The new Hana to hebi promises a BDSM revolution

Hana to hebi Zero

Japan produces an astounding quantity of porn (54,000 videos in 2012 alone), yet recently the attention of every kinkster in the land of the Rising Sun has been focused on one upcoming movie. While Hana to hebi Zero (lit. ‘Flower and snake 0’) – to be released on May 17th – is technically just another episode in a forty years long franchise that includes remakes, animation, books and videogames,  it may well mark a milestone to be reckoned with. But let me give you some context.

In the late 1960s the Japanese movie industry had hit a severe crisis brought on by several factors, including the growing success of foreign (Western) films. Risking bankruptcy, most illustrious studios had been forced to turn to lowbrow genre movies offering the kind of content that Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a ten ft. pole: Japanese historical drama, traditional local comedy, violence… and softcore porn, called ‘pink movies’.
With his unique flair for gritty stories with sadomasochistic undertones, the translator and language teacher Yukihiko Kuroiwa was the secret weapon of a handful of small, independent studios struggling to keep afloat. Moonlighting under a pen name, Kuroiwa wrote the scripts for many (now lost) films which managed to capture the audiences’ attention by distinguishing themselves among countless competing skin flicks. His talent wasn’t noticed just by the producers, however, but also by a rising starlet called Naomi Tani.

Tani can be roughly compared to the Japanese equivalent of Bettie Page: extremely beautiful and unusually uninhibited, she appeared in a relatively few movies before disappearing from the screens – but she became an undying erotic icon in the process, and she is still regarded as the “perfect” bondage model. She also is an actual kinkster, so as she began her career as an adult performer she became inevitably attracted by her favorite screenwriter, with whom she developed a lifelong friendship and a professional collaboration. They soon became a hot artistic couple: he created stories that were tailor-made for her, and she became a living canvas onto which to experiment all sorts of scenes. According to a famous anecdote, in the twelve years she spent as an erotic movie star she never complained of the rough treatments she had to endure before the cameras, and even went to the lengths of never going out in the sun in order to keep her skin as pale as possible, so that the rope and wax marks could be better emphasized.
Slowly becoming a household name, Tani was courted by many studios – including Nikkatsu, the oldest, largest and possibly more desperate of them all. The sheer size of the studio had it feel the market changes the worst, so as a last measure it had entered the pink films arena in style, creating its own signature genre of roman (short for ‘romantic’)  porn. This meant full blown productions which leveraged the rich technical assets at hand to weave better looking, more original and more complex stories that dwarfed any other adult studio.

The self-styled “queen of S&M” had repeatedly refused Nikkatsu’s offers. She just wasn’t interested in starring in “plain” flicks – but she was one of the hottest faces (and bodies) around, so the company eventually bowed to her condition of joining the team for domination movies only. In fact, the studio heads also had to accept another clause: the movies would have to be written by her good friend Oniroku Dan, the new name of Mr. Kuroiwa. The latter wasn’t a bad deal after all, since by then Dan had penned many relatively successful novels. The couple chose one of them as the first work for Nikkatsu: it was Hana to hebi.
Released in 1974, Flower and snake had a game-changing impact for everyone involved. The higher production values allowed by a real studio made it an incredibly popular and surprise hit, on par with Story of O in the West. Both movies popularized (roughly at the same time) the concept of erotic domination outside of the conoisseurs circles: BDSM became a common discussion topic just like it would again forty years later with 50 shades of Grey. More importantly, Hana to hebi defined a style, themes, practices and behaviors that remain at the heart of the local conception of sadomasochism to this day, whose shadow constitutes what is considered “Japanese BDSM” in the West too. The franchise, of course, did help.

In all of its countless incarnations, the story of Hana to hebi revolves around an angered/impotent/out of its luck husband who lets a sadist kidnap his gorgeous wife to offer her to a secret circle of perverts. The man thinks she will come back broken into submission and/but his problems will be solved, yet the lady survives the terrible humiliation and ends up enjoying the experience somehow. The basic elements can be mixed and matched to fit the current media obsessions (i.e. the yakuza or the national economic crisis) and mood, but this is it. Simple and formulaic. So what’s the deal about this new instalment?
Fact is, Hana to hebi Zero manages to be both a continuation and a reboot of the series. The plot is now about a policewoman investigating a torture website, but the historical characters of the series do appear anyway. Most notably, one of the three female protagonists is Noriko Hamada, a staple of this franchise, who at 48 appeals to the growing public of MILF enthusiasts in Japan. Also, preview screenings have revealed that the explicitness and perversity of some scenes are going to shock and delight modern audiences just like the original Flower and snake did in its time. Last but not least, Hana to hebi Zero should promises a quantum leap in production values in respect to whatever “mainstream” adult movie has come before. In a sense, it looks like history is going to repeat itself – now with a possible global windfall on erotic culture. I personally wouldn’t bet on it, but the “semi-safe” trailer below does show some promise. What do you think?

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