Angel Guts: Red Classroom [Tenshi No Harawata Akai Kyoshitsu]

Muraki, a photographer for a pornographic magazine, develops a morbid infatuation for a young woman while watching her take part in a stag film, in which she is raped by three students. He eventually learns of her whereabouts, and arranges to meet with her in an isolated park. Upon discovering that she was the victim of an actual gang rape, Muraki, overcome with compassion, confesses his love for the young woman, whose name he learns is Nami. The two make plans to see one another the following evening but the next day, police raid Muraki’s apartment and take him into custody, forcing him to miss his engagement. This missed date is to have dire consequences for both Muraki and Nami.  Angel Guts, a series of five films produced by four different directors, occupies an important place in the history of Japanese erotic cinema, and Red Classroom stands out as the most accomplished of the series.

Nikkatsu establishes roman porno
Nikkatsu, Japan’s oldest motion picture studio, in the midst of bankruptcy, signaled an abrupt break with the past when it inaugurated roman porno, the name the company coined for its high-class erotic fare. Nikkatsu aggressively recruited the youngest and most talented filmmakers in the industry, encouraging them to create innovative and original works. The studio was supportive of its vastly talented staff and, apart from having to meet the minimum requirement of sex scenes and a very limited budget (7,500,000 yen) management encouraged experimentation and self-expression. Nikkatsu continued to produce roman porno from 1971 through 1988, or for almost two decades. Angel Guts, representative of some of the most gifted filmmakers working during this period, displays a wide range of outlooks and styles, and reflects the changing temperament and uncertainty of this turbulent era.

Takashi Ishii’s violence
Given Takashi Ishii’s dark and violent vision, and his acknowledged disdain for adult films (he claims during an interview not to have watched pinku eiga), it may seem paradoxical that Nikkatsu turned to the popular manga artist and aspiring director to help revive a moribund industry. Ishii’s dark and edgy stories seemed decidedly unlikely to please young couples going to the theatre expecting to see a film that aroused their desire. “I think the Nikkatsu audience and management really wanted sensual films. But my stories couldn’t help being violent,” says Ishii, “I realized the core of my eroticism was violence.”  Ishii wasn’t interested in telling stories whose sole purpose was to titillate or that focused exclusively on the sex act. “They were violent films which had no connection with those porn films which portrayed women as noble but ended up humiliating them.” Just the same, sex, violence and extreme behavior were another way of attracting an audience won over by Hollywood films. Ishii accepted Nikkatsu’s offer, a partnership which was to last a decade or more.  Ishii, whose goal had always been to direct films, says of his early studio years, “I was writing a screenplay at the same time as picturing the scenes. As far as I was concerned, when the screenplay was completed, the film was already made.” Fortunately for film lovers, the screenplays were made into films.

Chusei Sone
If Nikkatsu’s hiring Ishii seemed a risky proposition, the decision to have Chusei Sone direct the first two episodes of the series was considerably less surprising. Almost ten years older than Ishii, Sone brought a certain maturity of vision to the young artist’s work.  Joining Nikkatsu shortly after graduating from Tohoku University in 1962, Sone started off as an assistant director to the celebrated director Seijun Suzuki. It didn’t take long before Sone was creating his own films, making his debut with the period drama Sensual History: A Female Artist of the Floating World. Sone eventually gravitated toward more contemporary subject matter with Nymphomaniac Sisters in 1972, in which three armed delinquent sisters run rampage. Sone was rapidly beginning to earn a reputation as one of Nikkatsu’s top Roman Porno directors. By the late 70s, he had acquired somewhat of a reputation for his hard-core exploitation films, with work such as My Sex Report: Climax Point (1976) and Shinjuku Mixed-Up Street: Wait Till I Come (1977). This made him the perfect choice to direct the first adaptation of Takashi Ishii’s Angel Guts manga series, High School Coed, in 1978. Sone also directed the next in the series, Red Classroom (1979), after which he continued to make several more films for Nikkatsu.

