Beautiful Target a.k.a. Beautiful Victim (XX: utsukushiki hyoteki)

Reviewed from T.P. (excerpted from his essay "BEAUTIFUL BLOOD ON YOUR LIP")

Director: Naosuke Kurosawa
Year: 1995
Running Time: 91 minutes

The Japanese crime drama “Beautiful Target” (“XX: utsukushiki hyoteki,” 1995), directed by Naosuke Kurosawa, exemplifies how a female protagonist’s self-determining actions can be turned to patriarchal purpose and the service of the male cinematic gaze.  Clues to the origins of this can be found in directorial filmographies – which in Kurosawa’s case includes “Young Lady Detectives:  Heart Beat!” (1987) in which the well-known body builder (later martial artist, action star and stunt double) Michiko Nishiwaki stars in a “pink” (soft-pornographic) film.  The cinematic vision of a female action film realized by a pink film director is obviously likely to differ from that crafted by a martial artist (such as Corey Yuen).

In “Beautiful Target,” Yoko Natsuki plays “Dr. Kyoko Mizuki,” a visually striking but dispassionate medical examiner who becomes the target of a sadistic stalker and serial killer of women.  In a disturbing sequence, “Mizuki” – who possesses not only a high status career but also classically aquiline good looks – is subjected to a horrific home invasion in which she is stripped, groped, blindfolded, bound in a humiliating position and videotaped by the assailant.  Her body and status are portrayed as highly vulnerable, while that of the male detective investigating the case is almost indestructible.  Here, the male body is nearly impervious to harm when tempered by service – as when the injured detective rises from his hospital bed after a nearly fatal hit-and-run – while the body of the male serial killer as an anonymous, looming threat is immune to female blows or even repeated stabbing!
Determined to save herself by finding the perpetrator before he strikes again, “Mizuki” teams with “Natsumi” (SHIHO), a female switchblade-wielding gang leader who has lost a girlfriend to the killer.  “Natsumi” finds “Kyoko” tied up in her apartment, and the two unlikely opposites become partners and then lovers.  Kurosawa guides the narrative through seedy bars and clubs toward a climax in which “Mizuki” tracks the killer to his lair, where he has abducted and tied up “Natsumi.”  Such narratives and scenes are characteristic of many Japanese genre films that relish the torture and humiliation of women.  “Beautiful Target” is additionally disturbing because it is actually quite well acted and manages to generate a measure of drama and character identification.  However, despite their best efforts, “Kyoko” and “Natsumi” cannot finish off the perpetrator by striking and stabbing him repeatedly.  His mysterious, cloaked body – emblematic of an all-powerful male figure – must be finally put to death by a shot fired by the miraculously recovered detective “Komiya.”  Despite her recent intimacy with “Natsumi,” “Kyoko” ultimately collapses into his arms.  In one final plot twist, there is an implication that she may have been awakened to the “pleasures” of the conduct to which she was exposed, and could now become a perpetrator of similar acts herself – representing ultimate symbolic identification with the oppressor.
Despite its status as representative of blatant exploitation genres, “Beautiful Target” also illustrates the workings of patriarchal conventions in horror action.  First, the figure of “Dr. Kyoko Mizuki” cannot protect herself, either professionally or privately at home.  She is gratuitously and painfully humiliated – her body and entire life debased and exposed to the highly invasive cinematic gaze of the perpetrator, his video camera and the audience.  Her moments of intimacy and solidarity with “Natsumi” provide further opportunities for voyeurism.  “Natsumi,” a prototypic “Final Girl,” is later herself subdued, rendered helpless and humiliated.  Indestructible males wage the real battle to destroy or save “Kyoko.”  To suggest that such portrayals of helplessness, despite effort and heroism, might convey disdain for – if not hatred of – women, in no way diminishes Yoko Natsuki’s acting performance which is committed and intense.  In brief, the problem with such films is less the immediate (but more obvious) exploitation devices of scene and plot, and more the ultimate purposes to which they are put.  “Kyoko Mizuki” invites identification as a heroic protagonist, so her failure and humiliation represent ultimate narrative betrayals.