The Plot: Reiko Ike plays Maki, a young woman whose father was forced to distribute illegal drugs and then laid to waste by the ruthless Oba clan. After the murder of her father, these Yakuza came back and raped the young girl. With vengeance on her mind, she located her first target and slashed him dead in a club. She is immediately incarcerated, but refuses to take a lenient sentence by confessing the motivation of her crime. She spends her time in prison, mostly isolated from the other inmates. She immediately is at odds with Masao (Miki Sugamoto) but after a fight between the two, she is able to at least live amongst the girls. She even makes friends with most of them, who ultimately decide to help her in her quest for revenge after they are all released from prison. Masao however remains as distant as possible, because unknown to Maki, she is Hayama’s (leader of the Oba clan) main woman. Maki goes ahead with her plan however and soon turns the entire Oba clan on its head by staging a war between their group and another yakuza clan in the area. Will Maki’s plan come to fruition and will her vengeance be fulfilled?
If you’ve been following Varied Celluloid within the past six months or so, you’ll have noticed an influx of Pinky Violence films. As with many things, I am more than a little late in discovering these amazing pieces of cinematic history. Their history is rich and here in North America they have started to really gain an audience within the past few years. No doubt this resurgence comes from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez bringing such films as Lady Snowblood and various yakuza movies to the forefront. The timely release of the Pinky Violence Collection from Panik House (which this film is found on) has also helped to spread their notoriety. The pinky violence genre itself is interesting in the fact that it carries weight with modern audiences more than any other cult genre from seventies-era Japan. Sure, the yakuza pictures of Kinji Fukasaku certainly had the retro fashion that the pinky violence genre does, but the yakuza market is very much stuck within a cultural crevasse. They are films made about a subculture that few are going to instantly have a history with or know their customs. It also doesn’t help that they are uniquely and predominantly male-only films. The pinky violence films of Toei are action filled masterpieces that push their unbridled Girl Power right in your face and have little regard for cultural dispositions. Criminal Woman: Killing Melody is a perfect example of this. Although not a film shot by a luminary of the genre such as Norifumi Suzuki, Teruo Ishii or Yasuharu Hasebe, director Atsushi Mihori would direct this stunning cult item and deliver a film that seems to knock on all pillars of the genre and still add enough intriguing elements that allow it to become something different and new.
These new and interesting concepts are no doubt the entirely exploitative elements that are introduced to the genre, with a considerable focus on the action side of the storytelling rather than simply the fashion and attitude. Not that the pinky violence movement needed any additional exploitation, but for once that doesn’t simply mean more bare breasts. Even though you can be certain that this film features plenty of those. No, it’s the violence, the outrageousness and the sadism of key scenes in Criminal Woman: Killing Melody that give it a memorable edge over some of the more simply sexy films of the time. It’s a little over the top, and when you’re saying that about movies that usually feature girls wearing sunglasses bigger than their heads kicking the tar out of guys who outweigh them two times over, you know it means something. There are some interesting characters introduced, such as a gangster who can spit out tiny metal stars that stick in the flesh of his enemies. This character is inconsequential to the main story and I truthfully can’t even remember whether he was given a name throughout; but his inclusion in several scenes gives him a personality that stands out. Another great character is the “wild man” Tetsu, who is unequivocally unhinged in his performance. An alcohol swilling lunatic with frizzy hair, a leather jacket and a devil may care attitude. Although the character is unfortunately introduced halfway through the movie and doesn’t get as much screen time as I would have enjoyed, he grabs your attention and holds it with each scene he takes part in. His consistent laughing and dialogue shouted-so-as-to-be-intense performance easily makes him the most interesting male in the main cast. Although he is almost shown up by another yakuza who actually wields a chainsaw during a torture sequence! Who ever thought they would see a chainsaw in a Ike/Sugimoto film?
Reiko Ike and Miki Sugimoto, the angels (or devils) of this genre, deliver once again in roles that pit the two against one another in a battle for supremacy. This actually leads to what I would consider one of the more visually memorable moments in all of their work together. During the prison sequence of the film these two goddesses of course rub each other the wrong way and are lead to an overblown catfight, but the scene is upped a notch by having the two women clench a cloth between their teeth and arm and the first one to let go is deemed the loser. The fight sequence is overly long and pushes the limits of interest, but visually it’s a very compelling moment and probably the one sequence that is really burned into the mind of its viewers after the closing credits fade away. The two girls once again couldn’t look any better and are a staple for judging beauty, in my opinion. Reiko Ike, who always looked far more mature than her actual age, starts the film off dressed as a school girl as she takes her revenge on one of the gangsters who enslaved her father and raped her. During these moments, Ike may have set the bar for her beauty because she has that simple girl next door look and it suits her so well. In many films she was dolled up and dressed in some pretty over the top costumes; but she shows her natural beauty here and she wears it so well. Miki Sugimoto is as stunning as usual, wearing a full yakuza tattoo that of course covers one of her bare breasts, another staple of the genre. Her moody character gives her a sexy stagger to almost all of her actions, as you can never tell exactly what team she is playing for. Although I hate to spend so much time talking about the beauty of these talented women, I can’t help but make mention of it because these films are such a celebration of this fact and these two women sold out theaters due to the lovely nature of their features. After so many years, not much has changed as young men like myself still find these women and fail to find any flaws.
The film presents a revenge inspired Yojimbo-like fable set in the lawless and feudal yakuza underworld that permeated 1970’s Japanese cinema. Although Toshiro Mifune’s character may not have had any personal motivation behind his actions in Yojimbo, Reiko Ike proves to be a different beast entirely as she uses her womanly ways to manipulate these men and force themselves into war. In the same way that the yakuza film of the time was separating itself from what had come previous, by showing the more modern and lawless yakuza who no longer lived by their own ethical code (ie: Battles Without Honor and Humanity, Sympathy For the Underdog), Criminal Woman: Killing Melody illustrates the more vengeful side of the fable. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned as they say, and this journey through female vengeance ultimately proves to be empowering despite the exploitation angle. Scenes such as the torture sequence, which once again features some very heavy sadomasochistic imagery involving ropes and cigarette burns, are certainly there to entice those members of the audience who might be into that sort of thing – there’s still a very enlightened attitude in much of what goes on. Director Atsushi Mihori demonstrates that while he may not have been an overly experienced director (IMDB lists this as his only credit, but Panik House says he also directed a trilogy of films called “Cruel High School – Bad Boy” aka: Hijo Gakuen – Waru), whoever this man was he certainly had a flair for his job. He delivers a very stylish and visual film, where he uses great composition and framing skills to paint this lurid and colorful world of wild characters and outrageous acts. The film some times borders on the cartoonish, yet the visual nature of the film makes it rich and respectable; amidst all of the sleaze.
The final film featuring Miki Sugimoto and Reiko Ike together, afterwards they would both continue acting but not together. Neither actress would be featured in a film after the conclusion of the 1970’s. Ike would be embroiled in controversy after a drug charge and Sugimoto would go on to be married and settle down.
It is claimed that Reiko Ike initially had some issues with Toei over contractual disputes at some point, which saw Miki Sugimoto becoming more heavily promoted at the time. When the two were often paired together and their cat-fights would inevitably happen – Miki was often seen as the winner. As is the case in much of this film.
There is no getting past it, I really loved Criminal Woman: Killing Melody. It is a testament to the fun that one can have with this genre and while these pictures may not be packed to the brim with character depth or any kind of emotional baggage, they are the epitome of cinema as entertainment. If you haven’t experienced a film of this sort yet, then … Killing Melody would certainly make for a fun place to start!