Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sometimes a Sexual Metaphor is Just a Sexual Metaphor

A lot of actors and filmmakers talk about how awkward sex scenes are to film, and usually the finished movies reflect this awkwardness. Not so with 1974's Flower and Snake (Hana to Hebi), a movie where it feels like the cast and crew had been filming three sex scenes a day for years. Compared to other exploitation films of the period, even, the sex scenes in this film are remarkably uninhibited, even compared to other Japanese "Pink" films, the softcore pornographic films that actually dominated Japanese domestic cinema in the 70s. Flower and Snake is chock-full of shibari bondage and S&M humiliations like forced enemas and public sex acts. It all comes off as silly, sexy fun.

The story follows Makoto, a young man who lives in his mother's sex shop/porno studio. He has a fear of sexual intimacy that stems from an incident when he was a child where he shot and killed an American soldier he saw having sex with his mother. But he enjoys watching the filming of a shibari video taking place in the basement when the film begins, and goes upstairs to jerk off, tossing his used kleenex into one of three buckets already overflowing with such tissues in his closet.

Please enjoy this screenshot.

Meanwhile, Makoto's boss, Senzo, is having trouble with his wife, Shizuko, played by the gorgeous Naomi Tani.

She refuses to sleep with him, for reasons that aren't explained, and prefers to spend time with her maid and snips the old man's prized roses when he tries have sex with her. He's sensitive about his flowers and also about the sight of blood, which inspires her to slap him across the face with the flowers' thorny stems. Later, she places these same flowers in a vase with water and remarks to her maid how the flowers are beautiful now because they absorbed a man's blood.

Senzo finds out about Makoto's home life and orders him to kidnap Shizuko and "train her."

I think some people might wonder that I can be disturbed by Robert Mitchum sexually assaulting Marilyn Monroe in The River of No Return and yet regard the forced sex and bondage in Flower and Snake as silly fun. It's because from start to finish, Flower and Snake is clearly a sexual fantasy based on the dom/sub dichotomy. The story is really just a garnish for scenes meant to get people off. As such, the progression isn't so much from unhappy home lives to trauma, but from personal barriers, to sexual release, to general symbiosis. The men in the film are portrayed as weak and needy while Shizuko comes across as a woman who ultimately attains satisfaction as a sort of slut goddess.

It's not a long movie, just over an hour, and seems designed to stroke male self-esteem (among other things). Though apparently it was partly due to actress Naomi Tani's personal crusade that the movie was made at all, though according to Wikipedia, the film differs from the source material significantly, a book written by Oniroku Dan, "Japan's best-known author of S&M fiction." The film is remarkably natural and at ease with itself, but I never would have expected there to be so much drama behind the scenes about artistic purity.

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