Sunday, July 4, 2010

Baptism of Blood (1996)

aka Senrei

There comes a day in the life of every successful actress when her fungus-like skin problem gets so bad she can't hide it with make-up anymore and she has to seek out the help of your typical mad scientist to solve her little problems. At least it comes for Izumi Wakakusa (Mie Yoshida).

Fortunately, Izumi is closely acquainted with the mad scientist Doctor Meredith (Tatsuya Go), and together they have developed a long-term plan for Izumi's beauty that will only come to fruition decades later.

At that point in time, Izumi has changed her name to Matsuko Uehara (Risa Akikawa) and lives with her late teenage daughter Sakura (Rie Imamura) in a big dark house at the edge of a forest. Matsuko takes very good care of her daughter, watching out for her bodily health as if it were her own, when in doubt even punching out one of Sakura's classmates for blemishing her skin.

She's obsessed with her daughter's looks, one could think Matsuko has a phallic, giger-esque, steampunky brain-extraction machine standing in her house just waiting for Sakura to reach a fitting age. And in fact, that's just what she has.

When the day comes, Matsuko's operation is quite successful, and Sakura's body seems to be a very fine new place to live in. Alas, there are complications, like the fact that the police are less believing in her story of Matsuko travelling abroad than she has hoped. Additionally, it turns out that it wasn't that good of an idea to make Sakura's piano teacher Masahiko (Chihiro Tago) responsible for "Sakura"'s welfare and money until she turns twenty-one.

Masahiko - already inappropriately infatuated with his young student - is easily seduced and controlled, but his pregnant wife Kazuyo (Naoko Amihama) is a bit more of a problem; she's also very interested in acquiring money that doesn't belong to her.

There's always something.

Baptism of Blood is an adaptation of a shoujo horror manga by special house favourite mangaka Kazuo Umezu aka Umezz (also on screen in a little guest role here, scandalously wearing a suit instead of one of his trademark striped sweaters) and manages to generate the appropriate sense of hysteria so central to much of Umezu's horror work.

The film's not much to look at, though. Director Kenichi Yoshihara (whose only screen credit on the IMDB this film is) is obviously of a strict point and shoot persuasion, without even the most basic sense for the use of more interesting or mood-enhancing camera set-ups, lighting that isn't flat and bright, or really anything that might make a film exciting to look at. It's all very brown and cheap, and therefore completely at odds with the mad plot, but Yoshihara does at least manage to keep the film's pacing up and also gives his actors enough room for fairly brave feats of scenery chewing.

A bit of overacting is exactly what the melodramatic tone of the film's script needs. Any attempt at naturalistic acting would clash terribly with the mood of conscious and constant trashiness, the cheap screeching of the synthesizer-pretending-to-be-an-orchestra score and the basic insanity of the set-up.

Imamura and Akikawa at least seem to realize this perfectly. Both women throw themselves into their rather bizarre roles with very appropriate relish. Imamura does surprisingly well going from young woman to older woman in the body of a younger woman; without her, the film would probably crash down around her completely.

While Baptism of Blood is nicely melodramatic and from time to time appropriately mad, I was a bit disappointed by the mildness of its sleaze. If I didn't know better, I'd say that Yoshihara was trying to keep the age-inappropriate sex tasteful (that is, nearly off-screen), which would be a first for a director working in the exploitation field.

Even Matsuko rubbing her daughter's skin isn't as sexualized as one would hope/fear in this context. That's a good way to keep people of good taste off a film's back, but it's a less good way to deepen the impression of a film's psycho-sexual themes (you know, the mother wanting to possess her daughter bodily, the piano teacher wanting to possess his student bodily - basically the unhealthy lust for youth and what it does to the lusted after).

At least the brain extraction sequence is wonderfully tasteless, with its steaming phallic brain-sucking machine slowly peeling Sakura's head and expediting her brain into a trash can a sight to behold and drive away all those people of good taste Yoshihara is trying to keep on his good side before the sleaze can even begin not to be sleazy.

The film also features a rather outrageous twist ending of the type that would usually convince me to write some very annoyed sentences (one of them containing the words "makes no fucking sense whatsoever in the context of what was shown before"), but in this special case the stupid twist feels like another part of the film's politics of melodramatic hysteria and insane plotting instead of a director taking his audience to consist exclusively of the dumbest of the dumb.


No comments: