Review: Lady Teacher Rope Hell
Mabuki Junko's Lady Teacher Rope Hell is a frustrating mixed bag of missed opportunities, with as much innovation as tedium stirred into the usual captured-for-sex, damsel-in-distress tale.
By 1981, Junko was, by all accounts, suffering from health problems maybe or maybe not related to the physical and other stresses she was placed under by the relentless wheel of the SM grindhouse. Shortly afterwards, she retired from the Roman-Porno world for good, although she would make infrequent appearances in indie pink films and even mainstream TV drama. Watching carefully, it's quite apparent what pain and real stress Miss Mabuki is under during the making of this film; there's a genuine sense of pathos and suffering that goes just a little beyond acting.
So, let's discuss what passes for a plot and then move on, because the interesting parts of this film are in the execution and not the execrably lackadaisical storyline.
Yoshimura Sayuri is a pretty teacher in a girls' public school. She has a cute, perky student named Ranko who has a bit of a girl-crush on her, and is involved with a guy teacher named Tsujima at the same school (Sekikawa Shinji). One sunny afternoon, Ranko gets molested by a rancid old whisky-swilling vagrant.
Sayuri intervenes and suffers the worst of the assault whilst Ranko goes off in search of help; 'help' she finds in the form of the mousy, socially-dysfunctional piano tuner, whom I'm just going to call 'The Perverted Guy' since I never did catch his name in the movie. He's listed in the credits with a kanji which has so many yomi that I can't even begin to guess his actual name. The actor, however, is Akira Tomo, and he does a fine job of essaying one of the most unattractive characters in cinema history.
The vagrant (Kusanagi Ryouichi) fulfills his Roman-Porno contract by raping Sayuri in the lecture theater; The Perverted Guy later abducts her and locks her up in the velvet-lined prison cell he's constructed in the basement of his house. Dan Oniroku riffles thorough his SM cliche Rolodex for 40 minutes whilst Ranko tries to find out what's happened to her favourite teacher, and her boyfriend gets videotapes in the post of the usual pubic shavings, enemas, force-feedings, inverted suspensions and whippings.
Naturally, curious Ranko can't avoid investigating Mr. Pervert's house, gets herself captured and -- my, but this will surprise you if you've never seen a Nikkatsu SM Roman-Porno film before -- turns into a submissive masochist who helps further enslave poor Sayuri. Then, because time's up, Mr. Pervert Guy drops the candle during a waxing session, the house catches fire and everyone dies.
The end. At which point you're shouting, "Fuck you, movie!" at the screen.
The really disappointing thing about this film is that everyone and everything, except for the wretched script, is absolutely doing their best. It might just be the best-looking SM R-P film since 1976's Lady Black Rose -- and we'll come back to that later.
Junko works as hard as ever to impart a real sense of warmth and humanity to Sayuri, and pulls it off, too. There's a brilliant bit early on, where Sayuri's boyfriend is being gently joshed by a bunch of his girl students, and effortlessly fends off their inappropriate questions without once stooping to authoritarianism or inappropriate behaviour himself. At the same time, Sayuri is counseling her favourite student, and professionally fends off her questions in a way that seems sisterly and comforting rather than matronly or overbearing. It's the sweet, friendly quality that Junko brings to her characters that has seen her stand the test of time, and makes her characters ones that you want to protect and rescue. Andromeda archetypes indeed.
If there is one thing to appreciate about movies like this one, it's the willingness to actually cast a good-looking guy as a nice, generous person in the role of the heroine's Significant Other. At the same time, Yamaji Miki as Ranko is completely convincing as the sort of diligent but hormonal post-adolescent whose admiration for her favourite teacher is just about blurring the borders into outright lust, envy and aspiration. In case you really need to hear this, although I guess Ranko is supposed to be about 18, there's no doubt that Yamaji was over twenty and in possession of union membership when she made this film. Say what you like about Nikkatsu, but they were always legal.
