Friday, March 19, 2010

Snakes in the Studio

Title: Le Parc aux Cerfs (鹿の園)
Serialized in:
Manga Joe (1964)
Kazuo Kamimura
Script Writer: Norifumi Suzuki

Genre: Eros horror

King Henry the XV was infamous for many things, but nothing was more decadent than Le Parc aux Cerfs, the “deer park,” his own personal brothel tucked away in the lurid hind quarters of Versailles. Now, two modern masters of the flesh, acclaimed Pinky Violence director Norifumi Suzuki (The Sex and the Fury, Girl Boss Guerilla) and Gekiga artist Kazuo Kamimura (Lady Snowblood) have transplanted the 18th century house of pleasure to the bustling studio lots of 1960’s Kyoto. Welcome to the Deer Park.

Wakaba paints the city red with passion and gore.

The Deer Park makes its cinematic intentions clear on the very first page. Discarding the conventional writer/artist dichotomy, its credits instead boldly proclaim Script Writer, Director, and Leading Lady. From the bombastic opening narration to the final curtain fall, Kamimura cuts, splices, and seamlessly lays out Suzuki’s films on the page. He reminds us that “Gekiga” means “dramatic pictures,” leading the eye with snappy editing, dynamic angles, and powerful compositions.

There is something rotten going on behind the scenes at Kyoto's fictional To-Oh Studios. Our protagonist, Takayuki Murase, is finally poised to break out as a full-fledged director after a new leading lady, Wakaba Ayanokoji, falls into his lap, both literally and figuratively. All eyes are on the high school beauty who looks eerily identical to her mother, a legendary actress who committed suicide on the set of the erotic thriller A Serpent’s Lust over fifteen years ago.

No one has more stake in this familiar fresh face than internationally acclaimed director, Kenzo Makiguchi, the man who propelled Wakaba's mother to fame. Her death and the ensuing scandal forced him into retirement, but now his starlet has seemingly returned from the grave to finish their long awaited masterpiece. The aging movie master phones in some favors to the studio heads and snatches the nubile actress from Takayuki’s egotistical clutches, but the aspiring director won’t let anyone stand in the way of his success. Takayuki fancies himself as a self-made cinematic revolutionary, a Japanese Julien Sorel opting for pink over black or red. The time has come to put an end to the old guard.

The proceeding power struggle is macabre in its depravity. Takayuki plots with Kenzo’s wife to take her husband out of the picture with carbon monoxide poisoning. Meanwhile, Wakaba proceeds to systematically slither her way into the minds of the men around her, including the now comatose Kenzo. In the world of the morally bankrupt, sex is only commodity of value, empowering those who command it and enslaving those who demand it. Men like Takayuki can only gloat in satisfaction as they go deeper and deeper into debt to the women around them. It’s ironic then, that the real-life studios were as financially destitute as the stars of manga are unscrupulous.

Much like the Norman Mailer novel of the same name, The Deer Park exposes the corrupt going-ons behind the scenes that drove Japan's movie industry into the ground. Even as early as 1964, Suzuki had seen the writing on the wall. By 1963, theater attendance had dropped to half of what it had been during the peak just five years ago. Toei had recently pulled the plug on its child company after two years of lackluster performance. Cinema couldn’t compete with the wonder of television. Though the period saw major creative talent explode onto the scene, such as Teruo Ishii (the Joys of Torture series), Seijun Suzuki (Tokyo Drifter), and Koji Wakamatsu (Ecstasy of Angels), they could only slow down the internal erosion caused by ham-fisted company presidents. Despite the obvious decline, no one dared dream that the Big Studios would come crashing down over the next decade. Nikkatsu would be the first to roll over on it’s back and open itself for Roman Porno in order to keep food on the table, a desperate maneuver that brought shortsighted success and long-term ruin for many.

Suzuki weaves an elaborate parable built upon literary allusion that leaves itself open to interpretation. It can be read as a straight-forward tale of erotic revenge, a biting criticism of the industry, or, after the final shocking twist, re-evaluated as an ero-guro ghost story. The imaginary script A Serpent’s Lust is based on the short tale of the same name by the 18th century word smith, Akinari Ueda. In it, an academic, albeit useless, young poet crosses paths with a beautiful young woman who reveals herself to be a giant snake with “a lascivious nature.” (Chambers translation.) The would-be director Takayuki is equally naïve, blinded by disillusions of intellectual superiority. In his crusade to save the studio from corruption, he invariably indulges in the same vices he denounces as Wakaba coils around him, tighter and tighter.

Takayuki swears to take pornographic cinema to titillating new heights.

As with the pink films Suzuki would pioneer in the proceeding years, the duo was given total control over creating their masterpiece. The roar of their resumes overpowered all. Obtuse references, slander, and bizzare sex—In the current age of hyper-sanitized serials, the story would be dropped before it was pitched, if not for the content, than by the whims of the despotic editors who dictate industry trends. Le Parc aux Cerfs has found itself overrun by sheep, and the new management has left the grounds to rot.

Blooper role: Kamimura's take on Georgia O'Keeffe (NSFW)

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