The setting is Tokyo, 1923. Lady Minako (Junko Miyashita) is a bored upper-class aristocrat who spends her spare time meeting up with men for sex. We are introduced to her when she arrives for a strange tryst with a man in full clown costume (Aoi Nakajima, one of the main actors in Nagisa Oshima's AI NO CORRIDA (1976, 'In the Realm of the Senses')). She is ferried back and forth between these meetings by Hiruta, her chauffeur (Toshihiko Oda). Each time that she meets with one of her men, she is watched from above through a hole in the ceiling by a strange man (Renji Ishibashi). We are introduced to the other inhabitants of the house; a serving girl, an artist, a vicar, and Lady Minako's husband. Various events take place, including the lecherous vicar convincing the serving girl that she needs to confess, whilst feeling her up, a woman fondling herself whilst dressed in an animal skin ("animals are better than men" she announces), and Lady Minako strangling the clown between her legs, all observed by the watcher above.
In the strangest scenes, the chauffeur confesses to Lady Minako that he is "jealous of [her] chair", describing how he had it specially made for her, and commenting on the fact that it is always warm. Later, she sits in the chair pleasuring herself, when the chair seemingly begins to speak - the chauffeur apparently gets into the chair somehow for these occasions!
Events come to a head as the police close in, and more characters are done away with. Just when things seem to be reaching a conclusion, a huge earthquake hits Tokyo and archive footage is shown of the devastating aftermath. The film ends with a strange scene, in which the serving girl, apparently the only survivor in the immediate area surrounding the house, pumps frantically at the water pump, only for blood to come gushing forth.
This bizarre Japanese oddity was one of a series of films produced by the legendary Nikkatsu studio during the 1970's and presented under the banner "Psycho Killer Showcase". It was based upon a story by the celebrated Japanese author who wrote under the pseudonym of Edogawa Rampo (say it out loud quickly and you'll get it), although to be strictly accurate it actually incorporates an idea from another of his stories too ("The Human Chair", a film of which was made in 1997). Various films have been based on his stories over the years, the best known being Kinji Fukasaku's BLACK LIZARD (1968), Yasuzo Masumura's MOJU – THE BLIND BEAST (1969), Shinya Tsukamoto's GEMINI (1999) and Teruo Ishii's insane BLIND BEAST Vs THE DWARF (2001).
The film was a big hit at the time of its release, and was regarded as being one of the few "roman-pornos" to succeed at being both erotic and artistic. The director, Noboru Tanaka, had been churning out pinku eiga for Nikkatsu since 1972, and his previous film, A WOMAN CALLED ABE SADA (1975, and based upon the same events as Oshima's better known AI NO CORRIDA of the following year), had also been a big success. None of his other films are well known in the West.
I must admit that I found WATCHER to be a little bit of a bore – what may have seemed decadent and exciting in the mid 70's doesn't necessarily still feel the same way today, and there's really not much of a story at the heart of the film. If you compare this film to other Nikkatsu offerings from the late 70's, such as Norifumi Suzuki's infamous BEAUTIFUL GIRL HUNTER (1979) or Yasuharu Hasebe's "rape" tetraology (1976-78), then it really isn't anything like as shocking, or as compelling for that matter.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is that is represents one of Renji Ishibashi's earliest starring roles. Ishibashi has appeared in a great many films since the mid-60's, but has recently become one of the best known faces in Japanese cinema here in the West, thanks to roles in many Takashi Miike films, as well as other recent high profile films such as SPELLBOUND (1999, Masato Harada), THE BLACK HOUSE (1999, Yoshimitsu Morita), CROSS FIRE (2000, Shusuke Kaneko) and ALIVE (2002, Ryuhei Kitamura). He's very good in WATCHER, as is Tanaka regular Junko Miyashita in the role of Lady Minako. There are some good scenes, such as the ones involving the chair, but many of the "erotic" scenes don't really work, and the ending seems tacked on and ill-fitting, though I guess it could be argued that it represents the ending of an era, as well as a punishment from God for the main characters' decadence.
Both this film and A WOMAN CALLED ABE SADA are available on DVD thanks to Pagan Films, but the DVD is a strictly bare-bones affair, with no extra features and a transfer presumably taken from the same master as the earlier VHS release, and hence non-anamorphic. Really, non-anamorphic DVD transfers were unacceptable even a couple of years ago, but that's the price you pay for the chance to see neglected films like this on DVD.
WATCHER IN THE ATTIC was remade in 1994 by Akio Jissoji, and the resulting film was credited with being one of the first films to break down the barriers with regards to the showing of full frontal nudity in Japanese cinema.