But the best piece of casting here is The Perverted Guy. It's naturally impossible to feel any empathy towards a character who kidnaps a perfectly innocent woman and subjects her to the most horrible sexual torments, but the guy actually sells his character as almost sympathetic.
During the capturing scene, he proudly shows off the gilded cage he's constructed for the little bird he's been trying to ensnare -- possibly planning this for years, waiting for the Perfect Victim. The scripting here is never better than perfunctory, but the actor pulls off a masterful job as the pathetic, borderline-autistic, socially-incapacitated geek who genuinely can't understand why a woman wouldn't want to be locked up in his basement -- and cooked for, have her laundry done, and never have to worry about a rent cheque ever again.
I'll give the storyline credit for one thing: at no point does it portray the guy as a sociopath or misogynist; he's just a sad little man who honestly thinks he's treating his captive in the way that women should be treated, and his rage when it doesn't work out that way is palpable.
He cooks nice food for Sayuri. She throws it across the room. He buys expensive lingerie for her. She refuses to wear it. She goes on a hunger strike so he, in his own mind, has no choice except to tie her to a chair and force-feed her through a funnel (with a rather delicious-looking banana and mango milkshake, which he purees himself, for the record). And finally, after he proposes to her, and she uses their valedictory embrace to try to steal the key to the cage door, he (un)naturally, reaches the conclusion that you spare the rod and spoil the child.
There is a jarring moment which communicates what a disturbed case we're dealing with here. Sayuri is raped in the school after effectively sacrificing herself to save Ranko. This scene is almost unwatchable in its grossness, as the filthy, drunken vagrant gags Sayuri with his wank-rag, gropes her, and when she wets herself in fear, smears her own piss all over her. It took me three goes to get through this unapologetic exercise in vileness, and I pretty much had to take a shower afterward.
Meanwhile, Ranko has tracked down Mr. Perverted Guy and is trying to convince him to intervene, which he refuses to do, preferring to get an eyeful of the rape instead. His excuse for refusing to step in (that the evil old fuck might actually kill Sayuri if he did so) is mildly convincing, but the actor is good enough to use body language and facial expression to let you know what his real motives are. And later, when the pair are taking care of Sayuri in her apartment, and he doesn't miss the chance to take a peek up Ranko's serafuku as she's cleaning up her favourite teacher with a wet sponge, is creepiness incarnate.
Once again, it's the direction and acting here that does 20 times more than the script, and maybe that's the way it should be. The first rule of movie-making is Show, don't tell, right?
The look of the film is exquisite, using the small budget to maximum possible effect. During Sayuri's first stretching-torture scene, there's a shot of a small table on which an array of vibrators is arranged, all activated and squirming like horrid reptiles. Once again, it's a visual metaphor that does more than a page of dialogue could ever do: You're in the snake-pit now.
A minute later, there's a horribly decadent moment when Sayuri's being poked and tormented with the biggest, knobbliest, nastiest-looking vibrator of the lot, and it dislodges a huge ball of (sprayed-on glycerine) sweat which trickles down her belly. You can't give Junko enough credit and respect for enduring what she went through in this film; that scene alone would be enough to drive most people insane, and by the time you get to the hideous modified gym equipment, I'm nominating her for some kind of award for valour beyond the call of duty.
A point worth noting is that this is a Japanese bondage film with no Japanese bondage in it. There's lots of rope. Lots and lots of it. And chains, and velcro restraints, and those leather boob-harnesses that directors cant't seem to avoid trussing Mabuki Junko up in. And an auto-repair shop hoist. There are lace-up dildo-pants, and a combination gag/blindfold/collar contraption, but those of you looking for the real kinbaku deal are in the wrong movie.
On an unintentionally (or maybe intentionally) amusing note, when Ranko goes all Nancy Drew and decides to track down Sayuri's abductor, breaks into the house and naturally gets grabbed, the bondage she's subjected to is played almost for comedy. It's a sort-of conscious subversion of the Japanese love for all things cute, and the perky little actress throws herself into it. If the Encyclopedia Nawaikka wanted an illustration to accompany the entry on 'perky', they couldn't do much better than Yamaji Miki.
