ANGEL GUTS: HIGH SCHOOL CO-ED

Color, 1978, 79m. / Directed by Sone Chusei / Starring Tatsuma Higuchi, Sansh˘ Shinsui, Machiko Ohtani, Megu Kawashima / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


ANGEL GUTS: RED CLASSROOM

Color, 1979, 80m. / Directed by Sone Chusei / Starring Yuuki Mizuhara, Keizo Kanie, Jun Aki, Megu Kawashima / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


ANGEL GUTS: NAMI

Color, 1979, 80m. / Directed by Tanaka Noboru / Starring Eri Kanuma, Takeo Chii, Mimi Sawaki / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


ANGEL GUTS: RED PORNO

Color, 1981, 67m. / Directed by Ikeda Toshiharu / Starring Jun Izumi, Masahiko Abe, Toshiyuki Kitami / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


ANGEL GUTS: RED VERTIGO

Color, 1988, 74m. / Directed by Takashi Ishii / Starring Mayako Katsuragi, Naoto Takenaka, Jun Izumi / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1


Artsmagic (US R1 NTSC)


The name most commonly associated with the notorious sex and violence "pink films" in Japan, Nikkatsu Studios churned out countless perverse tales of victimized women, brutish men, perverse sexuality, and twisted moral lessions. Among the most famous of these is the loosely connected Angel Guts (Jok˘sei) series, five films derived from the manga series Tenshi no harawata by artist/director Takashi Ishii (best known to cinephiles for the two Gonin films and Freeze Me). Each film involves some aspect of rape with a female lead named Nami, as well as a male character named Nogawa; however, the characters change from film to film, while the filmic styles and levels of explicitness vary wildly as well. (It's also worth noting that, contrary to the title, no innards are literally involved in any of the films, nor do they bear any connection to the far more excessive Entrails of... series.) Collected into one massive box set by Artsmagic, the films together form an odd kind of social commentary on sexual assault, psychological trauma, and our social ills at large, all with a wicked exploitation kick.

The cycle kicks off with the most traditional film, High School Co-Ed, a sort of juvenile delinquent movie gone very nasty in which a gang of bikers terrorizes the countryside by beating up cabbies and raping innocent girls. One member, Tetsuro (Shinsui), reveals a tender side by caring for his young sister (Kawashima) and stopping his buddies from attacking another high school girl, Nami (Ohtani). However, his intervention costs him dearly when the gang demands that he perform an unspeakable act as penance, leading to his ultimate downfall. A fast-moving and often wrenching film, this melodrama gets the series off to a solid start and features plenty of stylish flourishes typical of late 1970s Japanese cinema, including imaginative use of lighting and framing, wild juxtapositions of sex and violence, and often frenetic performances with the anguished protagonists often conveying their emotions with little to no dialogue. The rape sequences are appropriately harrowing (with those familiar Japanese censor blurs slapped onto the original film for a few seconds), with little emphasis on what anyone could call titillating.

Though this first DVD in the set looks reasonably good (albeit on the soft side, which appears to be a directorial choice), the transfer is seriously marred by cropping the scope frame to 1.85:1 after the full 2.35:1 opening credits. Compositions aren't too hindered for the most part, but it's a glaring flaw despite the otherwise respectable anamorphic presentation. At least the film still works in this format, and the bountiful extras still make it worthwhile. The feature also contains an audio commentary by Midnight Eye co-writer Jasper Sharp (who also accompanies the four subsequent films) in which he deftly lays out the origins of the roman porno subgenre, various stories about all of the major participants, and the various conventions which emerged with a great deal of help from this infamous series. The disc also comes with video interviews: director Ikeda Toshiharu (more on him later) discussing this film's director, and Ishii himself in the first of several interviews about the manga and roman porno genres.

Next up is Red Classroom, a more socially ambitious film in which Tetsuro Muraki (Kanie), photographer for the girlie magazine Guravaru, becomes obsessed with a young girl in a stag film. When he finally tracks her down, the "actress" named Nami (Mizuhara) reveals she was in fact raped during the film and now offers sex to anyone who recognizes her as a means of clearing away their fantasies and expectations about her. However, Muraki reveals he has nobler intentions and wants to help her out of the degrading psychological morass in which she has trapped herself. However, a twist of fate intervenes and sends both of them spiralling downward to a potentially grim fate. A film more about the fallout from rape rather than the act itself, Red Classroom features even more sex than its predecessor but, apart from the opening sequence, chooses to investigate the psyche of a damaged young woman rather than depicting her victimization. It's an unusual approach, particularly for an exploitation film of this period, and though the rewards are undoubtedly too depressing for your standard raincoat crowd, anyone with a tolerance for fusions of art house aesthetics and grindhouse content will be more than rewarded.

Thankfully this DVD fares better than the first, with the original scope framing full and intact. The print appears to be in good shape with solid colors. Sharp's commentary is essentially a continuation of his previous discussion, so make sure you hear that one first. Both films are fairly similar in technique, most likely due to their shared director, who is discussed in some detail by Ishii in his second interview, focusing mainly on how the series got started and how Nikkatsu landed what was quickly becoming a hot manga property.

