Sunday, July 15, 2012

assault! jack the ripper

Director: Yasuharu Hasebe
Starring: Tamaki Katsura, Yutaka Hayashi

Assault! Jack the Ripper is a Japanese horror film from Nikkatsu studios in their Violent Pink line. Pink films (also called "eroduction" or "Roman porno") are a genre of Japanese films that has no exact analog in the West.[1] Per studio guidelines, pink films contain a certain quota of sex scenes spaced at required intervals, making them similar to the softcore porn of Cinemax and Showtime ilk. But the stories are generally more complex and subtly psychological and quite often feature nuanced female characters unlike softcore porn.

Violent Pink (also called Pinky Violence) is a subgenre of Pink that involves violence, very often graphic in nature.

Much ink has been spilt breaking down the Western horror genre, including exploration of the representation of gender in horror. I'm intentionally not going to approach Assault! Jack the Ripper from that angle because of differences not only between American and Japanese culture but also because of the differences in the history of cinema and visual language in the two countries. Although a discussion of the abject or the targeting by the killer of sexually active women in horror films could potentially be fruitful in this case, I leave them aside. I will instead just discuss two major themes in the movie.

Wikipedia summarizes the plot of Assault! Jack the Ripper as: "A young couple engage in a rampage of murder, rape and mayhem in order to stimulate their sexual appetites." Succinct, it fails to describe the two major themes of the story. First, the victims are increasingly targeted as women as such. Second, the sexual charge that initially propels the murder spree eventually transforms into the eroticization of violence itself for the Cake Man (the male lead).

The film begins with Afro Perm[2] (the female lead) goads the Cake Man into driving her home in a rainstorm from the restaurant where they both work. They stop to pick up a female Hitchhiker who seems to be garbed in hospital clothing. The Hitchhiker stabs herself in the arm with a cake knife, horrifying the Cake Man and Afro Perm, and then reveals a collection of razor blades she intends to use to continue her self-mutilation. She is likely an escaped mental patient.

The Cake Man ejects her from the car but she won't let go as he speeds away. Eventually, she falls and dies. Scared because of their role in her death, Cake Man and Afro Perm drag the Hitchhiker's body into an old scrap yard. Afro Perm strips the Hitchhiker's body for some reason and ditches her clothes. Cake Man then drags her body deeper into the junk yard. Unfortunately, her corpse snags at the crotch on a bit of metal and the Cake Man tears the Hitchhiker in half.

Back at Afro Perm's apartment, the pair deal with the unintentional killing with varying levels of ease. The Cake Man is shaken and disturbed while Afro Perm seems nonplussed. She strips out of her wet clothes, revealing a plump body that's quite a bit curvier in the bosom and bottom than most of the rest of the women in this movie. Eventually, Cake Man and Afro Perm cap off the night with some very intense and passionate sex.

The next day, Afro Perm approaches Cake Man at work but he ignores her. To make him pay attention, Afro Perm leaves with a male customer whose lecherous advances she had spurned yesterday. Cake Man follows the pair and watches as they perform oral sex on each other inside the car. Having made her point and firmly seizing Cake Man's attention, Afro Perm gets out of the car and walks over to Cake Man's car fully naked.

The duo try to have sex again back at her place but it's just missing a certain spark. That spark, they decide, is murder. And so begins a killing spree initially driven by the couple's libido.

The pair first stalk a high school girl who had previously come into the restaurant. They hit her with their car and then quickly snatch her up. Instead of an abandoned junk yard, this time they take their victim, still very much alive, to an abandoned bowling alley. Afro Perm is committed to the murder right off but Cake Man has reservations. All hesitation is shed, however, when the young girl slips her gag and begins to scream. Cake Man charges her with a knife, the same knife that the Hitchhiker had used to cut her arms. He stabs her but we cannot see where the knife pierces her body because of the framing of the shot. We only know that it hits somewhere below her chest.

The couple go at it hot and heavy on a nearby bench. Murder is just the aphrodisiac their sex life needs. But while Afro Perm rides him, Cake Man stares at the bleeding body of the young girl. Once they have finished up, the couple ditch the body in an elevator shaft.

