Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands sounds like a make-believe movie title but it actually exists. Made in 1967, this genuine head scratcher that is also known as Dutch Wife in the Desert (Koya no Dacchi waifu) has elements of two popular genres in Japanese cinema – softcore erotic films (Pinku eiga) and gangster dramas (Yakuza eiga) – but is unlikely to please fans of either due to its fragmented narrative structure and emphasis on style at the expense of delivering the expected goods (sex and violence) in a logical linear progression. In other words, it’s chaotic, rude, goofy, pretentious, misogynistic (big surprise), and unafraid to be boring or narcissistic.
Despite all of its offenses, Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands is still intriguing for its almost gleeful subversion of formulaic elements and blatant disregard for audience expectations. ISDOTW is also intentionally anti-mainstream, an aspect of the Japanese New Wave that often resulted in films which were made by the filmmakers more for themselves then anyone else. Never mind that it received a commercial release in Japan. It quickly vanished into obscurity until recently when it has popped up in retrospective screenings at The Japan Society in NYC and the Film Studies Center at the University of Chicago.
I first read about it in the early 1990s when it was programmed at Anthology Film Archives in New York. At that time, before the internet was a household utility, it was almost impossible to find out any information about the movie. As a result, the title Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands became a mythic curiosity in my mind which I knew would dissipate when I actually caught up with the film.
Much closer in spirit to other Japanese semi-experimental films of its era such as Nagisa Oshima’s Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968) and Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) which reflected the turbulent social climate of the sixties, ISDOTW has a bare outline of a plot but writer/director Atushi Yamatoya plays riffs off of it as bebop jazz musicians might interpret the melody from a classic film noir score like Miklos Rosza’s Double Indemnity. It is no surprise then that ISDOTW’s evocative, free-form score is by renowned jazz pianist/composer Yosuke Yamashita which reinforces the movie’s improvisational nature.
ISDOTW opens and closes in the same bleak, arid setting, a backwater town that is famous for its highly profitable inflatable sex doll industry. Shô (Yûichi Minato), a hitman, has arrived to do the bidding of Naka (Masayoshi Nogami), a real estate agent who is paying him to rescue his employee Sae (Noriko Tatsumi) from a gang of thugs he wants killed. Shô’s visit becomes further complicated by an encounter with a former rival, Kô (Shôhei Yamamoto), who murdered his girlfriend. Or did he?
Before Shô can rescue Sae, she is tortured, raped and killed (we see evidence of this in a crudely shot 16mm film that the kidnappers have sent to Naka as evidence). Yet there is a suspicion that the whole incident may have been staged. Shô’s investigation into the matter only raises more questions about everyone’s motives, including the shifty Naka, and leads him into traps set by Kô, which includes a seductive prostitute named Mina (Miki Watari) and a pair of clumsy assassins (Taka Ôkubo & Akaji Maro).
Nothing is as it appears to be in this twisted, dreamlike world that doesn’t differentiate between the past, present, future or whether everything is taking place in Shô’s mind. Whether by design or accident, Yamatoya’s directorial style is so self-conscious that you are always aware of the filmmaking process. The jagged editing style and the try-anything cinematography (by Yosuke Yamashita) disorient and throw the viewer off-balance. Jump cuts, out of focus shots, frantic hand-held camera movements, long static compositions, brief bursts of senseless violence and peculiar visual details such as a point of view from a dangling telephone are par for the course. Astute film buffs will also notice tiny homages and visual references to such films as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Luis Bunuel & Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, Chris Marker’s La Jetée and other movies.
Yamatoya also revels in pure oddness for effect such as a scene where gun-toting hoods burst into a room and freeze in the doorway. Instead of employing an actual freeze-frame of the shot, Yamatoya has his actors pose in awkward action figure mode but you can clearly see their bodies trembling from the physical strain.
The dialogue is another experiment in stylization. Occasionally it seems to parody the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler as when Naka confides to Shô about his violated secretary, “They gagged her with her own panties. I must have watched the reel a million times.” At other times, verbal exchanges are infantile and boastful in the manner of teenage boys dissing each other in the locker room.
All of the female characters are treated as sex objects and routinely stripped, roughed up and discarded when the men have had their way. Yet it all seems blatantly exaggerated for theatrical effect. For a pink film, it is almost tame compared to later efforts such as Wife to Be Sacrified (1974) or A Woman Called Sada Abe (1975) and features no explicit sex scenes; most of it consists of bare breasts being frantically groped and simulated gang rape by men in black hoods (a precursor to contemporary terrorist garb) punctuated with slaps, groans, moans and cries. It’s not a date movie. But if ISDOTW earns the righteous indignation of women for its dehumanizing depictions, male audiences may feel a similar hostility toward it for denying them the pleasure of a slick, fast-paced yakuza thriller or erotic pink film that delivers ample amounts of action, sex and violence. Most of the major players are gangster stereotypes, pathetic in the extreme, who exist to be killed or humiliated in some fashion. And the total disregard for any sort of character development results in a general apathy toward everyone. Still, the mean-spirited tone seems to reflect Yamatoya’s desire to provoke or play with the viewer’s responses. There are even playful moments when he turns a bloody encounter into slapstick comedy such as a scene where a knife-throwing killer embeds a few foreheads with his weapon of choice, none of it realistic or an impressive example of special effects make-up.
Yamatoya is better known as a screenwriter than a director in the U.S. Among his more popular titles are Blue Film: Estimation (1968), Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (1970), Naked Seven (1972), Sweet Scent of Eros (1973) and the anime features Mystery of Mamo (1978) and Locke the Superman (1984). He is also one of the uncredited writers on Seijun Suzuki’s outré yakuza masterpiece, Branded to Kill (1967), which was hated by the studio executives at Nikkatsu who produced and released it; the film was quickly withdrawn after its initial release but eventually garnered a massive international cult following. Other than ISDOTW, Yamatoya’s other three directorial efforts include Season of Betrayal (1966), the intriguingly titled The Pistol That Sprouted Hair (1968) and Trap of Lust (1974).
As for the featured cast of ISDOTW, Yuichi Minato as Shô is probably the most familiar face, having appeared in Madame O (1967), Fudoh: The New Generation (1996) and The Bird People in China (1998), films which are well known among connoisseurs of Japanese cinema.
If you have read this far, you can probably tell whether ISDOTW is your cup of poison sake or not. I can only recommend it to movie addicts interested in exploring the outer fringes of late sixties Japanese cinema with no expectations of being entertained in any conventional sense. I admit a grudging admiration for it as an amateur cinema anthropologist and some scenes continue to resurface in my memory like fragments of some half-remembered dream…or nightmare. The scene of Shô cutting a tree in two with his rapid-fire revolver, a revenge fantasy where Shô has buried arch nemesis Kô up to his neck in sand, a shot of ants teeming over Shô’s face and, most haunting of all, a curious close-up of Shô kissing an inflatable sex doll which cuts away to a fast pan over cubicle after cubicle of sex dolls in various arranged positions awaiting customers, all of them played by actresses pretending to be mannequins.
Don’t expect Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (aka Dutch Wife in the Desert) to show up as a Criterion release anytime soon. It might even be too obscure or off-the-radar for DVD/Blu-Ray pickup by Synapse Films, Mondo Macabro or Cult Epics. But you might be able to still purchase a copy of it from European Trash Cinema or some other low profile source.
Other links of interest: