Hanzo the Razor

By the beginning of the 1970’s Japanese popular cinema was changing in radical ways in terms of content, character, themes and excess. The “pinku” revolution was in full frontal form and many filmmakers were forced by popular demand to change the tenor of their films – nudity and blood gushing violence were in and out were the honorable good guys to be replaced by characters who straddled a much more ethically cloudy terrain.

Shintaro Katsu who had begun his film career in the 1950’s often playing the heavy in Samurai and Yakuza films had by the early 60’s found legendary fame in his creation and depiction of the blind sword fighting masseuse Zatoichi. Though pockmarked with human foibles, Zatoichi was still extremely lovable and could always be found on the side of good and honor as he traveled from town to town finding corruption and trouble wherever he went.

His character remained popular through the 1970’s but at the same time he was out of step with the recent trends in Japanese cinema and so Katsu felt the need to ride the new tide with characters and films that were more explicit in his non-Zatoichi releases. He formed his own production company, Katsu Productions, and first began releasing the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series starring his brother, Wakayama Tomisaburo, and then made the three Hanzo films. Both were based on manga’s created by Kazuo Koike.

For those weaned on the gentle humility of Zatoichi as portrayed by Katsu, watching him as Hanzo is a real shock to the system as is the exploitation nature of the content. If perhaps not strictly “pinku” films, they certainly strongly veer in that direction with ample female nudity, rape and red geyser sword slicing violence. Looking physically only vaguely like his portrayal of Zatoichi, Katsu plays Hanzo as an obsessed straight-faced upholder of law and justice and rarely does a smile or kind remark fall upon his lips. Hanzo is a hard-nosed magistrate in the city of Edo (Tokyo) in the mid-1800’s (the Japanese title of “Goyokibu” means “Enforcer for the State”) who refuses to compromise, pay obeisance to status or wealth and will let nothing stand in his way to force justice to be done. He says in “The Snare”, “For the law I’ll cross whatever is in my way. I’ll destroy ranks and codes as long as I’m around”.

This attitude of course constantly has someone of rank asking him to commit hari-kari as atonement for breaking the rules, but Hanzo always finds a way out and always refuses to back down. In the three films, Hanzo doesn’t spend his time going after common criminals but instead levies his ferocious glare on the privileged within the government or other state sponsored organizations such as religion. In fact many of the themes of the films are very anti-authoritarian as the government and organized religion is constantly revealed as venal, weak and corrupt. These themes as well as some of the others (inflation, abortion, weak currency) definitely have a 1970’s vibe to them. In fact other than the period setting of the films they feel steeped in 70’s funk from their soundtrack, editing, cinematography and sexual attitudes.

All this of course often diminishes when compared to the exploitive nature of the film and most specifically the characterization of Hanzo. Hanzo is a strong believer in ‘Penis Power” and his apparently enormous and often visibly erect member is often the subject of conversations by his two comic relief assistants. To make it stronger he uses it to penetrate sacks of rice and uses a stick to smash it against a wood stand leaving a large phallic imprint in it (thus bringing a new meaning to the phrase “beat your meat”). His penis needs to be strong because he uses it as a tool of interrogation with women suspects and this is of course where much of the non-political correctness of the Hanzo series gains its reputation and detractors. Basically, Hanzo rapes the women and gives them so much pleasure that he gets them to confess by threatening to stop at which point the women moan “no, don’t stop” and spill the beans or rice. His favorite method of rape is to place the naked woman inside a net and hang her above his erect member and have her lowered upon it and then spins her around – a motion that drives her into writhing ecstasy. The only thing that perhaps limited these devices from being best-sellers upon the release of these films is that you need to hire two people to help lower and raise the net – which could be a bit expensive.

While watching these you may find yourself having an internal debate whether you should be offended by this clear misogyny or just accept it in perverse fun for which one might assume it was intended. At the same time though I have to wonder how Katsu was intending this – as a famous carouser and womanizer he may have seen this as a tribute to his virility and the fact that Hanzo never shows a sign of actually enjoying this leaves you even wondering more. He is such a stud that he can even control his sense of pleasure. It’s best to say that if this sort of thing will anger or insult you, it would be wise to stay clear of the films.

Another constant in the films is the action which is secondary to the sex and story, but still a major selling point. Hanzo is a swordsman supreme and more than adept in other weapons such as knife, chain and spiked brass knuckles. The fights fall into three basic categories – Hanzo taking on a group of minor samurai in swordplay, a large force attacks him in his house and he uses various booby traps to annihilate them and he has a one on one duel with another master samurai. The kills are bloody with spews of blood shooting out and the choreography is solid but rarely exciting.

Overall, the films are fun and interesting examples of Japanese exploitation films in this period, but they are unlikely to find a special place in your heart as the Zatoichi films do for many – first it is difficult to warm up to Hanzo and his cold-blooded methodology and secondly the stories themselves are oddly ineffective. Too much attention is paid to the exploitation elements and not enough time is allowed for character and plot development in the running time that usually fell just short of 90-minutes. It leaves you wanting more of that and less of sex with rice sacks. In one quiet scene Hanzo visits the grave of his father who had been forced to commit hari-kari and I would have liked to have seen that developed as it clearly was influential in forming his character – and at the end of the first film as an almost add-on he stops two children from killing their cancerous father and commits the act himself to save them from execution – and one would have liked to have seen more of that side of him.

Here are short summaries of the three films:

Sword of Justice

Director: Kenji Misumi
89 minutes
Production Company: Katsu Productions/Toho

At the very beginning when the audience is first introduced to the character of Hanzo they quickly learn that he is of a different nature from his fellow officers of the law. He refuses to take the annual oath of office because it is a mere show with no meaning because they are unable to enforce the laws when it comes to people of higher rank and are not even allowed entry to many places. This attitude angers his sycophantic boss Onishi (Ko Nishimura) which becomes a constant source of amusement through all three films. Hanzo then goes home to first torture himself so that he can understand the limits of endurance for his suspects and then goes through his penis regimen.

He learns from an informer that a killer who was banished to an island five years previously was recently spotted in Edo consorting with a woman called Omino, who Hanzo identifies by her lack of pubic hair. He frames her with a “dead” body and takes her out for a spin – in the net - and she soon tells him enough to send him off on a conspiracy into the castle of the Shogun and implicates some who found uses for the skills of the killer. Along the way Hanzo is attacked constantly but refuses to listen to his boss to stop investigating. In the end though, the plot never really amounts to much. The script for the first film was written by Kazuo Koike who had created the manga.

My rating for this film: 6.0

The Snare

Director: Yasuzo Masumura
89 minutes
Production Company: Katsu Productions/Toho

The nudity levels are raised significantly in the second film in the series as it has two different threads that finally merge together in the figure of the villain. Hanzo runs into immediate trouble when he interrupts the palanquin journey of the influential Lord of the Treasurer and follows this up by insulting him. Also, eyeing up Hanzo is Lord Okubo’s bodyguard who tells Hanzo that he is looking forward to killing him. Next Hanzo comes across the dead body of a young woman who apparently had a botched abortion. He tracks this deed down to a crazy nun who performs abortions for women who are too poor to have children or ones who would be shamed.

This victim falls into the latter category and Hanzo learns that she comes from a good family whose parents can’t understand how she could have become pregnant. The source Hanzo discovers is a corrupt Temple run by women who sell virgins to the highest bidder. Against all the regulations, he takes the Priestess into custody and first tortures her by forcing her to sit with her knees on razor like edges and then piles bricks on her lap – then he treats her to his sexual favors and tells her “You saw Hell before, this time you’ll see heaven” and sure enough while the torture could not make her talk, she tells him everything when he tells her he will stop. It all leads back to Lord Okubo who is neck deep in corruption of all kinds. In the end Hanzo has to face the bodyguard on a bridge and tells him to simply leave – this of course the samurai can’t do and faces off against Hanzo to the death. This has a much better constructed plot than the first film and has better action choreography.

My rating for this film: 7.0

Who’s Got the Gold

Director: Yoshio Inoue
84 minutes
Production Company: Katsu Productions/Toho

Hanzo sets his sights on more government corruption in the final film in the series. His two assistants go fishing and are frightened by a female ghost who rises out of the water. When Hanzo hears this he tells them that every man should have sex with a ghost at least once because their cold bodies will make them tight. He instead though finds a woman pretending to be a ghost to scare away people from an underwater storage area of stolen gold from the Shogun treasury that is hidden in bamboos. He takes her back to his house and is giving her the Hanzo net treatment when he is interrupted by numerous samurai who have come to kill him. One would have thought by now that word would have spread that attacking Hanzo in his house was a big mistake but apparently not and they are all cut down by hidden traps.

Behind the samurai though is a blind money lender who has gained enormous wealth and influence through his money and also the orgies that he organizes for the older wives of high officials. Hanzo breaks into one of these orgies and tattoos each woman with a plum blossom thus making them his spies unless they want to be revealed to their husbands. In one scene he visits one of these women and is having forced sex with her while her husband is on the other side of the curtain. A boyhood friend of his has gone into debt to the money lender and in a spooky scene is harassed by a number of blind men trying to collect and ripping away the paper from his house. After a samurai in service to the money lender kills him, it gets very personal for Hanzo. In this one as in the first, the conclusion doesn’t feel very satisfactory as the bad guys get their comeuppance to some degree but are never brought to justice as one would like.

My rating for this film: 6.5