So now we move towards the most stupid conclusion of any Roman-Porno film I've ever seen (and that's saying something). Perverted Guy realises that by having Ranko in his evil clutches, he has the leverage over Sayuri that he needs, and Sayuri duly volunteers that which the endless torture and abuse couldn't accomplish. But! Don't you know?! Ranko has gone over to the dark side, and assists in the torturous games that follow!
And then everyone gets burned alive. In a stupid accident.
If you've a critical strand of DNA in your genome, do not watch the last ten minutes of this film if there are heavy objects close at hand, at least not unless you have the budget for a new TV set.
On the other hand, if you want possibly the sexiest softcore lesbian kiss you ever did see, put the ashtray and the paperweight well out of reach, and try to ignore the staggering idiocy of the script.
It's worth noting the sound design of this movie as well. The music is the greatest, sleaziest porno-prog-rock; menacing and spacious, with clear influence from the Cordara Orchestra and like-minded Euro sleazemeisters such as Gert Wilden and Seigfried Schwab. The short leitmotifs for Sayuri and Perverted Guy are top-notch bits of minimal composition as well, and there's clearly attention paid to how the dubbed-over dialogue is recorded. The scenes in the school are spacious and warm, and those in the dungeon are harsh and cold, with the compression racked up to Spinal Tap Eleven.
Note also the set design. A lot of this movie is filmed in what looks like a real school or university; there are plenty of incidental schoolgirl extras around in the establishing shots which gives the film a look far beyond its probably meagre budget, and Perverted Guy's cell is more like a swank bachelor pad than a torture dungeon. Costume design is absolutely spot-on, too. Sayuri is eternally virginal or bridal in spotless white, and during the inevitable shower scene, Perverted Guy gets a pair of leopard-print underwear shorts, as if he's trying to channel the ferocious jungle predator he wants to be, instead of the hapless dweeb he really is.
In its own way, the marriage proposal scene is even creepier than either the vagrant rape or the peeping-up-the-schoolgirl's-blouse. It puts front and centre that in the mind of this guy, the idea that what women want isn't independence, intellectual stimulation and self-determination and (heaven forbid) the right to decide whom they go to bed with, but just to be little dress-up dolls.
Tani Naomi's movies are full of spoiled, bourgeois women with intolerably unfulfilled lives, going from one day to the next like antiques in their rich husbands' collections, who, in the context of the genre, one can well understand submitting to, or even seeking out, extreme sexual experiences, just from the urge to feel or experience something, anything, to relieve the unremitting ennui of their actual existences.
But this is a Mabuki Junko movie, and Sayuri has a life, an occupation, a career, and students she cares about and who adore her as well; who has a handsome, sexually-active and generous lover, and a cosy little apartment which she pays for herself. It's inescapable that the loss of these things is much worse than any of the actual sexual or physical depredations that are meted out to her.
The reason that Ranko's heartbreaking betrayal of Sayuri (and it is heartbreaking -- Ranko voluntarily dresses up in an outfit that had earlier been used to punish and humiliate the older woman), which precipitates her final descent into madness, packs such a mean punch, not so much that it is a betrayal, but because there is a tiny, tiny implication that it represents to Saori that she, herself, has betrayed or failed in her own sworn-and-sacred trust -- to raise a generation of educated, independent women, and her own efforts have only succeed in producing yet another decorative puppet sex doll.
Now this, along with the business of why Sayuri just doesn't want to be pampered and looked after and treated like an exotic pet, is potentially thermonuclear narrative, which the dog of script steadfastly refuses to do absolutely anything with.