Their next target is the girlfriend of the restaurant patron Afro Perm messed around with. They follow the pair to the airport, and after the man boards his flight to America, the couple abducts the woman and takes her to a graveyard. The woman pleads with Afro Perm as a woman to spare her life. Afro Perm orders her to perform oral sex on Cake Man, which she does. Then Afro Perm commands Cake Man to perform oral sex on the woman. He lies down on the ground and she lies on top of him. She continues to perform. He, on the other hand, brutally stabs her in the groin using the same knife as before. The couple then hides the woman's body beneath a grave stone before having sex in the car.

This scene is pivotal to the film in three ways. First, it's the first explicit scene of the Cake Man's m.o.; we have the reuse of the knife and also his preferred target: the groin. Remember, he accidentally tore the Hitchhiker apart at the groin in the junk yard. We can also speculate that he stabbed the high school girl in the groin, too, even though the camera wasn't positioned for us to see it. Second, it is the zenith of the conjunction between sexual intercourse and violence. Not only do the couple have sex after the killing, but the killing itself involves rape of the victim. As the killings continue, we see a growing divorce between explicit sexual satisfaction and the act of murder as the stabbings themselves look increasingly sexual. Third, post-coitus, Afro Perm says to Cake Man "We're just like a husband and wife. I'm going to look after you. Like a real wife." The couple take up residence at Afro Perm's apartment. She attempts to move their relationship into the domestic sphere, cooking and cleaning for Cake Man. She even refers to their relationship as a "marriage" of sorts. But as we will see, Cake Man's intentions become very different.

Cake Man's next kill comes without Afro Perm. It is also the first stranger; someone that the couple is not connected to. He leaves their apartment to go wandering around a downtown area at night. While walking, Cake Man finds an invitation to a prostitute's place of work. The prostitute appears to be an older woman, probably in her late 30s or early 40s, likely older than any of the victims so far and also Afro Perm. She strips and dangles her breasts in Cake Man's face but he lies perfectly still, seemingly uninterested. Suddenly, he flips her over, pins her to the bed, and may or may not have sex with her. We do not see him remove his underwear but she does moan.

Cake Man gets up, puts on his pants, and retrieves the knife he's used in the other killings. The prostitute thinks that he just wants to play a little rough and offers to let him tie her up for a little more money. Instead, Cake Man stabs her in the hand. He then drags her into the bathroom where he binds her hands with the shower line before stabbing her fatally in the groin. We also see him drive the knife upwards, attempting to cut her in half. This splitting action is much more explicit than the previous kill. The camera zooms in on the knife and follows it as he forces it from the groin to the stomach, lingering on the action. When he returns home, he sharpens the knife. He does not have sex with Afro Perm.

At this point, while the murders are still tied explicitly to sexual satisfaction for Cake Man, we see that his appetite for murder and sexual satisfaction have been segregated from Afro Perm. She initially urged him into the murder for turn-on game but now he doesn't need her to (1) pick the targets, (2) goad him to kill, (3) have sex with post-kill. However, with the nudity and touching of the prostitute, he still links the act of murder and sex.

The next kill, however, does not contain any explicit sexual overtones. Cake Man targets a young mother who he encountered earlier in the alley outside the restaurant with her child. She works at a wedding reception hall. He goes to her work and asks her to speak in the garden. There, he stabs her in her ceremonial clothing. He stabs her in the groin and then lifts, again attempting to cut his victim in half. He has to flee before he can finish the job but we are shown a still shot of her body lying on the ground, a bloody mess staining her white clothes over her groin area.

The film next cuts to Cake Man and Afro Perm entering her apartment. News of his attack plays on the television and she confronts him, accusing him of "cheating" on her by killing without her. She also mentions that it's been 10 days since they have last had sex, confirming that Cake Man didn't sleep with her after killing the prostitute. Afro Perm demands that he take her with him but he strikes her and then leaves the apartment.

Cake Man attacks a woman working alone at night across the street in a dress shop. Neither Cake Man nor Afro Perm have been shown to have any interaction with her; she is his second stranger kill. It also seems to be the first time he has set out with the purpose of killing a stranger. Initially, she is about to escape but Perm Girl enters to help him. Cake Man then starts slashing the dress maker with the knife, cutting her across the back and several times on her breasts. They struggle over the knife and the blade cuts into her hand as Cake Man forces it lower down her body. He spins her around and stabs the knife into her groin. Her head tosses back in imitation of the moment of penetration in sexual intercourse before he lets her fall to the ground. Cake Man then flees, leaving her body there. Afro Perm follows him.

