Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rica (1972)

Believe it or not (and despite my constant protestations that I detest nature), I actually went to summer camp twice when I was young (I even went camping a few times, but I think those experiences only hastened my distaste for the out-of-doors).  The first time was to a music camp, but I remember learning very little there, and couldn’t tell you if I even got to perform in the big concert that closed out the week.  The second time was just a regular old summer camp.  Having seen too many films like Meatballs and Friday The Thirteenth and so on, I expected to either have a raucous frolic of a time or be stalked relentlessly before being killed in some horrifically graphic manner. 

Neither actually occurred, as you might guess, but since I had a whole mess of pent-up expectations, they had nowhere left to go but into an over-anxiousness which led ineffably to unintended destructiveness and a tendency to act out.  Thus did I find myself on the wrong end of disciplinary measures.  Oh, no one hit me or molested me in any way, shape, or form, but I wound up being put into “time out” (at a time before “time out” was the first resort of authoritarians) for much of my stay.  On the plus side, our cabin did a karaoke stage show (more like a Puttin’ On The Hits lip sync show) of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man (I got to pretend I was Bill Ward).  Needless to say, we didn’t win the talent show.  From this experience I can’t say I know what being sent off to a reform school is like, but you wouldn’t know it from the way I felt arriving home (I literally kissed the ground when I walked in my house).  Naturally, they’re not the same thing, but try telling that to a twelve-year-old.

A very pregnant Kazue (Wakako Chiara) writhes on the black, sandy beach, crying in torment.  Young Rica (Rika Aoki) comes upon her friend and discovers she has taken poison to kill both herself and the baby.  Barging in on Kazue’s husband Hiroshi (Goro Daimon) having sex with another woman, Rica delivers unto him his stillborn child, telling him to give it a proper burial.  Hiroshi and members of the Tachibana Gang show up at Rica and her gang’s hangout, and she and Hiroshi have a hand-to-hand duel.  After plucking out the man’s eyes and killing him, Rica is shipped off to reform school, but her gang are attacked, raped, and kidnapped by the Tachibanas for a purpose even more nefarious.

It’s amazing to me, the level of subtlety actually at play in Ko Nakahira’s Rica (aka Rika The Mixed-Blood Girl aka Konketsuji Rika), considering it’s part of a subgenre (Pinku Eiga or Pinky Violence, among other sobriquets) not known for nuance.  Rika plays the role rather stoically, some would say woodenly, but it’s fitting to my mind for a character who has had to toughen up fast.  Rika hasn’t had an easy life.  She was an unwanted child, and her mother (Kazuko Imai) became a hooker after Rica was born.  The man her mother brings home (Sotoshi Moritsuka) not only rapes Rica (her first sexual encounter) but also plays a sizeable role in the remainder of the plot.  And there are also very light suggestions as to themes of love versus sex.  Rica has no compunction about using sex to get information (and then maiming her informant afterward), and she even dances and sings in her underwear at the Tachibana Gang’s club (one of the highlights of the film), but she does it all out of a sense of loyalty for those she counts as friends as well as for Tetsu, the gangster who appeared out of nowhere to offer Rica assistance when she was jumped by yakuza.  

Yes, Rica has a heart, and she does offer it up but only when the receiver has proved his worth to her.  However, it is difficult to argue for female empowerment in this and other Pinky Violence films.  True, Rica is a capable young woman, and she takes no guff from men.  Usually she is in charge of whom she gives her body to, and she makes conscious, fully-aware decisions in that regard.  By that same token, Rica and just about every other woman in the film is sexually objectified in the sleaziest manner possible.  If you’ve ever seen a film like this one, you know what to expect: the men’s bulging eyes, the tearing off of women’s clothes, the clawing and gnawing of men on women’s bodies (mostly the breasts, though the shoulders get a good working out, too).  So, for as strong as any woman is in these films, I would argue they’re really only as strong as the male audience is comfortable watching.

Like so many films coming out of Japan at the time (and for a long time following) the plot of Rica is fairly random (or at least has a strong feeling of randomness about it).  It leaps from situation to situation with no seeming regard for a through line.  It sort of has an overarching plot that it follows whenever it damn well pleases, but the filmmakers appear to not care how it actually turns out, so long as something skanky or bloody happens every ten minutes or so (give Nakahira credit in this regard; he knows his audience).  There’s a circularity at play, and it’s almost comical.  When you see Rica sit down and make a heartfelt plea with the head of one gang only to get screwed over, and then see her sit down and make a heartfelt plea with the head of another gang later (using many of the same camera angles and shot framing), you can’t help but chuckle.  Plus, this woman has more hand-to-hand duels (replete with henchmen who are told to stay out of it) in one film than in any ten Jean-Claude Van Damme films.  Yet characters appear for what we assume is just a small bit only to disappear for long stretches and then reappear later on as major players.  For as cohesive as the story is allowed to be, it also confounds said cogency.  I’ll give you an example.  Rica goes looking for her mother and tracks her to a department store where she witnesses a crime which takes the film off in a completely different direction, forgetting about her mother entirely until she pops up later so coincidentally as to be absurd (though the ultimate payoff of this discovery is pretty great).  The film hits the points it needs to, and it’s entertaining enough for them, but the structure is so scattershot it makes it difficult to immerse yourself in Rica’s trials and tribulations enough to care about what happens to her, her gang, or her acquaintances.  Am I interested in seeing the other two films in the trilogy?  Sure.  Am I in any rush to get there?  Not really.

MVT:  Looking at 1970s Japan from this gutter level angle captivates me.  The seedy side of the polished financial juggernaut intrigues me no end, and just knowing that the Japanese fell prey to many of the same piss poor fashion trends as the rest of the world (maybe even more), makes me happy inside.

Make Or Break:  The opening sequence of the film is startling and compelling as all hell.  It promises a level of depth and depravity, but the remainder only really delivers on the latter.  I defy you to come up with a curtain-raiser more jaw-dropping and attention-grabbing than the one in Rica.

Score:  6.25/10

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