Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Formality out of the way? Good. Let’s get serious. Today we’re going to do something a little different. Remember when I said last week I was going to take a break from the relentlessly arthouse fare and pick something with some pulp sensibilities? Well, I did.
In fact, I succeeded beyond my wildest imagination. In fact, it’s quite possible I went way too far in the other direction. But what’s done is done, and instead of talking about one movie today I have a whole series of ridiculous nonsense to talk about. I was originally going to do these as three separate articles, but realized that that would probably be the death of me (and certainly test the limits of your patience). Instead you get what follows, for better or worse. So let’s not delay in getting right to it
Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice (1972) /
Hanzo the Razor: The Snare (1973) /
Hanzo the Razor: Who’s Got the Gold? (1974)
I don’t even know how to introduce the historical context of Hanzo the Razor. But I’m going to give you the crash course, because it’s the key to understanding the what and why of these movies. In the early 70s, Japan’s movie industry (and indeed the whole country) was being quickly overrun by Western culture, which had spent a decade of counterculture to double down on a new paradigm of films that pushed the envelope, be it the sexually liberated, loose moral films of the counterculture, or the fascist ultra-violent response of the establishment in movies such as Dirty Harry.
And in the middle, a flood of exploitation cinema, including 1971’s hit Shaft, which was a studio riffing on a more extreme movie (in this case Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song) in order to appeal to audiences who wanted to see sex, violence, and stickin’ it to the man on screen in an easily digestible, palatable way. In fact, Shaft was–along with Sweet Sweetback–the precursor to a sudden explosion of blaxploitation cinema. Which I can only imagine found its way over to Japan.
Japan in the 70s was finding itself in a similar state. There was a deep sense that traditional Japanese culture was quickly being lost in the deluge of foreign interests. Japan’s economy exploded, turning it into one of the greatest capitalist powers on the planet. But that rapid expansion came with it concerns about what this money was doing to the integrity of its people and its government. Like the US, Japan was primed for media to ride counter-culture sentiment, and it’s upon that demand that Hanzo the Razor arrived on the screen.
Hanzo the Razor is a character developed by Kazuo Koike, a manga writer whose works also include the famous Lone Wolf and Cub. The character was developed for film by Shintaro Katsu’s Katsu Productions, which opened as a studio opposed to the traditional, floundering Japanese studios. Katsu was best known for his role as Zatoichi, star of a series of popular (if low key) samurai movies. With Zatoichi stalled in the early 70s, Katsu decided to adapt Koike’s more extreme works, with his brother starring in a Lone Wolf and Cub adaptation and Katsu himself taking on the role of Hanzo. Where Lone Wolf and Cub pushed the boundaries of violence, Hanzo pushed a much broader, moral agenda.
Hanzo the Razor is the nickname for Hanzo Itami, police inspector during Japan’s Edo period. Hanzo is a prototypical ‘cop who doesn’t play by the rules,’ the kind of fascist moral arbiter of the type of Dirty Harry. He exists as a man of greater honor than tradition, who upholds right even when it means going against his superiors. It is an anachronistic character to the core, derisive of samurai traditions that ruled Japan at that time and openly mocking of fundamental concepts like loyalty to one’s superiors and honor-bound concepts like hara-kiri. The traditional honorable samurai heroes are treated with open derision: a master swordsman who would probably be the hero of a Kurosawa piece hounds Hanzo for a duel the entire second film. At the end, Hanzo cuts him down mostly out of annoyance at his persistence, and leaves him to die in the street, the city folk walking around him like he was little more than trash.
Hanzo spends all three movies clearing out various forms of corruption within the government, from human trafficking to embezzlement of treasury funds. It’s a very modern sensibility towards its subject matter, tackling the kinds of things you’d see in a police procedural. And Hanzo, like a modern police officer of the genre, acts by his own higher sense of morality. He has two felons in his employ that are his comedic relief sidekicks, treating them as part gofer part slave, reminding them of their debt to him every time they try to object to another ridiculous assignment. He’s openly derisive of his boss (who manages to be one of the funniest characters in all three movies), a simpering coward of a man who kowtows to his superiors and is always looking to make some money on the side.
In two separate movies Hanzo pretends to commit ritual suicide, once claiming he did it before showing up, his wrap stained red with blood he painted on in order to frighten his enemies. The other time, after a berating by his superior, he pulls out his sword and cuts into his belt right there, everyone watching on in amazement as Hanzo reaches into the gash in his abdomen and throws what they think are his guts at them. It turns out, to their amazement, to be chunks of watermelon. It’s the kind of anti-authoritarianism that would be unheard of in an actual genre piece, and speaks to the genre blend these movies strive for.
Historical context is again necessary here, as in the Edo period police were considered far beneath the samurai and Shogunate offices, meant mostly to keep the commoners in line, necessary grunt work intended for men of low honor. Police officers were often wildly corrupt or incompetent, prone to terrorizing the populace they were charged to protect. Hanzo is again the exception in his vehement opposition to all forms of corruption, going so far as to subject himself to the tortures the police use on suspects so he can gain a greater understanding of what they go through. These tortures are elaborate and bloody, to boot: Hanzo’s body is covered in scars, and he regularly pushes himself beyond the endurance of normal men.
The whole trilogy plays out with a sense of stylism for its setting and violence that speaks to its sometimes buried tongue-in-cheek satire of the genres it blends together. Hanzo is introduced in the first film in a cold open like a blaxploitation hero, filled with split screen that exists nowhere else in the trilogy and a funk soundtrack at odds with the quiet Edo setting. Enemies bleed with the liquid ferocity of a leaky water balloon, the kind of B-grade schlock that Tarantino referenced and lovingly mocked in Kill Bill Volume 1. These movies, presentation wise, are a weird cultural blend that just highlights the faults of both the traditional cinematic presentation of the era it purports to be about and the emerging genres that its hero takes to their ultimate extremes.
With me so far? Good, because here’s where it gets weird. You see, Hanzo the Razor hits those extremes through going so far in a particular direction that you might lose the plot right here, because what we have so far is a pop criticism against the usually stoic, grave jidaigeki genre of samurai films that were historically Japans most famous cinematic product. But in reality Hanzo’s goals as a character and series go way deeper than that, and it aims for much more focused, more complex targets. You see, Hanzo’s parody goes deeper than just pointing out how silly the self-serious films it comes out of are, it has plenty to say about the twisted psychology that those films seem to firmly take for granted.
Not only does Hanzo subject himself to tortures to sympathize with the victims, but he’s seen getting visibly aroused by it. He brushes it off, but the sadomasochistic bent goes even greater. Hanzo is seen, post-conditioning, putting his penis on a wooden plate where he beats it with a mallet as part self-flagellating penance part strengthening exercise. He then takes the bruised equipment to a bale of rice which he proceeds to engage in joyless, grunting intercourse with, in order to further harden his resolve. It’s at this point Hanzo goes far beyond his inspirations and into commentary on them.
Why? Because Hanzo is in large part a reflection of the ‘virile man’ archetype. This is the hero that goes about imposing his rightness on the world not only through violence but by the subjugation of women through his incredible sexuality. You know this archetype. Not only was it deeply entrenched in Shaft, as previously mentioned, but it forms the backbone of another historically popular cinematic hero: James Bond.
Hanzo is like Bond and Shaft in that getting with the ladies is part of the key to him succeeding in his adventures, but while both of the Western heroes do it through what at least pretends to be a typical courtship ritual (the threats of violence are there, of course, but veiled under social niceties) Hanzo has no such pretense. Hanzo’s typical method of interrogation for female suspects is almost universally to rape them until they’re too in love with his giant, desensitized manhood to resist him, and willingly tell him everything he wants to know. This is usually done by suspending the victim in a rope net, and lowering her down on Hanzo, who then spins her around and around. In most cases, they end up joining his team of people working to break whatever case, taking up residence in his household for the duration of the movie.
