The Daiei Studio in Japan could in many ways be likened to the classic headlining studios of early Hollywood. As well as thriving in the post-war years, it gave birth to many of the works of Akira Kurosawa, as well as countless other releases right up till it’s ostensible closure in the early ’70s. Amongst the myriad films that came from the Daiei stable is the new Arrow release, Irezumi.

Irezumi is a horror thriller based very loosely on the short story, Shisei, by legendary Japanese writer, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. While the original tale concerned itself solely with the masochistic obsession of master tattoo artist, Seikichi, the film expands this into a vengeful story of a wronged pair of young lovers. When Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) and Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa) elope together in secret, they are swindled and betrayed by unscrupulous tavern owner, who tries to have Shinsuke murdered, and sells his new bride into sex slavery in a Geisha house. To mark Otsuya as a Geisha, the brothel owner, Tobukei (Asao Uchida) hires Seikichi (Gaku Yamamoto) to tattoo her. But in his captivation at her beauty and porcelain-white skin, he inks a huge demon-spider on her back which brings forth from Otsuya an evil vengeful hunger, leading her to ruin the lives of the men who wronged her.

It’s a simple enough story of betrayal and vengeance, made even more so by the clear leanings toward Kabuki theatre and a script that has little time for subtext. Indeed, if there is one aspect that may confound Western audiences with Irezumi, it’s the straightforwardness in the dialogue, where every character more or less overtly states their every thought and feeling in each scene, rather than leave anything up to interpretation. This, combined with the deliberately messy, overlong, and martially inept fight scenes, give a sense more of high camp than seriousness. In that regard, Irezumi has the feel more of a Hammer Horror film than the more serious films of Masumara’s better known contemporaries in mid-20th century Japanese cinema.

The story itself plays out with a fascination that never quite manages to overwhelm the basicness of the premise, nor the facile simplicity of the Kabuki style the film deliberately draws from. Of the cast, the real winner is Wakao, who plays out the transformation from spoiled shopkeeper’s daughter, to vindictive femme fatale with a measured ease. The rest of the actors have less to work with. Hasegawa has little to do other than cower and look worried, and Yamamoto is reduced to little more, after his initial tattooing sequence, than staring glumly with dead eyes at the ever ensuing chaos. Yet, the film is captured in such staggering beauty that it’s often amazing to realise that this is a film shot entirely on a studio lot. The cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa, better known for his work on Rashomon, Yojimbo, and many Zatoichi films, is flawless, and this remaster of the original celluloid draws it out to crisp perfection.

It’s a fascinating curio of a film, and one that connoisseurs of Japanese cinema will want to seek out, in this first major Western release of the film. Hopefully it will mark a renewed interest in the work of Masumura, and while not his best work, certainly this stands out as a fascinating entry point.

Available on Blu-ray now