Shogun’s Joy of Torture (1968) by Teruo Ishii

Three tales of sin, shame, and brutal punishments are brought together in Teruo Ishii’s historical ero-guro drama. The first story concerns Mitsu (Masumi Tachibana) and her brother Shinzo (Teruo Yoshida) who is suffering from an illness. Mitsu is sexually harrassed and assaulted by her brother’s boss in order to pay the doctor’s bills. However, Mitsu’s love for her brother, and their incestuous relationship, leads to both suffering a terrible fate. This first story touches on one of humanities greatest taboos: incest; and the creatively horrific punishment that it incurs in feudal Japan.

The second story, relating an illicit affair between an abbess, Reiho (Yukie Kagawa) and a monk, Shunkai (Shinichiro Hayashi), picks up the thematic thread of the first, of forbidden love, societal taboos, and notions of shame and sin associated with sex. This story also draws in a religious element, with the breaking of their vows making their illicit affair even more taboo. The al fresco sex, in a field of wild flowers, or beneath a crashing waterfall, again draws out ideas of strict man-made laws restraining natural urges; the contrast between lust as a human drive and as a religious sin. Sin in particular is a societal construct that is often at odds with human desire. The tortures in this section are more flinch-inducing than in the first tale. Although one of the most painful is not shown explicitly, the screams of the victims are affecting. A second notion carried across from the first part is the dynamic between men, who are largely responsible for the punishment, and women, who are almost  exclusively the victims. Although Shunkai the monk is punished, the focus is very much on female transgressions and their eventual suffering because of them.

The final story concerns a tattoo artist, Horicho (Asao Koike), who is told that his image of a woman in bondage does not express the true beauty of an agonised expression. He asks Lord Nambera (Fumio Watanabe) to allow him to watch the torture of a group of Christian missionaries so that he might capture this peculiar form of beauty found only through suffering. We are then given an extended sequence of torture, involving all manner of inventive mechanisms and punishments. Once again although the story is separate, we can see the throughline of many of the themes from the earlier parts: the cruelty of society towards women who transgress perceived moral laws; the sadistic thrill experienced by the men who punish them; the hypocrisy of notions of sin and religious morality, when set aside the punishments which are many times more cruel and sadistic than the original ‘crimes’. The film reaches it’s ultimate expression in this final part, which features the most nudity, the most explicit violence and torture, and a long awaited semi-heroic moment that excuses many of the film’s excesses. “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” is firmly placed in the genre of exploitation cinema, featuring unpalatable scenes of cruelty and suffering, with predominantly female victims, but throughout the film appears as a clear reprimand of these behaviours, and perhaps the contemporary audience. A short explanation at the beginning of the film talks about these historical tortures and how cruel and violent society was; but its discussions of societies relationship to sex, sin, shame, and religion, ongoing misogyny, the submission to often sadistic and immoral authority figures, will resonate with a modern audience. In a sense the film is giving an extreme example of the abhorrent treatment of women at that time, but also asking us to examine the treatment of women in the present era and ask how far we have really come from these seemingly alien notions.

Further evidence of the film’s pro-women message can be seen in the way the film largely centres it’s female characters, especially in the first two stories. This is helped by incredible perfomances from Masumi Tachibana and Yukie Kagawa. They are not victims, being fully in charge of their lives, although living in a society that makes it difficult to express their own desires or have much impact on those around them. We see their passion, suffering, sensuality, strength, and stoicism in the face of violent and unjust punishment meted out by those in power (always male).

Writer and director Teruo Ishii seems to delight in shocking the audience, while subtly subverting expectations by offering a searing satire on religion, society, and the treatment of women. The cinematography by Motoya Washio, full of vibrant colours gives the film a lively tone, and Masao Yagi’s score is likewise energetic. There is titillation and unecessary violence, but it does not overwhelm the film’s central message. Perhaps oddly given the film’s style, it is a highly moralistic work. The torture of the women and the behaviour of many of the men, is often explicitly called out as completely unjustified, immoral, and irrational. At the end of the film narration tells us that violence towards other humans is never justified. A film that shocks and provokes us to consider the nature and source of human violence.

Hiroshima (1953) by Hideo Sekigawa

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a tragic landmark in world history, a painful reminder of humanity’s capacity for violence and the devastating power of technology. The destruction of the city, the incredible death toll, and the subsequent suffering led to a long period of contemplation on the morality of this attack. Hideo Sekigawa’s film begins with a class of students in 1953, some of whom are suffering the consequences of the bomb through leukemia (known as the atomic sickness). In a powerful monologue one of the students rails against the short memories of the people, suggesting that not only the world is quickly forgetting the horror of what happened, but even citizens of Hiroshima itself. We are then taken back to a period shortly before August 6th 1945, introduced to several people living in the shadow of war, but entirely oblivious to the coming atrocity. The film depicts the day of the bombing and what followed in heartbreaking detail, showing the loss and agony of the victims as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of this terrifying new weapon.

