There's quite a lot to unpack in this erotic horror retelling of Beauty and the Beast, made by Japanese New Wave director Yasuo Masumura. It's partly a compact and meaty drama with three characters in a couple of sets slowly pulling each other apart. The central dynamic is the sheltered child-man detaching himself from a devoted but overbearing mother and being seduced by a new woman of the 1960s keen to push the boundaries of art and sex. The gradually escalating scenarios of ploy and counter-ploy between the mother and the new arrival contain some impressive character work. Like with the Oshima films I watched previously, there is a nod to the idea of a more individualistic generation breaking the bonds of duty that tie them to parents, family and society more widely (which may reflect a debt to Ozu as much as a prevalent mood in the culture of the time). A town/country divide is also alluded to – the artist's model is a city girl, whereas her kidnapper is a naive country bumpkin who is unprepared for the duplicity of his captive.
The film takes a sudden gear shift away from this tight three-way drama as soon as it is (violently) resolved. The almost theatrical family struggle is bracketed by a more cinematic exploration of images as a mechanism for dampening the awesome power of physical sensation. There is some confusion here, because Masumura's portrayal of blindness in part evokes the desire of the audience to feel their way through an image and into the fantasy it portrays. But it also represents the danger of living a life without images. The sense of touch becomes obsessive, and without the distancing effect provided by seeing things, ultimately brings humanity down to the level of insects and jellyfish. The photos Aki poses for have her bound up in chains. In Michio's warehouse, where hundreds of gloopy sculptures of body parts cover the walls, those chains are removed, and sculptor and model both lose themselves in a masochistic, sexual frenzy. Desire and dissolution melt together.
The sculpture Michio creates magically crumbles as its real-life subject is mutilated and destroyed. By this stage, the sense of otherwordly fairy-tale has completely enveloped the film, and it doesn't come as a surprise. But what to make of it? Maybe Aki's spirit has become so infused with her simulacrum that she becomes a work of art in her own right – an idea rather than a person. Or perhaps it's the director passing judgement on the two mad lovers, ensuring that no work of art escapes to stand the test of time and inspire other sybarites to emulation. There are many ways to read it, which is another way of saying that this is a film that would reward repeat viewings.