School Of The Holy Beast

School Of The Holy Beast


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

As School of the Holy Beast opens, a voguishly dressed young woman watches an ice hockey game, loiters at a fountain, goes to the cinema, admires jewellery in a shop window, and then allows herself to be taken off on her motorbike by a handsome male stranger, with whom she then walks the Tokyo streets, enjoys a western-style afternoon tea and an evening at a funfair, before going back to his place for sex. So Maya (Yumi Takigawa) seems every bit the carefree, liberated woman of the Seventies, which is why her words to Kenta (Hayato Tani) the following morning are so surprising: "I've enjoyed myself as much as I can for the last time. Now I have to say goodbye."

Maya, you see, is about to enter the Saint Clore Abbey where, as a novice nun, she will have to put behind her all sex and worldly pleasures. Except that the convent in fact drips with all manner of unspeakable vices, and Maya is not so much a devout convert as an infiltrator (à la Shock Corridor), out to unearth past secrets and wreak an awful vengeance. So although School of the Holy Beast may feature cloisters, chapels and habits aplenty - and even ends with a Christmas miracle (of sorts) - don't expect anything like The Nun's Story or The Sound of Music here – for with its 'pink' softcore, lesbianism, whippings, rape, torture and murder, Norifumi Suzuki's film is pure nunsploitation.

And nunspolitation that achieves new depths of blasphemous depravity. The presentation of nuns as sex-starved sadomasochists and of priests as twisted hypocrites comes as standard with this particular subgenre, but here the outrages extend to acts not just of sex but of incest, to perverted rites and to the destruction of religious images (including one memorable scene where a nun urinates at length on an icon of Jesus).

So when it comes to offending Christian sensibilities, Suzuki is right up there with Luis Buñuel in pulling no punches – not that any self-respecting Catholic should be seeking out an 18-certificate film whose title includes the phrase 'holy beast' in the first place.

For the rest of us, however, School of the Holy Beast offers an entirely different sort of guilty pleasure. Nunsploitation has a long (if hardly venerable) history as a subgenre, playing on viewers' suspicions that holy exclusivity may merely be a cloak for altogether more human impulses, while at the same time appealing to a voyeuristic sense of curiosity, an iconoclastic rebelliousness, as well, of course, as a fetish for women in - and then out of - uniform. Yet even within these generic parameters, three things make Suzuki's film a genuine oddity well worth tracking down, if difficult to pin down.

Firstly, there is the fact that it is a Japanese production at all. Christianity has had a presence in Japan since the first Western missionaries arrived centuries ago, but it has never played a very prominent rôle in Japanese culture, so that Suzuki's brand of nunsploitation, unhinged from its usual European context, loses much of the subgenre's particularised resonances, while gaining something else.

For to its intended audience, whose interest in the details of Catholicism would be limited, the cloistered community of Saint Clore's instead comes to reflect the more insular, repressive and patriarchal aspects of Japan itself, while Maya is a representative of Japan's rebellious youth, still struggling to be reconciled to the terrible sins and horrific suffering of the previous generation.

It is no coincidence that Maya's principal antagonist, Father Kakinuma (Fumio Watanabe), still bears all over his body the hideous scars from the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, even as he continues to perpetrate atrocities of his own. The complexity of Kakinuma's character – a father in every sense of the word, a thorough hypocrite, a pitiable victim, a rapist, and, in his own peculiar way, a man truly in search of God – crystallises the second aspect of the film's unique strangeness within the nunsploitation genre: its disorienting unevenness of tone.

One minute School of the Holy Beast is titillating viewers with light porn, the next it is staging theological debates about the nature of faith and the problem of evil. One scene, in which Maya helps Kenta and a friend sneak into the Abbey disguised as nuns to help one of the horny abbesses "go to heaven quickly", is played for laughs, while another, in which Kakinuma wonders aloud whether God can exist amidst the horrors of Nagasaki and Auschwitz, is in deadly earnest. It makes for a heady mix – too sexy to be serious, yet too serious to be sexy, and too grotesque (and, let's face it, unpardonably silly) to be either. You may well find yourself as morally confounded as Kakinuma himself.

Last but not least, there is the film's unbelievably high aesthetic standards. School of the Holy Beast may be trash, but it looks like pure gold. The sets and costumes are beautiful, the lighting masterful and the framing exquisite. If it were not for the lurid subject matter, you might imagine you were watching the most sublime of arthouse fare. Indeed, in the whole nunsploitation subgenre, only Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1977) comes close to the visual heights attained here. It is almost as though Suzuki is defying viewers not to be seduced into his cloistered world of sex and sadism, where the divine is never far removed from the mundane, and where low sinners play with angels. The effect is an unsettling one, making the film far more memorable than it ought to be.

Reviewed on: 31 Oct 2006
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A celebration of sadomasochism and other painful pleasures in a naughty nunnery.
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Angus Wolfe Murray **1/2

Director: Norifumi Suzuki

Writer: Norifumi Suzuki, Masahiro Kakefuda

Starring: Yumi Takigawa, Emiko Yamauichi, Yayoi Watanabe, Ryouko Ima, Harumi Tatima, Yuuko Oribe, Emi Shiro

Year: 1974

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


Wild Japan 2006

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