Directing a Japanese war film in 1960 would be no small feat. Anyone in the audience older than 15 years of age would have witnessed the actual defeat of Japan following WW2, an experience few would be interested in re-living. But director Onada Yoshiki, with over 115 films already under his belt, attempts this anyway with Female Slave Ship. The intent is clear: Offer the audience a tale of Japanese heroics and dignity despite looming defeat. And throw in some half-dressed babes and pirates for good measure!
The film was produced for Shin Toho Studios, which was still a powerhouse in the early 1960s. This shows through in the films rather ambitious attempt to depict conditions on the high seas in the midst of WW2. Though some stock footage of the war is used in the opening scenes to remind the audience of the film’s very stark setting, it pulls out all the stops when it later effectively utilizes special effects (miniature planes and boats) and real locations in several of the sea-faring scenes and the craggy-rocked pirate hideout. All in all the film is indeed “ambitious”, apparently was given a decent budget from the studio, and does a fairly effective job of pulling off what it sets out to accomplish.
Looking back, the cast contains some major talent which will go on to become very well-known stars in a variety of genres. The lead character Sugawa is played by Bunta Sugawara who will later become a mainstay in Japanese yakuza films. The pirate captain is played by Tetsuro Tanba, a face widely familiar in contemporary Japanese film up to his death in 2006. In all, Tanba starred in over 230 films many of which are cult yakuza classics. And Yoko Mihara, who plays the bad girl here, can be found in nearly all of the classic “pinky violence” films of the 1970s. (Almost all the Scorpion, Girl Boss, and Red Zero films, Sex and Fury, School of the Holy Beast, etc.)
Despite his great budgets, ambitions and cast, however, very few if any of director Onada’s 160 films trickled over the West. From what I can tell, Female Slave Ship may be the exception. It was distributed in the West via Eclipse films for a few years but soon fell out of print where it remains today.
I’ve seen this film referred to as an “exploitation” flick, but it certainly is not one. Admittedly, it uses the controversial notion of female slaves to bolster attention, but does not enter into anything resembling a “chicks in chains” or pink film. There is no nudity here, nor graphic violence other than a plethora of back-hand slaps. This film is primarily about Japanese dignity in a time when national humiliation is looming. It is in essence a film about noble good versus corrupted evil. And by “evil” is here meant not only the type of scoundrel which kidnaps and enslaves women, but also and foremost the type of traitor which would sell military secrets to the highest (foreign) bidder, thereby endangering the Japanese nation as a whole. The protagonist Sugawa is tasked with defeating both these evils and this film focuses on his difficulty and diligence in accomplishing this.