Lady Snowblood herself, Meiko Kaji, is the obvious poster vixen for Japan Society’s 13-film pageant of bad girls. Vengeance is hers, and a nagging necessity what with all the imprisoning, killing, and raping that erupt in this show of ’60s and ’70s sometimes-shock cinema. But beyond Kaji’s leaping-stabbing-fighting action, it’s all about the fierce glare that comes before it, as in the literally spectacular classic Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), which starts with a silent Kaji chained in jail, before fleeing with backstabbing lifers through Planet of the Apes moonscapes and wrangling with deep-blue guards and horndog tourists.
Kaji is the copy-ready deviant of the series, but Japan Society has seized the opportunity for layered programming, even if every film isn’t killer. Besides spotlighting three actresses, “Mad, Bad . . . & Dangerous to Know” is also a tribute to the ruthlessly insistent filmmaker Yasuzo Masumura, a revealing high-low study in shame entertainment, and a never-mind-the-plot Scope showcase.
A frequent collaborator of Masumura (who inspired Japanese greats Nagisa Ôshima and Shohei Imamura), the handsome, quietly tenacious Ayako Wakao navigates the director’s morally treacherous worlds without a set persona. In the World War II horror story Red Angel (1966), it’s actually the world that’s dangerous to know: Wakao, a nurse at a military hospital swarming with sex-starved amputees, is infatuated with a morphine-addicted surgeon. In deep-space shots filled with bodies (which early on obscure the horizon), she makes her character a relatable human enigma rather than a societal cliché. In Seisaku’s Wife (1965), she plays a former mistress turned village war hero’s lover, turning the bafflingly nasty tale of ostracism into something even rawer and more fatalistic. The villagers raucously banzai their soldiers (here back from the Russo-Japanese War), but returning hero Seisaku (who whacks a morning work bell with sexual fervor) risks becoming an outcast in courting one.
The prolific Wakao (who appeared as a lady of the evening in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame) puts on even more bad-girl theatrics in the sweatily colorful 1966 series opener Tattoo, another title that opens on a woman bound. A rich pawnowner’s daughter (Wakao) harangues a meek servant into running away with her, but ends up sold into geisha service. Soon, she’s a lusty manipulator, goading men with chummy smacks on the shoulder—all in semi-mystical obedience to the spider tat scritch-scritch-scratched in agonizing close-up on her back by an obsessive body artist.
Artier forms of titillation come from director Kiju Yoshida’s work with Shochiku Co. star turned producer Mariko Okada (they would ultimately become husband-and-wife creative partners). In films here, including Impasse and the rare Woman of the Lake, and, later, in the (not-screening) Eros Plus Massacre, the immaculately pretty Okada plays a headless woman, slotted into constantly reframed existentia-scapes. In The Affair (1967), shot in painstakingly lovely black-and-white, her frustrated housewife wallows ostentatiously in her chosen taboo of adulterous slumming. “I’m the lowest of women,” she whines, in scenes just as tactically conceived as Snowblood‘s beatdowns (also screening), but kind of less satisfying. You almost just want her to pick up some scissors and express herself Kaji-style.