The Notorious Concubines

The Notorious Concubines

Kinpeibei / The Concubines

Koji Wakamatsu

Japan, 1969


Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 10 May 2006

Source Something Weird Video DVD

Japan, sometime during the 13th century: A restless wife grows tired of her rice cake-selling husband and begins pining after her well-to-do brother-in-law. When that altruistic gentleman gives her the brush off, she decides her husband has spent more than enough time on this earth and slips some poison into his wine bowl. Free to indulge in her long-repressed desires, the merry widow latches on to the first thing that glances her way—a man who just happens to be something of a local tyrant hell-bent on bilking the peasants out of their hard-earned pay. And before you can say “hot rice cakes,” she’s one of half a dozen concubines whiling away the hours in a fancy palace while her master grows fat on the toil of the poor.

Meanwhile, the gal’s would-be lover and ex-brother-in-law has joined a ragtag band of rebels, risen to the rank of leader, and dedicated his life to putting and end to the tyrant’s corruption. Day after day he sharpens his sword and his wits, informs the populace about the unfair grain prices, and dreams of taking down his sworn enemy. Once he learns that the murderess of his beloved brother is none other than the tyrant’s newest concubine, his blood-soaked dreams take on an added tenor of fury and vengeance.

Backed by such an intriguing plot, it’s a shame that The Notorious Concubines is unable to pull together a completely satisfying film. The inevitable swordfights are fun, of course, as are the numerous scenes centered on the rebel campground—full of lecherous old men, morally casual women, bawdy campfire tales, and vicious fights that break out for no discernable reason. And the storytelling style is intriguing, as we learn the bulk of the tale through an old beggar’s lips as he comforts a dying man with the yarn.

Unfortunately, far too much attention is paid to the titular concubines and their boring day-to-day existences. From gossiping about which of them might next find the tyrant’s favor, to lounging about in scanty clothing, these ladies contribute almost nothing of substance to the story. Even our featured concubine, the libidinous newcomer, does little but smile suggestively at her lord, prance around in gossamer fabrics, and drag the poor, unwilling court minstrel into bed with her. For a bevy of so-called notorious concubines, these ladies do little more with their lives than wait to be assaulted and killed by the marauding rebel band.

A bizarre film, and one which seems unsure what sort of story it ultimately wants to tell, The Notorious Concubines is still possessed of entertaining and memorable movie moments, several of which are worthy of watching two or three times. Aside from a genuinely creepy segment, featuring row upon row of decaying arms protruding from countless burial mounds, my favorite moment comes when our rice cake entrepreneur happens upon his sibling on the road. When the humble salesman sincerely wishes his brother good luck in his travels, the soon-to-be rebel leader looks down from his horse, pauses for a moment, and replies, “Thanks.” Then he rides off. As if this terse moment of mirth weren’t enough, the rice cake salesman, having wandered completely off-screen, mutters, “Hot rice cakes!” to the empty landscape. Unexpected, irrelevant, inexplicable, and magnificent.

It must also be noted that the Something Weird Video DVD of the film contains a most bizarre collection of extras that perfectly complement the The Notorious Concubines experience. In addition to a series of obscure trailers (including the wonderfully titled The Weird Lovemakers), we are treated to several Asian burlesque shorts and a hilarious sixty-six minute travelogue/memoir entitled Violated Paradise. All told these extras offer over two hours of one-of-a-kind footage that is well worth watching.

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