Flower & Snake Review
Not to be confused with manga-ka turned director Takashi Ishii’s 2003 effort – hence the ’74 tag here – Masaru Konuma’s Flower & Snake was the first live adaptation of Oniroku Dan’s famed S&M novel, which proved to be so successful that it became something of a franchise property, staying with Nikkatsu right through to the late eighties during which time several spin-off features were churned out. And although Masaru Konuma proved to be quite a prolific director during Nikkatsu’s legendary Roman Porno reign he was perhaps best regarded for Flower & Snake and it’s subsequent follow-up in the same year: Wife to be Sacrificed. Rather interestingly this is where we find a neat tenuous link between the director, original author and lead starlet.
Part of the reason as to why Flower & Snake became as popular as it did was due to Naomi “Queen of S/M” Tani’s involvement. In the years prior she had been successfully making a living from starring in predominantly S&M themed cinema. In the late sixties she crossed paths with Oniroku Dan who was only specialising in S&M literature and had ventured into writing scripts for soft-core “Pinku” flicks. Forming a common bond they subsequently worked together on a number of projects and for some time Nikkatsu had been hotly pursuing Tani with offers for her to star in their own future line-ups. But while Nikkatsu were trying desperately at this point to get out of a financial rut by producing Roman Porno features, they didn’t dare venture too far into the realms of the ultra taboo. S&M wasn’t really their bag at the time, which is why Tani often refused to accommodate them. Eventually Nikkatsu yielded and agreed to Tani’s demands that if she was to make her starring debut for the studio then it would be based upon Oniroku Dan’s Flower & Snake. Still, the production was rocky from start to finish; creative differences were rife and Dan and Tani became dejected by the studio’s way of thinking in adapting the author’s difficult novel. Nevertheless everyone got through the hardships with their pride relatively intact and the result was a film that opened up doors and significantly paved the way for one of that decade’s most fruitful genres.
The story follows a thirty year-old clerk named Makoto Katagiri (Yasuhiko Ishizu) who since childhood has been inflicted by impotence, brought on by an evening in which he shot a black G.I. who he caught having sex with his mother (Hiroko Fuji) - who incidentally had been prostituting herself. To this day he still blames her for his illness, the result of which has meant he’s not been able to carry out a proper relationship with a woman. However, he finds that he can arouse himself, though not through normal sexual stimulation. His fortune turns around when he’s called into his boss’s office one day. Mr. Toyama (Nagatoshi Sakamoto) approaches Makoto having found some rather unusual photos of women placed in compromising situations and he asks of the man to help him with an important task.
It turns out that Toyama is also sexually swayed by perverse desires, but his wife Shizuko (Naomi Tani) spurs his every advance, which forces him to act upon their maid Haru (Hijiri Abe). When Toyama is threatened by divorce he orders Makoto to kidnap Shizuko and “train” her until her aristocratic pride is destroyed and she will readily succumb to whatever he has in store for her. But Makoto soon discovers that Shizuko is all he ever needed when his special training methods prove to get his plumbing working without fail. Drawn ever closer to Shizuko, Makoto wishes to marry her and steal her away from his unruly boss. When his mother becomes involved in the whole sorry ordeal emotions erupt and it’s only a matter of time before things go from bad to worse.
Indeed Flower & Snake has an impressive history behind it - and decent enough plotting to match its relevance. Although the feature augments itself on delivering an almost non-stop barrage of sexual depravity, under the surface lays a subversive tale of mental anguish. When arguing the emotional complexities one must still bare in mind that these productions were made solely to titillate and provide the means for fantastical escape. Thus rape, bondage and enemas form the basis of its core character’s sexual desires and frustrations. It’s certainly not pretty, despite the fact that everything is cleverly concealed in accordance to Japanese law and the fact that the intention was simply to imply. While Konuma stages his film quite mercilessly he does a remarkably good job of eliciting the appropriate human response in the face of such torturous images. It’s self-deprecating, knowing full well that the reasoning’s behind it are absurd - in fact several shots offer intentionally funny gags - while acknowledging all the same that a substantial community does practice these self-appointed art forms behind closed curtains. As a film that crosses the boundaries of acceptance Flower & Snake meets, greets and literally soils all over its taboo subjects, but it becomes less of an erotic exercise - which it clearly never is, despite targeting a specific crowd - and more a cleverly concealed psychological drama.
Of course those statements are fully backed up by the fact that our lead protagonist, of sorts, is a tormented soul who has led his formative years being governed by his overly obsessive mother with whom he shares a somewhat abnormal relationship. Hell, it is abnormal: at one point she helps him give Shizuko a rather uncomfortable enema and orders him to rape her! There’s a territorial divide which seeks to usurp and destroy the family unit, brought on by a sense of irreparable betrayal as Makoto goes through an unusual sexual awakening. Meanwhile Shizuko’s best friend and maid to Toyama is unfairly put through a series of uncomfortable situations at the behest of Shizuko who is unquestionably repulsed by her husband’s ill advances. And all the while this builds up to a disturbing climax whereby cruel mind games played by both Shizuko and Makoto’s mother finally come to a head and the depressing futility of it all seems so very needless. Perhaps more impressively is that throughout all of this Konuma does bypass a good portion of lengthy sexual encounters to provide the kind of substance that might not be so readily associated with these films, but had certainly become a major influence in a large number of Roman Porno productions during the years since.
The packaging for Flower & Snake slightly differs from the shot included at the top of this review. The cover art is essentially the same, but with Shizuko’s breasts covered by robes, while the disc art and menu shows them in all their glory. You pansies, Tokyo Shock!
Presented anamorphically, with slight window-boxing, at 2.35:1 Flower & Snake overall isn’t particularly remarkable, but is fairly decent nonetheless. The main problem is that the transfer isn’t progressive, which sadly means we have the usual combing and ghosting effects as standard. It’s a little harder to gauge contrast here as a large majority of these films tend to look similar, suffice it to say they come across a little high, with foreground and background black levels occasionally merging, resulting in some poor definition (see grab 4). Otherwise colours seem fine and detail isn’t too shabby, what with various filters being used to soften certain shots or otherwise. Aliasing also rears its head from time to time, showing up mainly during office scenes which feature blinds.
The Japanese mono track is about as good as you can hope for. Riichiro Manabe’s overly romanticised score, which will seem odd to some given the context in which various scenes play out, comes across well, while dialogue never presents any audible dropouts.
Optional English subtitles are excellent, offering a very smooth translation and good timing, though they do appear in a yellow font, which doesn’t always go down too well with viewers.
These are limited to the original and amusing theatrical trailer, presented with optional subs and a small photo gallery featuring stills and poster artwork. Other trailers are included for Flower & Snake (2003), Flower & Snake II, Lady Ninja Kasumi (look out for a review from myself soon) and Snot Rocket and Super Detective.
Flower & Snake is a benchmark title in that it helped to successfully steer a fairly new-wave genre in the right direction. Granted it goes into excess with its S&M routines at times, which soon enough become fairly generic, but with Naomi Tani involved there’s no shortage of eye candy, just in case you were looking for it, and frankly speaking who isn’t? The milky-skinned lovely commits herself 100%, which is why she’s so fondly remembered to this day. Coupled with a well executed plot device, though, Masaru Konuma’s ’74 offering also proves to be a steady deconstruction of human desire.
7 out of 10
6 out of 10
8 out of 10
2 out of 10