These two kills sever completely the connection between explicit sexual intercourse and Cake Man's desire for murder. However, the murders themselves have taken on more overt sexual characteristics. The mother is shown with red blood staining the white clothes directly over her groin after he stabs her from his own groin area. The dressmaker's positioning with Cake Man and her body language both imitate sexual intercourse at the moment the knife pierces her groin. Rather than his penis entering Afro Perm's body to metonymically repeat the fatal stabbings that are his m.o., the murder and the sex have now collapsed into a single act.

At this point in the film, with barely 8 minutes left, the director introduces a new element: food. After murdering the dressmaker, the film cuts back to Afro Perm's apartment. Cake Man spoons overly generous amounts of jelly into his croissant, which has been split along the edge and spread open in such a way as to resemble a vulva.[3] While he eats, Afro Perm performs oral sex on him but Cake Man doesn't seem to be paying attention. Afro Perm suggests they go on a picnic on their next day off.

Cut to the graveyard (yes, the same graveyard where they earlier raped, murdered, and stashed the body of a victim). Afro Perm performs oral sex on Cake Man while he lies on his back eating. She then strips and mounts him while he continues to eat, seemingly unmoved by her actions. He continues to eat while she moans, proclaims how happy she is, and tells him never to leave her.

I'm not quite sure what this conjunction of food and sex with Cake Man being distant is supposed to mean. Does his eating of the food Afro Perm prepares and thoroughly un-passionate reaction to sex represent the domestic sphere and his resistance to settling down? Or does his gluttonous consumption reveal that now he is out of control (i.e. can't sate his appetite for food or murder)? Is the pairing of food and un-emotional sex supposed to contrast with the earlier pairing of murder and passionate sex? If so, to what end?

After the picnic, we cut back to the apartment where Afro Perm is doing laundry while Cake Man sits at the table drinking a coke. But then Cake Man slips out to stalk a nurse on her way home from work. He shoves her into a dorm room where three other women are getting ready for bed. He stabs the first in the chest and the next one in the groin before tying the third standing with her arms over her head to the bed. The camera pans to a shot of a woman on the ground with her legs open towards the camera, focused on her white underwear. He stabs this woman, the first roommate, in the groin and smears her blood on the nurse's face with the knife. Next, he cuts along the bound woman's chest beneath her breasts, slashes her throat, then cuts an X on her chest before stabbing her in the groin. When the nurse screams, he lashes out at her with the knife, cutting an X across her chest and then horizontally and vertically.

This final murder scene of four strangers includes several face close-ups of the women with expressions that hover somewhere between fear and ecstasy. Their gasps at times sound like sexual moans. This ambivalence reinforces the transition that has happened between the overt and subterranean sexual pleasures of killing for the Cake Man.

As he is leaving, Afro Perm shows up. She clutches him and calls him "husband" as he stabs her. She falls to the floor and the camera zooms on her face and rotates as blood pools beneath her head. Cake Man is then shown in silhouette walking against the morning sky along a spillover. He takes off his shirt, washes the knife in the water, and then examines it as he continues walking along.

The end.

Although Cake Man is at first a reluctant murderer, his constant m.o. of stabbing women in the groin, supplemented by slashing at their breasts, betrays an underlying sexual element of the crimes even without the post-killing intercourse with Afro Perm. Possession of sexual knowledge does not seem to motivate the murders as the high school girl is presumptively "innocent" and there is no indication that the nurses are impure either. Given the attack on the young mother who worked at the wedding hall, it doesn't necessarily seem to be "motivated" to restore a more traditional social order.

Over time, the sex that initially motivated the murders becomes folded into the act of murdering itself. Cake Man and Afro Perm began their murder spree in order to spark the flames of passionate sex. They would kill, they would have sex. Sexual play with the victims was also included. They had sex in the presence of the body of the teenage girl. The restaurant patron's girlfriend was made to perform oral sex on Cake Man. There is sexual touching with the third victim, the prostitute, even if there was no sexual intercourse. But as sexual activity during or after the murders ceases, the murders themselves come to look more and more like intercourse.

Taken together, what do these two themes mean? I'm still trying to work that out. Any guesses?

[1] You can read up on Pink films here.
[2] Really, you have to see it. According to Wikipedia, the director asked Tamaki Katsura to style her hair in this way for the film.
[3] The jelly he is spooning into the croissant may be red but I can't tell. I'm colorblind. If so, that image would repeat the imagery of the bloody woman's parts Cake Man has been carving.