The series really hits its stride by the third film, Nami, which is both the artistic pinnacle of the Angel Guts cycle and a roaring good time for devotees of outrageous cinema. A spate of sexual assaults motivates tenacious reporter Nami (Kanuma) to investigate the victims and the circumstances of the crimes, but her probing leads to the awakening of some very dark impulses within herself. Chasing down the girls with her crew and indulging in masturbatory bathtub fantasies afterwards, Nami eventually crosses the line when she prods one subject into sheer insanity.

Featuring one of the most delirious third acts in '70s sex cinema (involving thunderstorms, a mad nun, a morgue, and a dildo attack), Nami maintains a respectfully disdaining attitude towards rape but veers so far into the flat-out surreal that it's impossible to swallow as a "realistic" statement like its predecessors. Each scene becomes more stylized than the last until the viewer is submerged in a series of fantastic, surreal set pieces which blur the line between fantasy and reality; the last ten minutes in particular could have stepped right out of a Jodorowsky film. Don't miss.

Luckily the best film in the set benefits from the strongest transfer; each bold composition looks perfectly framed and features excellent color and detail. Sharp's commentary track is once again efficient and enjoyable as he covers the basics of the film, with a heavier emphasis (appropriately) on the pop culture aspects. Director Noboru Tanaka (who also helmed the excellent Watcher in the Attic) appears for a cheerful interview in which he talks about his career with a detailed explanation of the ins and outs of Nikkatsu during the 1970s; definitely required viewing for pink cinema fans and one of the best featurettes of the lot.

The most explicit installment, the aptly titled Red Porno, still clings to vestiges of a plot but pushes these "pink" scenarios into territory only centimeters away from hardcore. The main character, secretary Nami (Izumi), decides to help a friend at a part-time job which just happens to involve posing for S&M shots for an underground porn magazine. When the pictures are published, Nami's life flips upside down as she finds herself stalked by weirdos, threatened at work, and generally uneasy with the fact that she's now considered a walking sexual target - with one potential stalker bound to change her life forever.

Certainly the title most likely to grab a viewer's attention at first glance, Red Porno feels much more like the modern, video era pink films with its grungy, claustrophobic atmosphere and narrower 1.85:1 framing. Awash in bodily fluids of every permutation, the characters are usually squirming and writhing while covered in oil, lube, or whatever substance might be handy; after all, what can you say about a film that kicks off with a girl pleasuring herself in graphic detail under vinyl underwear, followed by another making creative use of a condom stuffed with a boiled egg and three sharpened pencils! However, the balance between visual artistry, psychological insight, and all-out sleaze wallowing gets tipped far more towards the latter in this case; as the imagery gets increasingly explicit, it's hard to relate much to the characters despite their plight. It's definitely a curio though and should be seen at least once. The transfer looks fine, considering this isn't the most slickly lensed title in the batch, though some close cropping on the opening logos and credits indicates the image might be zoomed in a bit. Compositions generally look fine, though, arbitrary as they may usually seem. The commentary track here is actually perhaps the best, with a great deal of biographical and technical information provided; the stories about the incredibly beautiful Izumi are worth the price of admission alone. Also included is a lengthy video interview with director Toshiharu Ikeda (of Evil Dead Trap fame) in which he chats about the origins of his directorial career and the various creative processes involved in making the film.

Apparently deciding he could direct an adaptation as well as anyone else, Ishii took the reins for his directorial debut with the last film in the set, Red Vertigo. This spare and melancholy character study masquerading as a trashy sex film follows the misadventures of Nami (Katsuragi), a nurse whose rape one night at work sends her home only to discover her boyfriend with another woman. Meanwhile young Miraki (Takenaka) runs from the mob and collides with Nami, who's knocked unconscious. Miraki's half-hearted attempts at molestation eventually give him the bright idea of holding her at a warehouse where the two explore each other's damaged psyches, forming an uneasy kind of understanding that alas is not meant long for this world.

Both an appropriate swan song for the series (a much later sixth entry notwithstanding) and solid directorial debut, Red Vertigo (a.k.a. Red Dizziness) is the most noir-inspired of the bunch with its moody neon lighting, doomed protagonists, and criminal underworld elements; though injected with the usual dollops of mostly forced sexual activity, it clearly has more on its mind than cheap thrills and ends on a downbeat note whose mood lingers long after the opening credits. Like its predecessor, this was shot flat and is presented at 1.85:1; the cinematography is quite impressive though and anticipates the soft focus, shadowy nightmares of Gonin. Ishii turns up for a lengthy video interview in which he discusses the entire series, revealing why he chose his recurring character names and how he felt directing his first feature.

The entire set is packaged in a fold-out digipack, and each disc comes with theatrical trailers for all five films tucked into the special features section, plus bios/filmographies and the original respective sleeve art with accessible English translations. Also note that each film comes with a two-channel stereo mix or a 5.1 remix, though the differences between the two are usually imperceptible; it's a nice gesture, but don't expect much in way of surround sound fireworks.


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