So I’ve been watching my box set of Hanzo the Razor. I got it back in 2007 I think. Somehow won a competition on an anime forum. It was weird and surprising; I think I was entered automatically by joining it. Either way, I was given this, watched it, and have only just watched it all again.
There are three movies. Sword of Justice. The Snare. Who’s Got the Gold?
They follow back to back, with the events of the earlier ones showing up later on. For example, Hanzo gets a scar on his face in the second and still has it in the third. The movies all deal with him, as a police officer in Tokyo under the Tokugawa Shogunate, fighting corruption in the highest levels. Rather than watching him fight the scum and downtrodden, he uncovers plots by people in power. He openly detests rank. Each film is an individual thing, with only Hanzo, his chief and his two sidekicks reoccurring, but they do fit together very easily. Same themes, same concepts.
You might be thinking: wow, he sounds like a non-nonsense cop, taking risks and doing what’s right. He sounds like one rough, tough mother. Bit like Shaft!
Well that’s pretty much what Hanzo is. The Japanese Shaft. The samurai version. Complete with funky 70s music. Yeah, that’s not a joke. It has a soundtrack a blaxploitation film would enjoy.
That’s what I want to talk about, rather than the movies themselves. The plots are okay, the acting fine. I particularly enjoyed the police chief’s comedic antics. But I just have to mention what an odd experience it is watching these movies. It feels so wrong at first but you kind of get into it. It seems such an odd blend, forced together just so Japanese cinema can latch onto what was currently cool. But, to be fair, Hanzo is still a samurai movie at heart. He feels just like so many others I have seen – strong and stern, but giving a damn about those less fortunate than him. This isn’t a carbon copy of Shaft.
Of course, when talking about Hanzo we have to mention one thing in particular. One big thing. Our hero has a rather large appendage, which others talk about and we catch odd, distorted glimpses of. We also see him honing it. He beats it with a stick and then thrusts it into a straw container of rice. You see, he uses it in interrogations of women to get the truth from them, so he needs to work it over. He is not only a renowned swordsman but famous for his effective member.
So that’s where the most uncomfortable aspect lies. Obviously the film doesn’t depict it as such, and the women involved are criminals or at least helping them, and he knows this. He also tortures men, at least this is stated in the films but never seen. He does, however, go through torture himself to understand what it does. This is the underlying premise. He knows the pain and its effect so finds sexual interrogation of women to be the better path. In one film he does torture a priestess who was selling girls to rich men, but then changes course. To paraphrase Hanzo’s words to her, she experienced hell, then she saw heaven.
But dress it up all you like, our hero essentially rapes women. Yes, they love it. They beg him not to stop and so confess all, and he treats them well and protects them afterward. But it is that typical, tired concept of the damsel falling for the rogue, despite – or because – of his rough treatment. I don’t outright condemn it because it was made in a time when this was a common idea and because it portrays it in a way that explains, almost justifies, what is done. Hanzo is certainly not a bad man and repeatedly protects the weak against the strong. But it is really uncomfortable watching him ‘have sex’ with them. Not least because they are often tied up, due to having been arrested.
So these films are very much products of their time. Our hero is a real macho type, who can love women physically and also care for them, and yet doesn’t become bound to any of them. He can defeat those who do wrong, either by killing them or exposing them to justice. He is meant to be an anti-hero, and yet that sexual edge is something I could really do without. Watching a woman bounce up and down on his lap while bound in a net does not create a romantic scene, no matter how much light music you play over it. It is a 70s exploitation movie and then some.
One thing I will add in defence of Hanzo. When he arrests the priestess, she is overseeing a girl in the hands of a man who has paid for her. This girl is drugged and the man has her bound while standing, then beats her bloody. Hanzo bursts in and takes over. He then forces the man to grab a pillar and beats him with the same stick. In another movie, he surrenders to a group of killers to save a lowly maid, who is held hostage by them. He values women and hates seeing them mistreated. There is a reason he does what he does, to how he does it. Still, that doesn’t change what he does. It is non-consensual sex, justified by the women’s enjoyment.
So, if you want to know what a more kinky, Japanese version of Shaft would be, check out Hanzo. I won’t pretend that the movies are that great. I find the action a bit slow and clunky. Some obvious edits. I’m pretty sure there is a sense of awareness about how over the top it is at times, but it is hard to tell. Hanzo being buried in a graveyard so he can sneak into a temple is fine. The fact he is dressed up in funeral robes is either very funny or bizarre. Either way, Hanzo the Razor’s trilogy is a decent set of samurai movies, mixing in some funky tunes and outdated eroticism. I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch them again. They’re not in the same class as Lone Wolf and Cub, despite being made by the same company. But they are the type of movies that, having watched again, I felt the need to talk about them.