School of the Holy Beast (1974)
Director: Norifumi Suzuki
Writers: Masahiro Kakefuda, Norifumi Suzuki
Starring: Yumi Takigawa, Emiko Yamauchi and Yayoi Watanabe

The Plot: Maya Takigawa (played by Yumi Takigawa) is a young delinquent who is hanging on to a past that has abandoned her. Her mother was a devout nun who at some point became pregnant by an unknown father, which lead to her eventually committing suicide. Now Maya looks to discover just who pushed her mother to her fateful end, and in the process discover who her father is, by infiltrating the convent! As she does so, she discovers that the beautiful exterior is simply for outward appearances and this school of god is nothing more than a home of torture inflicted by a group of hypocrites. Maya will use all of her contacts, intellect and anger to open this case and destroy this school from the inside-out!

The Review
To be perfectly honest, the nunsploitation genre is something that I have never full-researched. School of the Holy Beast is arguably not even a part of that subgenre, depending on who you talk to, but it had enough elements going for it to rope in my attention. For one, this is a seventies-era Toei production. That alone counts for something. So, regardless of how good or bad the content may be, the movie will probably remain interesting. Number two, it was directed by the amazing Norifumi Suzuki! Third, it has made the top tier amongst many pinky violence lists that I have seen on the internet. Although it doesn’t really seem to belong in this genre, it still makes for an interesting reference before watching. Those three things add up to a concoction that no true Asian cinema nerd could possibly refuse. Going into the movie, I found myself slightly puzzled as to how the film would categorize itself and to what genre it most belonged, but after watching… I find myself even more puzzled than before!

School of the Holy Beast is a true genre film jack-of-all-trades. It knows a little bit about everything, but not a whole lot about any one thing. To be honest, the nunsploitation genre does not actually entice my personal interest as a viewer. This is partly the reason I have put off watching the movie, despite having the DVD just lying around for several months. I was not raised Catholic, I honestly know little about that culture, and films that sell themselves on eroticism generally do little for me. I can enjoy an artistic pinku title, but sexual marketing generally turns me off as a viewer. The jolly surprise that I discovered with School of the Holy Beast however, is that this movie actually goes a bit deeper than what expectations might lead one to believe. There is sex, and plenty of it, but there are also some interesting political and cultural points made, as well as a ton of vivid artistic imagery.

If you take away the religious garb, School the Holy Beast is most assuredly a women-in-prison movie. In fact, when the nuns have visitors from the outside they are forced to have conversations through steel bars as if this were a real prison. Similar to films such as Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and Criminal Woman: Killing Melody, the monastery that these girls stay in is ruled by a dominant and pious group who want to enforce strict discipline on the inhabitants. The difference here is a palpable sense of skepticism for Christian leadership. While the film never shows utter disdain for the religion itself, there is a great deal of anger felt throughout the movie. These catholic nuns are shown to be the true bearers of the Inquisition, and they enact massive amounts of bizarre torture throughout the film. This seems to create a slightly surreal atmosphere within the movie, because we are constantly shown a strange dichotomy of worlds. Despite the outside world being a very obvious 1970-era Japan, the interior of this monastery is truly medieval in terms of its torture and pious attitudes.

The way the convent is depicted shows a truly bizarre vision of Christian theology. A vision that is shown through the prism of a culture that is not accustomed to this religion. Essentially, all Christians are shown to be self righteous and hypocritical bigots who are unable to control their own actions. Some would argue that this presentation is merely being factual, but an intellectually honest person recognizes this as a stereotype. Hypocrisy seems to be a main theme running throughout the film. The stern preaching of the priest and his lead abbess is shown in direct confrontation with their actions, which are far less moral. The character of father Kakinuma is an interesting one to me. He leads the monastery with a righteous hand, but he secretly has an internal war going on between his faith and his worldly ideals. The background for this character is that he resents god for having never manifested himself physically in front of him, and his immoral activities are either a result of this resentment or are simply a part of his own true disbelief. The film isn’t really clear, and since we do know that he has been abusing his power for at least the past eighteen years, I think it is safe to say he has held onto his beliefs for even longer. If he has lived with this resentment for over 18-20 years, when was he ever actually in touch with his own religion? Within the Christian faith, God is said to be pleased through acts of faith and worship, yet this man of the cloth shows neither faith nor fulfills even the basic tenants of Christian fellowship… and yet demands for god to show himself. His hypocrisy is not just felt through the face that he puts on for the crowds and the church, but through his own internal strife and (dis)belief in God.

Christian theology is referenced throughout the film. During the final minutes, there seems to be a reference made to the story of Jacob. In that story, Jacob wanted to marry a woman named Rachel, but he was tricked by Rachel’s father into taking Leah (Rachel’s sister) as his wife before ultimately marrying Rachel. Although the parallels that are made aren’t wholly compatible with the original story nor this film’s context, there is enough in the film that I think that this was intentional. Also, in one of Maya’s final confrontations with a relative who has been absent her entire life, a relative who also claims to be a devout Christian when they instead revel in hypocrisy, she uses the phrase “I don’t even know you.” This line, within the context of the film, also seems reminiscent to a quotation from the Bible. In Luke 13, Jesus says: “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.”. For those outside of the religion, it might seem like grabbing and picking at pieces of a scripture that hardly seems applicable. However, this quotation from Jesus is used very often and is one of Jesus’ most memorable parables. The situation is flipped inside of this film, however, and instead of the flock coming to the master – a worldly lamb is speaking to a worldly Sheppard who has always been absent. If you look hard enough, there is enough subtext to appreciate the film on a different level outside of the generic “Oh my gosh, lesbian nuns!”. While one does not have to study theology in order to understand the basic tenets of the film, I think the movie does have plenty to say for those who want to pick up on some of these aspects.

School of the Holy Beast is a very mixed production. We have moments of slapstick comedy that feel best suited for a 1980s teen-sex romp, but then we have the other side of the movie which features a searing indictment of organized religion. Not to mention, the movie has absolutely beautiful photography. The torture sequences, which can be explicit in their sexuality at times, are actually quite amazing as well. There is one sequence in particular that stands out as being both beautiful and revolting at the same time. This bit of torture revolves around Maya, and it shows her being wrapped up in thorns from a rose bush and then being swatted with bouquets of thorny roses. As she twirls in anguish, we watch as rose pedals flow through the air making the entire experience surreal and beautiful. No questions about it, the film absolutely looks spectacular, and the backdrop of a European castle only helps re-enforce this beauty.

The Conclusion
While the true intentions of the film are entirely up for debate, I think School of the Holy Beast is intelligent enough to garner a larger audience than your average nunsploitation title. The film is beautifully helmed and marks some of Suzuki’s best work from a visual standpoint. Although I may end up at odds with some, I’m giving the film a four out of five stars. It is a confrontational film that carries the attitude of the era while directly attacking social ideals.

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