Sone’s style
The chiaroscuro-lighted rooms and the palette of reds and greens with which Sone liberally paints his rich, multi-layered canvases, are eminently suited to the surreal and nightmarish world of Ishii’s Angel Guts. The film bears traces of German expressionism (not so far-fetched, when one considers that Ishii and his colleagues were greatly influenced by the works of Kafka) not only in the visual components — liberty with color, strong diagonals, etc. — but also in its detailed examination of corruption, decline of virtue, and the darker side of the human psyche. Sone, accustomed above all to adapting literary works for the silver screen, has managed to translate the universe of the manga onto celluloid, while at the same time creating a look that is striking in its modernity. Enormous tension is created by the use of tightly confined, almost claustrophobic spaces, which becomes all the more apparent when compared to Tanaka’s Nami, in which the hand-held camera moves about freely — out-of-doors, through dark alleys, crowded train stations, and isolated fields. In Red Classroom, composition, camera angles and color are calculated as much for aesthetic as for psychological impact. The rooms themselves are as articulate as the characters that inhabit them. An outstanding visual stylist, Sone — one of the most talented in a roster that includes Ishii, Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noburu Tanaka and Masaru Konuma — mixes traditional and more experimental imagery with ease. Other films in the series may contain individual powerful scenes, have greater camera movement, utilize more exterior shots and boast more shocking images but, of the three I’ve seen so far, none has the cumulative power of Red Classroom, where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole, and where every millimeter of the Scope frame is so painstakingly composed.

Nami and Muraki
Throughout the Angel Guts series, the names Muraki and Nami are retained, although the protagonists take on different professions and are portrayed by different actors and actresses. Muraki was based on a character in a B&W action series filmed by Kinji Fukasaku, a sort of Japanese Humphrey Bogart, but a ne’er-do-well. In Nami, Muraki is a writer for a men’s magazine, whose wife left him after being raped, while in Red Vertigo, he is a stock broker and embezzler. In Red Classroom, Muraki (Keizo Kanie) is a photographer for a pornographic magazine. Rash, acting on impulse rather than meditation, believing himself capable of loftier work, Muraki is a seething hotbed of confused emotions. He inhabits a shadowy world of seedy hotels, populated by angry, violent, misogynistic men, and where women are all abject whores. Muraki is man at the edge of the abyss.

Nami’s character is considerably more enigmatic. Contrary to what has been asserted in several reviews, Nami is not named after Ishii’s wife, upon whom her character was loosely based. Her character, like Muraki’s, undergoes vast changes with each director’s vision and according to the actress that interprets her. Part of the fascination with the Angel Guts series comes not only from seeing how styles and treatment of the story differ, but also how Nami’s character changes from film to film. Her story takes somewhat of a backseat in Red Classroom when compared to Tanaka’s Nami, in which she is an aggressive reporter for a woman’s magazine. In Red Vertigo, she is a young nurse living with a photographer. It would be fair to say that this enigmatic aspect of her character contributes largely to Nami’s appeal. As Ishii points out in the highly informative interview contained on the DVD of Red Vertigo, Nami’s character was fascinating enough to hold viewers’ interest for a good decade.

I once read a review in which the critic wrote that he fast-forwarded through the sex scenes so he could continue on with the story, but in Angel Guts: Red Classroom, the sex scenes are as essential to the development of the plot and an understanding of the characters as are the less explicit sorts of human interaction. Nikkatsu might have demanded the sex scenes, but there is nonetheless considerable license in the way each director chose to accomplish this. In any case, the directors as a whole were more interested in the whole range of human behavior, as it expressed itself in relationships between couples, with intimacy at the core. If the notion of a major studio filming sex was both revolutionary and controversial, one would think that the idea of sensationalizing rape must have met with considerable opposition. In fact, as Tanaka points out during his interview, rape has formed a part of Japanese literature for ages, and even Kurosawa’s Rashomon was about a woman who is raped in front of her own husband. Because of strict censorship, the display of genitalia and pubic hair is absolutely forbidden. As a result, adult filmmakers have resorted to fetish, violence, S&M, bondage, rape, ingenious camera angles, editing and even judiciously placed flower vases. In Red Classroom, violence, like love, is just another facet of the human condition, and Sone doesn’t flinch from portraying it. To Western eyes, such graphic depictions of bestiality may be difficult to stomach. In Hollywood, the search for the criminals would become the focus of the story, the wrongdoers sought out and punished. Yet these films are not so much about obtaining any sort of justice for the victims as they are an examination of the emotional toll exacted on them, and how they find the inner strength to go on living.

Japan | 1979 | Directed by Chusei Sone | Starring Yuuki Mizuhara, Keizo Kanie and  Noribumi Hori

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