Yasuharu Hasebe: Pink, Rape, Art.
The name Yasuharu Hasebe is one that may not be all that familiar to some of you who are reading this. He is a filmmaker who doesn’t command an army of fans but he does have a name that should be recognizable for fans of Japanese cinema from the seventies. His most notable accomplishments come from his creation of the Stray Cat Rock series within the pinky violence subgenre but his work stretches far and beyond that point. We will get to the more specific aspects of his career shortly, but generally his work is iconoclastic and taboo shattering in its focus. At the end of his seventies run he would make his most broad and disturbing statements through his entries into the genre known as violent pink. Films such as Rape!, Raping! and Assault! Jack the Ripper would cement his legacy as a cinematic rule breaker, to say the least. He is a filmmaker that will draw strong opinions from all who take the time to explore his catalog, but few could deny his ability as a storyteller, his status as a transgressive artist, or his absolutely masterful eye for the visual.
Born April 4, 1932, Hasebe was raised in a loving family and shared a very trusting relationship with his father in particular. The two shared a bond that would carry a tremendous impact upon his entire life. Growing up in post-war Japan, Hasebe was a sponge for foreign American and French cinema. When it came time for secondary schooling, Hasebe was enrolled at Waseda University (one of the most prestigious private universities in Japan) where he studied French literature and became engrossed in the world of cinema. Here, he would become the apprentice of a screenwriter where he was given the task of appropriating re-writes. He would eventually wind up taking a job with Nikkatsu studio in 1958, where he would hone his craft and learn the business. At the time, there was very little television work to be had so all of his preparation was geared explicitly towards the cinematic. During this time at Nikkatsu, Hasebe was primarily an assistant director, working often and with little rest. He spent 8 years as an assistant director, working on 50-60 films during that time period and he worked often with directors such as Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter, Tattooed Life), Takashi Nomura (A Colt is My Passport) and Motomu “Tan” Ida (3 Seconds Before Explosion).
After years of steady work alongside some of the best genre filmmakers that Japan had to offer at that time, in 1966, the powers that be at Nikkatsu decided it was time to see what Hasebe could do with his own production. The genesis of his introductory film Black Tight Killers came from producers hoping to create a new sort of action film within Japan. The James Bond films were quite popular at that time and so a script that featured such elements was chosen but the sheer difference in feel and added sense of humor to the script was ultimately what drew Hasebe to the work. When it came time to cast the film, Hasebe was able to pull some strings and talk to his old friend (and mega-star) Akira Kobayashi whom he had grown to know very well during his years as an assistant director. Yasuharu has also gone on record as to say that he felt some influence from Seijun Suzuki’s films, particularly their humor, as well as those of Kihachi Okamoto (The Sword of Doom).
In the wake of Black Tight Killers, Hasebe continued working in genre film, directing Massacre Gun (1967), Territorial Dispute (1968) Savage Wolf Pack (1969), Roughneck (1969) and Bloody Territories (1969). Massacre Gun is most notable for the fact that it featured Akira Kobayashi once again, but starred Jo Shishido, who also filmed the highly influential Branded to Kill (dir. Seijun Suzuki) as well as A Colt is My Passport (dir. Takashi Nomura) within that same year. In fact, Nikkatsu marketed these three films together as a loose trilogy that year. The story itself appears to be typical yakuza fare, with Jo Shishido and Tatsuya Fuji (a regular of Hasebe’s work) growing angry with some local yakuza after they embarrass their younger brother. They soon turn the tables on the yakuza and a turf war of sorts escalates. Territorial Dispute is another conventional yakuza picture that again stars Akira Kobayashi, this time as an ex-con returning home from prison and trying to retain his clan despite his boss being murdered. This rare gem also apparently marked the first time Hasebe featured Meiko Kaji in his cast. The two would soon go on to make waves with their hugely successful Stray Cat Rock series.
Bloody Territories is a fairly uneventful piece of yakuza (Japanese organized crime) cinema that peaks in areas, but is hampered by convention. The film once again featured Hasebe’s good friend Akira Kobayashi, who really helped Hasebe’s career move along at these early stages. Savage Wolf Pack was his next feature, a gritty revenge tale based around a big game hunter returning home to find that his sister has been raped by a biker gang and then committed suicide in response. A gritty tale by all accounts, the film has not been released in any Western country as of this writing. Further in his career Hasebe was approached by Nikkatsu who wanted him to deliver a very youth-oriented project with some sass and featuring mega star Akiko Wada. Wada was best known as a sultry singer with a husky voice and a very imposing appearance due to her height. She remains popular today within Japan, but then, at the early stages of her career, she was a incredibly hot commodity. She wasn’t the picture of your conventional “beauty”, but she had presence and true sex appeal and she brought this to the forefront in Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss. At the time, Wada was actually managed by HoriPro, a company outside of Nikkatsu, so her involvement made the film a sort of co-production between two companies. On the subject of HoriPro’s involvement, Hasebe has stated “They handled the planning of the film rather than Nikkatsu. I think Nikkatsu was starting to have problems being able to finance the production of full-scale yakuza and action pictures.”. Hasebe was given a great deal of creative freedom with this project, despite the involvement of two firms standing behind him, which shows the amount of faith that Nikkatsu must have had in him at the time.
The Alleycat Rock/Stray Cat Rock series became a huge success and despite their not being a Toei production (the original creators of the subgenre), they are considered to be benchmark films within the pinky violence movement. This first entry in the series would prove to be rather iconic (though not nearly as popular as the third picture), with its motorcycle gang imagery and fashion staples that perfectly encapsulate the time and era as much as this genre of cinema. Hasebe had helped co-write the script under the pseudonym “Takashi Fujii” and really helped coast along the new wave of youth-oriented ‘message’ films that would help dominate the decade. This series ultimately helped launch the career of Meiko Kaji who would go on to become the figurehead of empowered females during the seventies. At the time studio films were in jeopardy and feeling the pinch from both imported American films as well as the domestic pinku eiga films which were decidedly more popular than what was currently coming out of the more mainstream studios. According to Hasebe “At the time, Joe Shishido and Akira Kobayashi were the really big stars at Nikkatsu. But Nikkatsu knew that, if they were to continue, they needed to create stars for the next generation; that’s why Meiko Kaji and Tatsuya Fuji were selected as the main stars in the Stray Cat Rock series.”. This series, unlike some of the sleazier pinky violence out there, was a far more intelligent and iconoclastic look at youth culture during the sixties and seventies. The exploitation element was there, but it was not the primary focus which, along with the fact that it was not a Nikkatsu production, brings into question its place within the pinky violence pantheon – but if you ask me, there is no question that these films earned their classification. The style is all there; the beautiful women and the attitude are dominant and echoes everything that this genre was and would become.
In direct contrast to Toei’s very popular collection of pinky violence lines, which were predicated upon the mix of action and erotica, Nikkatsu (who were on the verge of bankruptcy) eventually went into creating their romantic porno (or roman porno) line which would offer stiff competition in the market place. These films featured larger budgets and were essentially pinku films that were specifically targeted towards couples. Many Nikkatsu employees at that time jumped ship, not taking kind to the roman porno direction that the company was pressuring them into. Most notably Meiko Kaji made the jump over to Toei studios and became an even more popular star with the Female Prisoner Scorpion series. At the time, Hasebe was far more interested in making action films which appealed more to him as a viewer. In this time Hasebe continued to work, but generally kept busy in the world of television. He was given the opportunity to direct for Toei during this period, after Meiko Kaji spoke up for him, where he made Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song (1973). The film was marred by problems around every corner, with the original director of the series, Shunya Ito, claiming that the films were dead after he was being forced to make budget cuts. Toei then turned around and contradicted the director by making the film anyway. His home was with Nikkatsu, however, and it was there that he returned and directed Sukeban Deka: Dirty Mary (1974), which was more or less a female-led Dirty Harry clone. It would be Hasebe’s next several films, however, that would once again reinvigorate the director and lead him to be both celebrated as often as he was reviled.
