Saturday, 15 September 2012

Hanzo the Razor - Sword of Justice (1972)

Country: JAPAN

Sword of Justice

Sword of Justice is the first film in a trilogy of pictures exploring the controversial character Hanzo the Razor. Hanzo was the brainchild of Kazuo Koike who brought his adventures to life in a series of Manga publications. Koike is perhaps best known however for his Lone Wolf and Cub series, which ran to twenty eight instalments, and over 8 million sales. The success of this series spawned six feature films that showcased the stoic talents of Tomisaburo Wakayama, and found their way to the West via the hotchpotch efforts of Robert Houston and David Weisman under the title Shogun Assassin (1980). The enterprising pair grafted twelve minutes of the first picture Sword of Vengeance (1972) onto the vast majority of the second picture Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972), gave it a contemporary electronic soundtrack by Mark Lindsey, dubbed it into English, and enjoyed a notable success. Koike also created the character of Lady Snowblood, and though not as successful as Lone Wolf and Cub, still ran for fifteen instalments, and led to two feature films starring Meiko Kaji as the titular lady who seeks revenge for the rape of her mother, and the murders of her mother’s husband and son. All of Koike’s most famous Manga creations are marked by grand stylisation and extreme violence, and the film adaptations do not skimp in these areas. But Hanzo possesses a grotesquery that the others do not, and this is largely due to the Policeman’s novel interrogation technique, which sees him target mistresses, whom he then fucks into such a lather of ecstasy with his oversized penis that they are begging to spill the beans in order for the pleasure to continue.

The main difficulty with the film, and the reason why it is uniformly dismissed as perverse trash, is that the central character is a walking moral contradiction. Hanzo despises corruption, detests the hypocrisy of his magisterial paymasters, and makes it abundantly clear that his primary motivation is to defend the downtrodden proletariat of Edo. In this regard Hanzo is a social warrior, anti-feudal in his sympathies, and an opponent of the various hierarchies established by the Shogunate. But at the same time Hanzo has enlisted two former convicts as his deputies, is not above using blackmail himself, employs vigilante tactics that clearly contravene the law of the land, and effectively rapes two women in order to extract information from them. Both women come to adore Hanzo’s virility, and are worshipful of his monstrous member, but they are far from consensual when Hanzo’s deputies kidnap them, and the taciturn lawman introduces them to his far from little friend! The interrogation technique is a speciality that Hanzo has created through years of self-discipline and a special study of torture techniques. After abusing his own body with a variety of torments (we are witness to one in which Hanzo instructs his crooked deputies to lay concrete blocks on his groin), he has concluded that pleasure is a far more affective tool than pain in gaining valuable information.

The plot of the film itself is a fairly routine investigation by Hanzo into a corrupt magistrate; his immediate superior Onishi (Kô Nishimura) nicknamed ‘The Snake’ owing to rumours of duplicity, a crooked samurai who has mysteriously disappeared from an island prison, and eventually the highest echelons of government. The conspiracy itself is typically flippant, but the important thing is that Hanzo is able to blackmail Onishi and thus ensure his position within the force, and thus a measure of power and control. The plot is fairly convoluted, and it’s clear that an attention to story detail comes secondary to such scenes as Hanzo beating his penis with a mallet, and thrusting it into a sack of rice, in order to strengthen it up for the interrogation sessions. In terms of action the film is relatively light, but when Hanzo is called upon to fight, he is not beyond using the dirtiest of tactics, as those who get struck with his spiked knuckle dusters will attest. An unorthodox and rebellious man such as Hanzo, who continuously stresses his individuality, often finds his life in peril, and as a result has implemented all manner of booby traps in his house to eliminate any would be assassins. This all adds to the highly exaggerated absurdity of the entire venture.

The major problem with the film though is that it suffers from a generic hybridity that borders on the schizophrenic. The film is a jidaigeki because it is a period piece and it is set during the Edo period, but it singularly lacks the full characteristics of the chambara or samurai sub-genre; there simply isn’t enough swordplay set piece action. However it does have plenty of sexploitation, and this becomes its defining feature. When it is combined with issues of torture, interrogation, and rape, the pinku-eiga genre is necessarily evoked. It was not uncommon for pinku-eiga films to utilise the trappings of the jidaigeki genre, but further tonal problems are caused by the obvious western influences that are brought to bear. In this case the American vigilante action pictures, and the blaxploitation films that were contemporaneous to Hanzo. A major signifier of this is the music of Kunihiko Murai, who provides a score that wouldn’t have been out of place in Shaft (1971) or Superfly (1972). Even the narrative of Sword of Justice has a structure that is similar to many a blaxploitation picture. The problem is it just doesn’t quite work, and the music is a bizarre distraction rather than a complementing force. Perhaps the jarring inconsistency of Sword of Justice is best represented by the odd episode that concludes the film; a sequence in which Hanzo assists a couple of children in ending the life of their terminally ill father. It is a pallid attempt to exonerate Hanzo for his earlier behaviour. For all of the sexploitation controversies in the film though, it is the casting of Shintarô Katsu that would have raised the most eyebrows in Japan.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. I'd like to check these out, never see any of them, but I have seen Lady Snowblood, which I enjoyed a whole lot. How these films mix nudity with their detailed and dramatic storylines kind of cheapens the whole thing, but I guess these filmmakers were marely calling attention to their films with it; its a way to get people to see your film I guess.

    I'm a big fan of Shogun Assasin, I know it's a mix of these other two movies, but honestly I enjoy the way it was put together, even with the modern music and all.

  2. These movies are pretty decent. I haven't watched them in some time, but I recall liking the second one the best. This was when the Japanese studios were desperate to get people back into theaters and away from their televisions. By turning samurai movies into trashy exploitation, it was a good mix that translated to a wider audience than the deliberately paced, somber and serious endeavors usually seen in this style of film.

    Superb write up as always, Shaun.

  3. Apologies for forgetting to reply to your comments gentlemen!

    @ Franco - LADY SNOWBLOOD is pretty good and has just been released in the UK on blu-ray, so I'm looking forward to adding to that to the collection. I thought the music worked very well on SHOGUN ASSASSIN, in fact I believe I have the soundtrack. I'm not so enthusiastic about the way it was put together, but it was a key instrument in developing an audience for the LONE WOLF AND CUB films in the west. Another unusual trivia note about SHOGUN ASSASSIN is that was briefly banned in the UK as a 'Video Nasty'!!!

    @ Brian - Glad you enjoyed the review buddy! - Yes, from what I can gather, the second film, which I believe is called THE SNARE, is generally regarded as the best of the bunch. I haven't actually seen it yet, but I will watch it, as I intend to review all three. Yes, it was part of a general strategy from the major Japanese studios to offer audiences something different...naturally this meant sex and violence. What really intrigues me about this film though are the blaxploitation influences.


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