely and sensitive scene, and, without exposition, communicates why a woman would go to another woman for help and support, and not her own husband, and once again inverts the power relations by having the Teacher have to turn to the Student for a shoulder.

Well and all, but this is still an SM grinder we're watching. Where would we be unless we had a scene of Toshiko's wet dream on her honeymoon night, with her squirming around tied up in a mini-skirt nurse's uniform? With back-projected waves. If I were a responsible adult, I'd say this sort of thing was reprehensible, but well...

It's Mabuki Junko, tied up in a mini-skirt nurse outfit. What can I do?

Ecoutez et repartez.

Later, Toshiko gets suckered into going to the Evil Dragon Lady's house again, and we get what's a sort of SM version of '36 Chambers of Shaolin' as the poor thing is fully taught to internalise her discipline, on the understanding that she can make twice her husband's salary if she'll perform at the wicked witch's private club. Oh, and there's another gal, who I think is supposed to be on the run from her parents, who's going to be her partner in the upcoming show.

Now since this a Dan Oniroku script, we get everything we've come to know and love. If you suspected that Junko would be dressed up in one of those cupless leather bra contraptions and a given a good horse-whipping, well, give yourself a point. If you guessed that her bum would get injected full of soapy laxative, and then forced to squat over a kidney-bowl, take two. And if the thought even crossed your mind that there would be pubic hair shaving, Schwedentrank through a kettle, and forced urination...well, then you've probably seen too many of these movies. I know I have.

Now if this was a Tani Naomi movie, she'd be locked up in a steel cage and humiliated day and night. But the funny thing is that Toshiko gets to go home after work, and turn up again the following morning. She even gets coffee breaks. And has perfectly normal sex with her husband. This is possibly the oddest, most what-the-fuck aspect of this movie's take on the tiresome captured-for-sex tale.

The idea that a nice young lady, with a nice husband who isn't a leering old pervert with a toothbrush moustache, would take on the m-jo lifestyle as a sort of temp job is simultaneously jarring and hilarious. Anyway, the night of the big show arrives, and (groan) the usual array of gross old rich-guys turn up. Toshiko and her co-star get some nice creative rope work; do doggie-play with strap-ons; get suspended, drenched in Scotch and licked (in the single most repulsive sequence in the film), and finally candlewaxed. And I really do hope they remembered to wash and towel off vigourously before the the waxing, since Scotch is highly flammable. Do not try this at home.

The final sequence is the funniest and oddly sexiest of the whole movie; Toshiko has invited her little galpal (and heck is she cute) from the hospital over to her apartment to introduce her to the fun-and-games world of bondage and submission, when her husband comes home early and accidentally witnesses the pair going at it. Of course, his 'horrified' expression which freeze-frames at the end of the film is the funniest thing of all, since, upon learning that his beautiful new wife is also a lesbian dominatrix who happens to come complete with her own adorable, doe-eyed sub at no extra charge, the reaction I would expect from most men would be: "Can I watch?"

For an Oniroku script, this film has an oddly big heart. It shows heterosexual relationships as warm and loving, instead of the vacuous impotency of Naomi's films, and friendship between women as tender and supportive, as well as all the voyeuristic lezzing-up. It puts a lot of effort into making you like Toshiko, and plays up to Junko's strengths as an actress. It also recognizes what makes Junko beautiful in her own right; the bondage is done to maximise her big, plump boobs and slightly puppy-fat belly and thighs, and even if it's no one's idea of kinbaku-as-tradition, it's smart enough to play to its strengths and not just pretend that it's still Tani Naomi. The supporting parts are given personalities too, not just extra flesh on the screen.

Junko acts her heart out here, whether its convincingly portraying Toshiko as a happy new bride, a conflicted woman who has just discovered something about her sexuality that maybe she didn't want to know, or a supportive friend. But the most delightful, feminist-positive thing about the whole thing is the way that Toshiko is never once portrayed as a 'bad woman' or someone who 'deserves' to be punished and humiliated. Sure, it suggests that there's a curiosity in her that leads her -- maybe against her own better judgement -- into the SM lifestyle, with all of the risks involved, and it dares to suggest that there's a little itch inside her that her husband just can't scratch. She has the chance to just walk away many times; check out the great scene after the first rape, when she's pausing on the footbridge, racked with shame and self-disgust, and possibly contemplating suicide. Junko's eyes do more exposition than a page of dialogue could have done.


Crucially, it doesn't judge Toshiko more than anyone who does anything risky -- mountaineering or skydiving or motorcycling. And the take-away message is that she finds her new hobby as invigorating and empowering as any other extreme sport, and that's her decision and nobody else's. The dragon lady is a ridiculous stereotype, but Tachibana is completely convincing as the older, wiser woman who spots 'something' in Toshiko that she hasn't even recognised in herself, even if that's a sexist cliche in its own right. And it's massively impressive that even amongst the twenty-something nudity, the film gives props to the fact that a woman's sex drive doesn't stop when her periods do.

And all that from Dan Oniroku. Who'd have thought it?


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