In 1976, Hasebe actually helped to solidify yet another subgenre within the pinku film, this one called violent pink. This new form of pinku eiga, which flew under the roman porno banner, would show off the darker and most morbid faction of the subgenre and would border on the erotic grotesque. These films would ultimately show a fixation on rape and bondage, but would often retain the methodical pacing and arthouse direction that helped define pinku film in general. With Hasebe’s following films, he would define transgressive erotica and establish himself as a filmmaker that would challenge all who dare watch them. In his time working within the violent pink genre, Hasebe made a quintet of films that are not tied together by any particular theme other than rape, but are ostensibly placed together by mood and atmosphere. This series started with Rape! (1976) which stars Natsuko Yashiro as a young, virginal businesswoman who endures a horrible rape within an elevator in her apartment building. The rest of the film follows both her and her attacker, as the two ultimately wind up finding one another but under different circumstances. This first entry was successful enough for Hasebe that he continued to work within this violent pink market and finished Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) and Rape! 13th Hours (1977) back to back. Although financially successful, these films were savage in nature and truly pushed the limits of good taste. So much so, in fact, that Nikkatsu decided to cut back on the level of ultra-violence within their Roman Porno lines and assigned producer Ryoji Ito to watch over his productions so that the government wouldn’t get involved. Fortunately, Ito shared similar artistic ideals with Hasebe and the two ultimately worked well together.
Assault! Jack the Ripper and Rape! 13th Hour would ultimately be considered Hasebe’s most extreme and demented work. Assault! Jack the Ripper, the second film in this quintet, tells the story of a young chef who gives a troubled young waitress a ride home after work one night. The two ultimately pick up another young woman off the side of the road and, after she starts to threaten them, they kick her out, but accidentally run her over. When the two hide the body, they discover that the thrill of doing such a awful thing has left them aroused. What follows is a tale of selfishness and its relationship with love. The film, despite its rather lurid material and vaginal stabbings, actually proves to be an engaging and interesting character study. Rape! 13th Hour is probably his most disturbing feature and could be seen as an indictment of both Nikkatsu and Japanese cinema in general during this period of time. Hasebe would deny any such intentions, but does conclude that it is possible the writers could have felt such ideals. The general story focuses on a serial rapist named “Crimson” who takes a young gas station attendant under his wing and showing him the joys of rape. Violent and nasty, it retains a certain level of intelligence despite its harsh nature.
The final two projects within the Japanese roughie genre of violent pink would be Osou! (1978) (AKA: Attacked! or Attack!) and Raping! (1978) (AKA: Outrage! or Rampage!), which were both slightly more tame in regards to the violence, but were nearly as sordid in their levels of content. Attack! showed Hasebe working within the confines of a thriller as we follow a police woman who has endured a rape and begins to search for her attacker. The film never lets its audience off the hook and the conclusion often draws different interpretations depending on the viewer. His final film in the quintet, Raping! showcases a tale some may find ridiculous as it focuses on a continual series of rape sequences as we watch a young woman traveling to Tokyo. Considered to either be a farcical take on the entire genre or a ridiculous excuse for various rape fantasies to be enacted, the film showed the limitations of the genre and it marked a fare enough time for Hasebe to move on.
With the dawn of the eighties and the advent of VHS, Hasebe’s career would be spent working in the straight to video market and his work is incredibly difficult to track down from this period. However, Hasebe did more than enough to solidify himself amongst Japan’s greatest exploitation film directors during his prime years. A filmmaker who had peculiar ideas and liked to take chances, Yasuharu Hasebe did his own thing and wasn’t afraid to step out on a limb. A visionary filmmaker who showed a tremendous amount of talent in every field he attempted working in, it is unfortunate that more of his work isn’t readily available in the Region 1 market place. If you attempt to search out his work, though, it is there for you to discover. An alluring figure who stood tall amongst genre filmmakers of the time, Hasebe is a man whose work can never be overlooked.
For instruction and fact-checking, this review consulted Chris D.’s “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film” and “Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia: The Sex Films” by Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser.