Irezumi, which is Japanese for tattoo, is based on a story by Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, one of the premiere Japanese authors of the first half of the 20th century. Although it was his first story to gain attention, Jun’ichiro’s best known work is Sasameyuki better known as The Makioka Sisters in the West and also adapted into a film. Yasuzō Masumura directed Irezumi. Masumura is one of the less well-known directors working in Japanese cinema in the ‘late ’50s and early ’60s. He also directed the Yakuza film Afraid to Die. That film starred another famous Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, whose own work dealt with sadomasochism, as does Irezumi.
The film adds a slight supernatural element to what is otherwise essentially a fairly straightforward revenge thriller. Ayako Wakao plays Otsuya, a woman who is kidnapped and then tattooed against her will with the image of large demonic spider. The tattoo artist is Seikichi (Gaku Yamamoto), who sees her almost milk-white skin as the perfect canvas for his artistry. Otsuya is then sold into prostitution, but the tattoo may or may not have a supernatural power over her, which may explain her change in personality.
Kazuo Miyagawa’s cinematography is what brings the film alive: his use of red is extraordinary. He shot many key films for Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and Ozu, so he was as world-class of a cinematographer as you could’ve gotten at the time in Japan. Kaneto Shindō, who wrote Onibaba and Kureneko, did the adaptation. Irezumi never quite escapes the fact that it’s a short story expanded into a feature, but it’s a film full of atmosphere, with an impressive performance from Wakao as its central femme fatale.
The Blu-Ray from Arrow Films includes a commentary track by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser and an introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns; Out of the Darkness, a brand-new visual essay by Asian cinema scholar Daisuke Miyao; the film’s original trailer and an image gallery. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing on the film by Thomas Lamarre and Daisuke Miyao.