Naked Blood

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NAKED BLOOD is one of the greatest extreme Japanese films of all time, ranking alongside such films as Shinya Tsukamoto's TETSUO I and II (1989/1992) and Shozin Fukui's PINOCCHIO 964 (1991) and RUBBER'S LOVER (1996). I'm always reluctant to write reviews of films I love as much as these, as it's often very difficult to get across just what it is that makes them so special and so fascinating, and all too easy to just make them sound like crazy gore films, when there's so much more to them. Tsukamoto's films are already very well known in the West, whilst Fukui's films have finally (just) been released on US DVD, which will inevitably mean them receiving the attention and (hopefully) recognition they deserve, but there's still no sign of a US release for NAKED BLOOD, which is why I decided to finally get round to writing this review.

Eiji (Sadao Abe) is a 17 year-old boy genius. He has created a new painkiller which works by transforming the sensations of pain into pleasure. He christens it "MY SON" and writes in his journal that "we [the human race] can now spend the days with a feeling of blue skies and spring". His mother is a scientist, working at the local hospital, where she has been conducting experiments involving a new contraceptive drug. Eiji wants to be allowed to observe the final experiment, but his mother refuses. Instead, he spikes the contraceptive with MY SON, and then watches from a nearby rooftop as the three women chosen as guinea pigs are administered the drug.

The three women leave the hospital and go for a meal. We learn that one of them is obsessed with eating (Mika Kirihara), another is very vain (Yumika Hayashi), whilst the third, Rika Mikami (Misa Aika), suffers from a strange post-menstrual condition that means that she never sleeps. The three women all live in the same block of apartments, and Eiji watches from a rooftop opposite, videoing them to record what effects the drug will have.

By this point in the film, well over halfway through its brief 76 minute runtime, viewers may well be wondering when the promised scenes of gore and mutilation are going to kick in – one of its alternative titles is SPLATTER after all. Well, they won't have to wait much longer as the next part of the film consists of a series of fairly brief vignettes showing some of the most realistic and unpleasant self-mutilation effects yet committed to celluloid. The greedy woman is seen preparing her evening meal. She accidentally splashes boiling batter onto her hand, but instead of the expected reaction of pain, she finds it intensely pleasurable. So, she sticks her entire hand into the pan, and proceeds to eat her battered fingers. Next, she cuts off a nipple and a labium (look it up!) and eats those, before the pièce de résistance, in which she sticks a fork into one of her eyeballs, plucks it out and eats it. The vain woman doesn't get off much more lightly, as she is shown carrying out an increasingly extreme series of piercings and self-mutilations.

Meanwhile, Rika doesn't show any signs of side-effects, and Eiji becomes increasingly fascinated by her, eventually coupling with her in a virtual reality landscape, during which he learns that there is more to her than he had suspected. The film has two brief coda, the first showing Eiji's mother and father being reunited in an entirely unexpected and yet weirdly fitting way, and the second showing Rika and her child (conceived with Eiji) setting out on a mission to... what, exactly?

From the above description, it probably sounds like NAKED BLOOD exists purely to show off some of the most extreme scenes of graphic violence since the infamous 'Flower of Flesh and Blood' and 'Devil's Experiment' GUINEA PIG films. However, unlike those films, there are so many other things going on in this film that it's difficult to know where to start. The film is overflowing with fascinating, bizarre events and imagery, from the weirdly compelling shots of Rika in her virtual reality chair, electronically (and telepathically) linked to a giant cactus, to the recurring motif of the colour blue, to the surreal back story involving Eiji's father's mysterious disappearance and its links to his research into immortality, to Rika's menstruation nightmares, and so on. NAKED BLOOD is beautifully filmed, and contains as much visual inventiveness as half a dozen Hollywood films, on a fraction of the budget. On top of all this, the acting is surprisingly good, the music (by Kimitake Hiraoka) fits the mood perfectly, and the show-stopping special effects by Yûichi Matsui, the Japanese Giannetto De Rossi (who was also responsible for the fx work in Gaira's ENTRAILS films (1986/8) and Takashi Miike's FULL METAL GOKUDO (1997), AUDITION (1999) and ICHI THE KILLER (2001), amongst other things) are beyond reproach, representing perhaps the zenith of non-CGI gore effects.

The director responsible for this unique film is Hisayasu Sato (sometimes credited as Toshiyasu Sato) who, along with Takahisa Zeze, Toshiki Sato and Kazuhiro Sano, was one of the so-called 'Four Kings (or Devils) of Pink' in the late 80's/early 90's. Sato began his career in 1985 and made in excess of 50 films in the ten years between his first film (CHARGE! LOLITA POACHING) and NAKED BLOOD in 1995. These films were all made for the straight to video market and could be classified as violent pornography, usually involving rape. However, he also peopled these films with characters afflicted by a whole range of mental problems, hysteria and traumas, exploring dark realms of the psyche rarely visited in cinema, and producing a uniquely uncommercial body of work in the meantime. Unfortunately, very few of his films are available in the West – only NAKED BLOOD and THE BEDROOM (1992) have ever received official releases, the former being available on VHS (and later DVD) only through Holland's Japan Shock Video, and the latter being available only in a censored version on VHS and DVD in both the UK and US. Sato seemingly pushed things too far even for Japanese tastes with NAKED BLOOD, and he seems to have made no films since 1996, despite one of his last films being a relatively mainstream RASHOMON-influenced period piece, YABU NO NAKA. The good news though is that Sato is one of three directors working on an omnibus film based on the works of Edogawa Rampo due out at the end of the year, entitled RANPO JIGOKU.

This is one of those films that only the Japanese can make – bleak, extreme, nihilistic and depressing, yet ultimately uplifting. An existential meditation on loneliness, the futility of life, and the thin line dividing pleasure from pain. A surreal, allegorical cautionary tale. NAKED BLOOD is all these things and more. We can only hope that in the future more of Sato's fascinating filmography finds its way onto Western shores...

Reviewed by Tom Foster