"Flower and Snake" ("Hana to Hebi") is something of a phenomena in Japan, not unlike "The Story of O" or "The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty." It was originally a series of cult novels by fetish-author Dan Oniroku, and there have been no less than ten versions filmed since the original 1974 version staring the bondage superstar Naomi Tani ("Wife to be Sacrificed"). This latest version, by horror auteur Takashi Ishii, famous as the writer of "Evil Dead Trap" and director of "Freeze Me" and "Angel Guts," is the first to tackle the story with a decent budget, and a cast of well-known actors.
Like most films of the genre, the story is just set up. A businessman finds himself owing an unpayable debt to a local ganglord, who demands the man's wife as payment. His wife, Shizuko, is a famous and beautiful tango dancer, with an immaculate dancer's body and a strong spirit. The man acquiesces, as the ganglord is over 90 years old, and he assumes he will be unable to do anything too terrible to his wife. Of course he is wrong, and the poor girl begins her trip to hell. In a carnival of fetishism, familiar to anyone who has seen "Eyes Wide Shut" or other films in this style, Shizuko is sexually tortured and exhibited to a club of like-minded individuals, while the old boss watches on TV. Eventually her strong spirit is broken.
Ishii has taken this familiar story, and attempted to make something akin to art from the degradation. The scenarios involving Shizuko are dreamlike, and she fades from one episode to another. The camera follows her hazy perceptions, while still taking a voyeurs approach, placing the viewer as one of the audiences enjoying Shizuko's descent.
Most of the success of this version of "Flower and Snake" comes from Ishii's unique vision as a director, and the power of the lead, Aya Sugimoto playing Shizuko. She is an incredibly strong lead, with a beautiful body and a powerful face. While not quite a household name, she is probably best known for playing Queen Beryl in "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon." The rest of the cast is equally strong. Renji Ishibashi ("One missed call") puts in a disturbing turn as the ganglord, and Takashi Miike regular Kenichi Endo ("Happiness of the Katakuris," "Visitor Q") is equally repulsive as the ganglord's lieutenant.
There is some concern that the Media Blaster's DVD release of "Flower and Snake" has been edited, but this isn't so. Both the Japanese release and the US release have a running time of 115 minutes, and I have seen both versions and can say that no obvious cuts have been made. The story is murky, and especially the last part of the film, where Shizuko begins to lose her perspective on time and space. For a DVD release of this genre, it is really well done, with a "Making of..." feature as well as cast interviews, with actress Sugimoto explaining why she decided to make this kind of film. If you like the genre, it is a masterpiece. If you don't, then you will probably won't like "Flower and Snake."