Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kurutta Butokai (1989)

... aka: Asti gesshoku eiga-kan
... aka: Kitari
... aka: Lunatic Theatre
... aka: Mad Ballroom Gala
... aka: Madness Night, The
... aka: Muscle

Directed by:
Hisayasu Satô

Director Satô began working in the pinku eiga / soft core realm beginning in 1985 and has since churned out dozens of low-budget features dealing with all manner of sexual fetish, persuasion and perversion, more often than not coupled with violence. A true taboo breaker, Satô made films dealing with such topics as voyeurism, sexual violence, rape, incest, exhibitionism, bondage, sadism, masochism, blood fetishism, transvestism, bestiality... You name it and he's probably done it. Though these films dealt primarily with taboo sex and were made for connoisseurs of more edgy soft-core, many also clearly fell into the horror genre with their dark themes, grim atmosphere and forbidden sexuality mixed with graphic violence and gore. In a 2010 interview with Electric Sheep Magazine, an interviewer noted that much of Satô's early work could easily be classified as horror, to which the director replied, "I’m not so much into genres. Everybody said that the splatter aspect of my early films was very strong but I wasn't really aware of that. I wasn't thinking I was making a splatter film or a horror film. For me to show all this blood was necessary to express what I wanted to say." The director was also one of the very first of his type to explore gay sex and relationships (albeit warped ones as per his usual) in a non-porn context, beginning with his seldom-viewed 1987 effort Kamen no yûwaku ("Temptation of the Mask"). Kurutta Butokai was his second film centered around homosexual characters and also one of the most widely-distributed of all his titles.

Ryuzaki (Takeshi Itô), a photographer for "Muscle" Magazine ("an excuse to look at hard bodies"), becomes involved in a bizarre relationship with model / performance artist Kitami Yukihiro (Simon Kumai). Things start out romantically and normally enough but soon take a turn for the nasty when Kitami proves to be a sadist who gets turned on by slicing up his new lover's nipple and chest with a knife. Ryuzaki, apparently overwhelmed by the new found joy he finds in painful sex, eventually chops Kitami's arm off with a samurai sword. After spending a year in prison for the crime, Ryuzaki is released, returns to his apartment and finds that his former boss has dropped off some possessions of his that he was holding for him. Among those items is a glass jar containing Kitami's arm perfectly preserved in formaldehyde. His first night home, Kitami shows up in Ryuzaki's dreams to rape him by knife-point while simultaneously slicing him up and biting his dick. Now obsessed with finding his violent former lover, Ryuzaki gets word from his boss that a one-armed homeless man is rumored to be lurking around. He makes fliers and hits the streets in his quest to be reunited with his lover; encountering a few shady and kinky types along the way. Eventually he's slipped an invitation to a masquerade party where all of the strange events, and all of the strange people Ryuzaki has recently come into contact with, will be explained. Well, sort of.

There's constant mention of Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the film seems to be drawing parallels between the ill-fated director and the protagonist. Ryuzaki hangs a poster of Salo in his apartment and, after his magazine job dries up and he's forced to work the ticket counter at "The Lunatic Cinema," he hopes to one day show the film there. In real life, Pasolini was murdered by a teenage street hustler (who has since recanted his initial testimony). In this film, our protagonist beats a street hustler to death after he tries to destroy a VHS copy of Salo he had to import in all the way in from Italy. The Smiths-like end theme song is, appropriately enough, "Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)" by Coil.

Pretty much every character you'll meet here is an unsavory type. There are several really obnoxious and aggressive gay prostitutes and Ryuzaki's best friend Chida (You Suzuki), who immediately offers to give him a blowjob as soon as he's released from prison, eventually brings a weird woman named Yoko (Kiyomo Ito) over to his apartment where she slaps, bites, claws, strangles and stomps on Chida's chest and crotch before they have sex. Scenes of Ryuzaki alone in his apartment feature the constant sound of a ticking clock and the director shoots things strangely, tilting the camera to the side for some shots and photographing people through frames and reflections. I wasn't really sure what to make of all this, but it's very interesting and unique, the music score by So Hayakawa is excellent, the ending (with pantyhose-masked people lit with a spotlight dancing in front of a white backdrop casting strange shadows) is both fascinating and visually striking and the whole film has this wonderfully haunting and bleak feel to it.

Another really interesting thing about this is how it presents its characters. Though most happen to be gay, their sexual orientation has no real bearing on the film's primary themes of sadomasochistic love and sexual obsession. If anything I'd say the director was hired to make a gay soft porn and just spun this story around it; one which wouldn't have worked all that differently with straight protagonists. Satô never ridicules, questions or sticks his nose up at these characters, nor does he care about what the world en mas may think of them. He simply presents them as they are and observes them in the grim world he creates. The sex scenes themselves are going to deter some viewers. While this is never quite pornographic, it is very graphic by non-hardcore standards and features guys kissing, simulated anal sex and men rubbing and licking penises through underwear. Said scenes also explain why this was one of Satô's only films (out of the 50+ he's made) to receive an official release outside of Japan. Queer cinema wasn't well-represented at this time and the vast majority of the output was dominated by message movies focused primarily on unfair societal score over sexuality and / or AIDS. This film represented a rare break from form and was able to tap directly into a niche market not being catered to much at this time in other countries.

In the UK, this was issued on the obscure Dangerous to Know label (under the title Kitari) and it later received a VHS release in America from Strand Releasing (under the title Muscle). The latter was a limited release to begin with, but now the ultra-rare VHS is going for between 259-354 dollars (!) on Amazon. Winner of the grand prize at the Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1993,  this is well worth a look if you're a more open-minded viewer. The full run time is just 59 minutes.

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