Drawn from the pen of one of Japan’s foremost writers of the 20th century, Junichiro Tanizaki (A Fool’s Love, The Makioka Sisters), Irezumi is a stylish tale of lust, betrayal and revenge directed by Yasuzo Masumura (Giants and Toys, Blind Beast).
Masumura’s muse Ayako Wakao (The Blue Sky Maiden, Red Angel) stars as Otsuya, the daughter of a rich merchant, who is tempted by her lover, Shinsuke, a lowly employee of her father’s, to elope. During their flight, Otsuya’s beauty attracts the gaze of Seikichi, a mysterious master tattooist who sees her pristine white skin as the perfect canvas for his art. The image of the large demonic spider that he emblazons across Otsuya’s back marks her as the property of another man, radically altering her relationships with all around her as her personality transforms under its influence.
Available for the first time outside of Japan in a new 4K restoration, Irezumi sports some of Japanese cinema’s most respected talent of its day both in front of and behind the camera. The bewitching cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa (Rashomon, Ugetsu) captures the sensual atmosphere of the period setting, while the script by Kaneto Shindo (Onibaba, Kuroneko) lends a modern twist to this feverish meditation on obsession and the act of creation.
Continuing their way through the work of Yasuzo Masumura, Arrow presents his 1966 feature Irezumi on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. It has been encoded at 1080p/24hz.
The previous Masumura films released by Arrow (Black Test Car, The Black Report, and Giants and Toys) were all sourced from obviously older masters, and the end results ranged from “meh” to decent. For this title, Arrow is utilizing a new 4K restoration performed by Kadokawa Pictures, which in turn was sourced from the 35mm original negative, and, in no surprise whatsoever, the difference in quality is substantial. This looks rather stunning in the end, and a lot of that has to do with just how well it’s translating the film’s cinematography by Kazuo Miyagawa.
The supplements do go into the film’s look in great detail (one extra and a written essay are devoted solely to it) but the photography ends up being best described as a sort of “black-and-white in colour.” The film has a vibe that one could call Kabuki-meets-film-noir (something David Desser touches on in his commentary), so the look is apt, but it sounds it may have come about because of—as suggested within the supplements—the fact Miyagawa found the move from black-and-white to colour, and the changes in lighting that came with that, to be a considerable shock. In relation to how the film looks, an Eastman Color stock was used for the film, as I understood it, so it has that "Eastman" look to begin with, but a majority of the colours—outside of reds and other colours around the film’s main protagonist—are further dulled, bordering on gray in places. The lighting plays a lot into this, Miyagawa having lit the film similar to how he would have lit a black-and-white film, making the film look darker while also enhancing shadows and depth.
It’s an intense look, but thankfully the high-def presentation pulls it off without a hitch, handling its nuances superbly. Dynamic range ends up being impressive, handling the shift from the darker areas of the screen to the brighter portions smoothly, even perfectly handling the bright pops of red (and the occasional pop of yellow) that show up throughout, no bleeding or noise present, whether it be a kimono our lead wears, or the blood of some unfortunate soul. Blacks can get very deep, but they don’t crush, and subtle shadow detail is still present.
Pack on top of that a pristine looking source, an insanely sharp looking image loaded with clear fine details, and superbly rendered grain and you have yourself about as superb a presentation as you could ask for the film, short of a UHD release. It’s quite the stunner in the end and the stand-out of Arrow's Masumura releases so far.
The audio, delivered in DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono, sounds strong enough, though is still a by-product of its time. Dialogues sounds excellent, and there’s some great range to be found here, but music can come off a but edgy and harsh. Damage isn’t an issue, at the very least.
Arrow first includes a new academic audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser, who starts things off by reading from Junichiro Tanizaki’s short story that inspired the film. Desser uses that as a launching point to talk about how Masumura builds off of that very short, very plotless story to create this noir-meets-kabuki film with a strong woman (who he also describes as a “demonic femme fatale”) as its central character, offering some social context for good measure. The track does have a scripted feel that makes it a bit stale, and it's a step down from Irene González-López’s track found on Giants and Toys, but I still enjoyed his comments on the film’s look, its colours, and its cinematographry.
Most may be able to skip the track and be satisfied with two new features: a 10-minute introduction by film scholar Tony Rayns and a new 13-minute video essay on the film’s cinematographer created by Asian cinema scholar Daisuke Miyao, entitled Out of the Darkness. Rayns talks a little about the short story and how Masumura adapted it to be a tale of “female empowerment” before comparing it to the director’s other works, while Miyao talks a little about Miyagawa’s background and then how he uses light and colour in this film, even getting very technical around the film stock and the equipment that was used. I also enjoyed his breakdown of the film’s conclusion. It’s short but tightly edited and to the point.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer and an image gallery, which houses about 46 images or so and consists of production photos, behind-the-scenes photos, posters and what I think are colourized lobby cards. The included booklet (limited to first pressings) then presents an essay by Thomas Lammare around the film as an adaptation, followed by an essay by Miyao on the film’s cinematography, which is a nice companion to his video essay, complete with citations. The booklet also features a Masumura filmography.
In all, Arrow offers a modest yet thorough set of supplements.
Arrow’s best edition for one of Masumura’s films so far, the disc sports a strong set of academic supplements and a gorgeous looking presentation.