Maybe one of the reasons the script refuses to do anything is that the plot development that pitches Ranko into m-jo land quite simply makes no fucking sense outside the mind of Dan Oniroku. A nice, well-behaved public school girl in early womanhood having a gal-crush on her beautiful teacher? No problems accepting that. Ranko turning from simpering milquetoast to fearless girl detective out of concern for said teacher? I guess I can just about buy that, too. But Ranko suddenly turning into a whip-hungry nymphomaniac after two hours of watching the woman she adores being abused? It's insulting to women, to my intelligence and to the genuinely interesting points that the movie throws up.
It made me throw up a little, too. It's not the only point of plot that makes No Fucking Sense. How did the vagrant get onto school property? Why would a guy as obsessive-compulsive as Perverted Guy not have a fire extinguisher around when he was playing with candles? Why does Sayuri's boyfriend drop off the face of the planet when he knows perfectly well where Ranko's little detective act has taken her? Are there no police in this version of reality?
There are so many better ways they could have ended this film. The obvious one, I suppose, would be to have the gals turn the tables on Perverted Guy and make him into their slave. If your Andromeda really needs a Perseus, they could have had the boyfriend arrive in the nick of time, rescue the fair maidens and leave Perverted Guy to burn in his own literal and metaphorical hell.
If they wanted a better 'betrayal' pretext for Sayuri's descent into the void, well try this out for size, because it also makes sense in the context of the script (i.e., why none of the school faculty has reported that one of her staff members has gone missing, when there are at least five witnesses to Sayuri's getting into Perverted Guy's car): The boyfriend has actually been lying through his teeth, because he's secretly getting off on the idea of Sayuri's captivity, and even more on the frequent VHS tapes that Perverted Guy keeps mailing him.
It's hardly like classical romance is devoid of morally ambiguous St. Georges or Sir Lancelots who have a good leer at the princess-in-chains before charging in and looking like a hero (The Faerie Queene anyone? Ariosto? Orlando Furioso?). Or, for a last go-around, you could even have Perverted Guy learning something about himself and about gender relations, which would at least make a lick of sense out of the business of having your main character be a teacher. But when a rank (and largely untalented) amateur like me can come up with four better conclusions than the writer did, you know your narrative is in a bit of trouble.
There's a final point here that's worth making. The tribulations which Sayuri is put to resemble, not so much the poetic tortures of a traditional DiD melodrama -- the force-feeding, the sleep deprivation, the constant discomfort, exposure, humiliation and denial of privacy -- but the sort of treatment you might expect to hear of in a prison in an oppressive regime.
Once you realise this, the film begins to make the tiniest bit of sense. 1981 was, I think, the high water mark of what are now called the 'sex wars' -- a series of ugly and public debates, books and lectures about what, if any, function sexual relations have. During this process, noted feminist scholar Andrea Dworkin compared pornography to a concentration camp, heterosexual intercourse to a military occupation, and conspired with her friend Catherine MacKinnon to pass an unconstitutional law making porn illegal on the grounds of hate speech.
This wasn't even the most sensationalist language used. Other scholars made statements so utterly rancid about their rivals that I'm actually too mealy-mouthed to repeat them. Viewed through the lens of that process, it's not surprising that Sayuri's treatment resembles that of a political prisoner, since in a very real sense that's what she is -- a captive in the battle of Men Possessing Women. Perhaps I'm giving the movie more credit than it really deserves, but maybe there's just another small piece of subtext at work here. For people like me, who actually take the-sexual-is-political stuff seriously, it can't quite be ignored.
Video available here and here
Lady Teacher Rope Hell is a flawed film for sure, and the most frustrating thing about it is that it gets within centimeters of being terrific. Nishimura's direction is certainly above workmanlike, the performers go all-out, and some of them go through hell, and just a few more drafts of writing would have produced something up there to rival Ikenie Fujin or even Ai No Corrida.
There are a few nymphs of gender politics and social commentary bound up on the earthen floor of this tubercular, dripping cellar of a script, and they are not gagged quite tightly enough to be completely silenced. It's our job to rescue them, bring them out into the daylight, and allow everyone to experience their beauty and potency.