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July 27, 2006

DVD Journal: "School of the Holy Beast"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the reasons that becoming a movie buff is appealing is that it's so easy. Especially these DVD days, watching movies doesn't involve the hard work of plowing through books, let alone making pilgrimages to museums or concert halls. Another appealing factor is that movie history is finite. With an artform like music: Well, who knows where it starts and ends? But movies have only been around for a little over a hundred years. It's a manageable field; it can be done. A couple of years of intense movie-watching enhanced by wrestles with a dozen-ish books of history and criticism, and you emerge a fully certified cinephile.

Yet even an artform as recent as movie history has its oddball nooks and crannies, and even as longterm a moviebuff as I am can still encounter the unexpected -- even an entirely unfamiliar genre. The other night, tipped-off by a young friend who loves stylish movie schlock above all things, the Wife (also a longterm moviebuff -- talk about a marriage made in heaven!) and I watched Norifumi Suzuki's 1974 "School of the Holy Beast." (Amazon, Netflix.) Together The Wife and I have put in over 60 years of regular filmgoing, yet "School of the Holy Beast" was an entirely new one on us: our very first exposure to a trash genre known as "nunsploitation."


As the name suggests, nunsploitation films focus -- in (it's hoped and expected) reprehensible ways -- on convents, novices, mothers superior, crucifixes, wimples, spiritual agonies ... corruption ... lesbianism ... flagellations ... horny priests ... pits of hell ... Yeah, baby! Gotta love those oversexed, exhibitionistic, and self-torturing Catholics. Where would movies be without 'em?

Given my near-total inexperience with the genre, I'll refrain from generalizing any more about it. The curious can find out more here and here.

"School of the Holy Beast" is cherished by nunsploitation aficionados -- ain't it great that such a thing as a "nunsploitation aficionado" exists? -- as one of the most extreme examples of the genre ever, and The Wife and I had a wonderful time watching it. Mainly we were experiencing camp/schlock bliss: The movie is nothing if not a straightfaced, overheated, peculiar, unselfconsciously zany piece of outrageousness. Its story involves a swingin' 1970s chick who enters a convent in order to discover the secret of her background. Nasty secrets are unearthed, believe you me. Part of the film's zaniness is a function of the 1970s: the fashions, the hairstyles, the attitudes ... The zooms, the lighting, the jumpcuts ... Is there a piece of '70s exploitation cinema that doesn't make you exclaim, "Hey, I bet Tarantino was ripping this off when he made 'Kill Bill'!"

Another contributor to the zaniness is the film's Japanese-ness. The Wife and I stared at the Sony thinking, "A Japanese convent? A Japanese mother superior? What can Catholicism mean to the Japanese?" It turns out that there was a fairly successful Catholic movement in Japan beginning back in the 1500s, with Nagasaki the setting for a number of "Great Martyrdoms."

Still, part of what's irresistable about "School of the Holy Beast" is the way it uses Catholicism as nothing but a pretext for a lot of kinky Japanese eroticism. Did the filmmakers know they were being blasphemous? Do the Japanese even have a conception of blasphemy? In any case: Boy, the Japanese sure do love to watch women whimper and gasp, be tied up and make agonized faces; they like watching women tortured. And are they ever good at capturing and portraying the way turned-on women go all salty, moist, plump, and pulsing. The Wife (an even bigger fan of Japanese art than I am) likes to say of Japanese artists, "They make their women look like seaweed."

The Japanese, eh? Their love of what we think of as kitsch (and which we tend to enjoy ironically) is so straightforward that it's often hard to know if and/or when their art is intended as camp. (There comes a moment when you say to yourself, "But does it matter?" ...) Do the Japanese have any idea what irony is? Are they completely clueless -- or are they centuries ahead of the rest of us?


But The Wife and I, watching the film, were experiencing a fair amount of other kinds of bliss too. The movie wasn't just an is-it-campy-or-not hoot. Although it was made as Toei Studio's first entry in what was known in Japan as the "erotic grotesque" genre -- although it was explicitly intended as exploitation -- "School of the Holy Beast" is occasionally genuinely beautiful (in a superstylized, negative-spacey kind of way): those habits ... those cloisters ... those actresses ... that exquisite framing ...

The film is also, occasionally, genuinely intense. Much of this intensity is thanks to the lead actress, Yumi Takigawa. The disc's supplementary material includes a present-day interview with the actress, and it doen't come as a surprise to learn that "School of the Holy Beast" was her first movie performance; that she had no idea what kind of film she was appearing in; that she fought the director yet gave it her all; and that -- although the film helped her become a star -- she never again made a similarly tacky film. She's clearly embarrassed by "School of the Holy Beast," and she expresses confusion that anyone should want to revive it. There was something "real" about her presence in the film, in other words. A gorgeous, confused young tyro among pros giving expert and far-out performances, Yumi Takigawa -- intentionally or not (another reason film buffs love the movies) -- added something raw and alive to the mix.

The film's highlight is a slow-motion scene when the heroine -- helpless and bound -- is beaten by vengeful nuns wielding bouquets of roses as instruments of punishment. Thorns, blood, petals, ecstasy ... It's a genuinely astounding and audacious (if also ludicrous) scene: God, sex, beauty, redemption, pain, and transformation merge hallucinogenically. It's religious art and it's pornography, wrapped up together in a B-movie package. The Wife and I will be watching more nunsploitation, that's for sure, as well as searching out more of the work of Norifumi Suzuki. Our young schlock-movie buddy informs us that this Suzuki is another doozy.

I wrote here about Jess Franco, another talented exploitation filmmaker whose work I sometimes adore. I wrote here about Seijun Suzuki, who not only shares a last name with Norifumi Suzuki but whose filmmaking style (hyperbolic, near-abstract pop-schlock) isn't completely dissimilar.



posted by Michael at July 27, 2006


Oh, come on, Michael! This is just recycled naughty French postcards. You've read "The Story of O" which is pretty much the same thing without the Catholicism.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 27, 2006 2:51 PM

P. Mary -- I think you may be missing the trash-sexploitation gene!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2006 3:03 PM

Michael, some things are culture.

Or maybe gender. Did you get all excited about "Mandingo," esp. when Massa boiled the big stud to death in a giant pot?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 27, 2006 4:10 PM

Mary -- What is it about this kind of material (and/or about this kind of approach to this kind of material) that ... I don't know, sets you off or something? Many people don't have trouble enjoying trashy and trashy/sexy movies. But it brings out a surprising side of you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2006 5:20 PM

It's not so much that I disapprove of the genre per se -- I mean, I'm not coming from a censorship mode. I guess it's two things: one is that I would really rather sink into the illusion of the movie than sit there and mock it (even though it might be richly mock-able) and the other is the reverse: that some people are so entranced by trashy/sexy movies that they try to duplicate them in real life, or maybe just see their own trashy/sexy lives as justified because there are movies like that.

I had a conversation with an acquaintance about his family's fascination with Bollywood spectacles, which they love to mock. One of their practices is to turn off the sound and assign the parts to family members who try to substitute their own wit for the dialogue. I suppose it might be fun, but I find it a little -- patronizing? Belittling? Other-making? This guy wants me to explain Native American Indians to him, but his basic assumption is that they are not quite human -- just illusions whose lives are unaccountable. For instance, he assured me that the Blackfeet never named the mountains (as though they had no concept "mountain") and one can tell this by looking on the map, where every name is English.

I don't like horror movies either, which upset a horror film writer whose speech I skipped at a conference last year. I'm sure they're fun to mock as well.

Call me over-idealistic. Why are you surprised? What led you to think I would enjoy a Japanese/Catholic sexy/trashy exploitation film or be surprised that such films exist?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 28, 2006 6:59 AM

We all have our strange tastes and preferences. I'm just surprised that you seem irked by this one. You don't generally seem like someone who's often bothered by odd, flossy, or lowdown pleasures.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 28, 2006 11:25 AM

If you're into Japanese exploitation films, try "Birds of Prey." I guess it would qualify as teacher-ploitation. One suspects that every vocation that traditionally employs young women has probably got its own exploitation genre in Japan.

I guess what astounded me about "Birds of Prey" was the production values, for want of a better term. The cinematography (lighting, camera-work, mis-en-scene) was absolutely professional, in fact, better than the average Hollywood movie. Also the "star" actress was actually delivering a performance. There were a fairly consistent and even thoughtful set of nature symbols utilized throughout the film.

These crazy Japanese, what can a Westerner make of them?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 28, 2006 12:18 PM

Ordinarily I guess I'd just wave sexpliotation on by. But when it mixes with out-group and religious cliches, it seems to me very close to the whole thing about how Jews drink the blood of Xian babies (or babes) on Friday nights. I mean, it feeds into rot like erotic lynching of black men. Forbiddenness of any kind seems to fan the flames, which is part of the reason I oppose censorship. I mean, part of the reason that people can get so excited over the idea that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife and etc. is simply that they don't know the basic Biblical history that any decent religion department can provide, and the reason they don't know it is that minister's don't preach what they've learned for fear of losing their pulpit. (Or else they're in a tradition that depends on personal inspiration without inquiring into its justification.) The Book of Judas and the Book of Thomas are not hidden, forbidden documents. Scholars work with them all the time.

Convents, harems, etc. always get a certain kind of imagination going. Now "teacher-ploitation" sounds like something I could get into. Certainly I've known a few teachers who were birds of prey.

So, Michael, what do you think about the new "Miami Vice" movie -- is it basically well-produced sexploitation? I notice the woman is Asian this time -- still no Indian on board, though Seminole imagery and mythology is very powerful.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on July 28, 2006 12:54 PM

I'll have nun of that.

But look no farther for a neon keyboard, naked dancing screen names, an optical-mouse-shaped pool that glows red, a sidebar where aphrodisiacal potions are lined up, and some naughty comments. All set for the first blogsploitation movie. Call my agent when the time is ripe.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 28, 2006 1:29 PM

A word substitution experiment: "As the name suggests, Jewsploitation films focus -- in (it's hoped and expected) reprehensible ways -- on yeshivas, novices, kvetching mothers, shofars, tallitot, spiritual agonies ... corruption ... lesbianism ... rending garments ... horny rabbis ... pits of Sheol ... Yeah, baby! Gotta love those oversexed, exhibitionistic, and self-torturing Jews. Where would movies be without 'em?"

Posted by: William O'Terry on August 1, 2006 5:53 AM

William -- I'll suggest a word-substitution game right back at ya: try substituting "a sense of humor" for "over-earnest." Look, who do you think most of the fans of the nunsploitation genre are? Hint: it begins with a "C," and they like nun jokes a lot.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 2, 2006 2:12 PM

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