Now, here’s where things get a little more complicated, because … well, rape. This is a big subject, probably one that deserves its own article at some point, well beyond the scope of the movies we’re covering here. But let’s be clear: I don’t think rape is a good thing (duh, obviously) and I think the representation of rape in cinema, especially in the 70s, is often so very mishandled, used as an easy fallback for revenge cinema and often shot with an idea of forbidden titillation. Hell, this isn’t unique to the 70s, this still happens all the time today (I’m looking firmly at you, David Fincher). I’d source this excellent article by Drew McWeeny as an example of the problem movies have with rape. Go read it, I’ll wait.
So I freely admit that the part where our hero rapes at least a person a movie is probably going to put a bunch of people off of the Hanzo the Razor series. But at the same time, I’m going to step out on a limb here and say this: Hanzo the Razor presents the subject with a surprising amount of nuance for its cartoonishness. There are actual horrors visited upon these women, things that the movie expresses with proper solemnity and are used as real examples of the problems of a life lived towards an idealized moral standard. But then there’s Hanzo, who’s assaults are played–fairly effectively, even–for laughs.
Wait wait wait, I know, you’re shaking you head and saying “Oh god, how can you even defend that?” And I get it, I do. It’s in bad taste, for sure. But what Hanzo the Razor presents is what actual male heroes did and sometimes still do in movies and nobody blinks. It’s stripped of all the artifice, but it’s not that much different than your average Bond movie, and nobody seems to balk at those because the coercion and force used are tied up in a charming accent and a nice suit and the script trying to pretend you didn’t see what you just saw. Hanzo isn’t a movie about hiding, and it presents these scenes, ridiculous and unrealistic, not as some illicit exploitative eroticism (in fact these scenes are far too dumb, and mostly inexplicit, to be erotic to anybody), but as a commentary on the accepted, unspoken rape culture in this genre of cinema. It’s meant as satire, and plays as such, which is why I feel like it’s one of the few times the concept has ever been more or less well utilized by a filmmaker.
Unfortunately, it means it dips towards the genre of Japanese pink film, a trend towards softcore pornographic films that flourished in popular Japanese cinema from the 60s into the 80s. So it’s easy to mistake as another exploitation piece, meant to titillate in that weird, sometimes deeply misogynistic way that Japanese pornography can strike Westerners. I just want to be clear: these are not those movies. It does what it does with seeming care, buried behind its blustery, mockable parody of a hero. It’s not done for the sake of doing, but as message and criticism. You can still be put off by it, and that’s not only acceptable but understandable, I just want to be clear what we’re being presented with, because I feel it’s part of the key that makes these movies worthwhile.
Because at the end of all this, I feel like these movies are worthwhile. I don’t know of any other movies that so bravely step up and point out what our cinematic heroes are doing is wrong and monstrous, and manage to do it with some wit and humor to boot. It’s the kind of meta-referential boundary pushing comedy that even today is relegated to niche audiences by its sheer demands for accessibility (in some ways I’d draw a parallel between these movies and Hot Fuzz). I’ve taken the broader scope of talking about them all as a core idea rather than trying to break them down, so as we head towards the end of this article let me bring it back around to the films themselves, and their worth.
As a trilogy, Hanzo the Razor is a weird, certainly controversial thing. It’s not for everyone, and it requires a certain amount of historical savvy to even begin to parse what it’s trying to say. But hopefully I’ve provided enough of that history to bring you up to speed enough to know if these movies are for you or not. Because, in the end, I think they’re worth checking out for an audience able to handle the material. It makes no effort to meet you halfway, and that’s kind of the brutal magic of its critique, and probably why it manages despite its pulp sensibilities to be included in a set of films often so exploitation-averse as Criterion.
And if this whole thing interests you but seems like a slightly bigger commitment than you’d like, I’d recommend checking out at least Hanzo the Razor: The Snare. The second film is easily the best one, the funniest and most elaborate with the things it’s trying to say. The movie assumes you’ve seen the first one, but I’ve pointed out all of Hanzo’s eccentricities here enough for you to follow along. And if you like it, seek out the others. And if you don’t, well, that’s okay. Hanzo doesn’t care whether you like him or not, he simply is, a relic of a man out of time, doing his own thing against the tide of history and cinema.
Now have an amazing theme song send-off! You deserve it after all this.