Yasutaro Yagi’s screenplay is based on real life accounts from the time, which were collected by Dr. Arata Osada in his 1951 book “Children of the Bomb”. Filmed in 1953, the memory of Hiroshima would still have been fresh in many people’s minds and its shockingly explicit depiction of things such as burn victims, mental anguish, the death of children, and other horrors, shows a determination to confront head-on this tragedy that left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The film does not have a singular narrative, instead showing various vignettes of different people and events that symbolise the period. Whether it is a class of children trapped beneath the rubble; a soldier who clings desperately to his sense of duty; or the wailing of infants for their mothers in makeshift refuges, the film takes us to the human heart of what this attack meant to those affected by it. “Hiroshima” righthly maintains a firm focus on the victims, rather than complicate it with unnecessary historical detail or attempt to retrospectively contextualise the attack, with only a brief mention of events such as Pearl Harbour and the Bataan Death March. The film’s recreation of the devastated city, rubble strewn streets, unquenchable fires burning, smoke billowing, is shocking to witness, giving a limited yet impactful sense of the reality. There are occasional clips taken from contemporary documentary footage, showing doctors at work on victims, or destroyed streets, that help remind the viewer that however extreme the portrait seems, if anything it does not capture the true horror of what occurred. The main cast comprises several stars of the period, Yumeji Tsukioka (who had previously starred in “The Bells of Nagasaki”, another film about survivors of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan), Eiji Okada, Yoshi Kato, and Isuzu Yamada, alongside an incredible supporting cast which includes many young actors. The performances capture the excruciating physical pain of the victims alongside the shock and sheer terror of what they witnessed and experienced. The sequences of people hobbling and crawling, each step an agony, are particularly moving. The use of large numbers of extras helps gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy, with entire neighbourhoods devastated by the blast. The score by Akira Ifukube is a thrilling orchestral composition that highlights the enormity of what befell at Hiroshima, a devastating eulogy to those who were lost.

“Hiroshima” is an attempt to document and recreate the pain of this event. One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end when we see the ghosts of those who were killed rise up in silent groups, a powerful memorial to the victims of the bombing. Throughout the film there is a focus on children too, understandably as the script was based on the testimony of young witnesses in Dr. Osada’s book. The film begins with a class full of young people and children feature throughout. Many of these children had their future stolen from them on that day, either through the illnesses they developed, or through the mental strain of dealing with the aftermath. We later see a roving band of orphans begging for food and scavenging for scrap metal to sell, their lives overturned in an instant. The film presents a stark depiction of the events, without dramatizing or exaggerating, simply allowing us to experience a part of what happened and the aftermath. A film that pricks the conscience, with a forceful message that such things should never be forgotten nor repeated.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Moonlight Whispers (1999) by Akihiko Shiota

A tortured teenage love story touching on themes of perversion and control. Takuya Hidaka (Kenji Mizuhashi) and Satsuki Kitahara (Tsugumi) are classmates and members of the same high-school kendo club. Hidaka finally musters the courage to declare his love for Kitahara and shortly after they sleep together. The relationship is short-lived however, when Kitahara discovers that he recorded the sound of her urinating while at his house. She calls him a pervert and leaves in disgust. Later she begins dating Hidaka’s friend Tadashi (Kota Kusano). Hidaka pleads to be allowed to be near her and she begins to engage with his unusual desires, allowing him to watch her and Tadashi on a date and even having sex.

Based on a manga of the same name, with a screenplay by Yoichi Nishiyama and director Akihiko Shiota, “Moonlight Whispers” is certainly not a normal relationship drama, though it contains many features of the genre. It lures you in with the conventional romance of the young teen protagonists early in the film. The only sign that things may not progress smoothly is Hidaka stealing a sniff of Kitahara’s gym shorts from her locker. The actors all do a fantastic job with their characters. Hidaka and Kitahara capture the awkward, faltering of a first romance, while Kota Kusano’s confident Tadashi acts almost as a conventional romantic leading man in contrast with their twisted relationship. For a film dealing with the perversion of cuckolding, the film is rarely explicit, allowing the emotional import of the drama to drive the story, rather than the physical. One example of this is in the long take of Takuya sitting in a dark cupboard while he listens to the sounds of Satsuki and Tadashi’s lovemaking in the room. The swirl of emotions in the audience, discomfort, frustration, incomprehension, only growing stronger as the camera remains fixed on him. The cinematography largely leans on the romantic drama style, with soft-focus sunsets, and a realism in the dialogue scenes, an ironic counterpoint to the content of the story. The soundtrack, used sparingly, of delicate guitar, also suggests a more romantic story that what we are watching, heigtening the tension between expectation and reality that allows us to sympathise with the characters.

The film takes a unique look at relationships, focussing on a very particular fetish. Hidaka wants to observer Kitahara, to hold the perfect version of her in his mind, and completely fails when given the chance to have a physical relationship with the real Kitahara. He is utterly devoted to her, prepared to do anything for her, even when there is nothing in it for himself, and to go to incredible extremes to prove himself. But understandably, Kitahara is not interested in this, wanting a real relationship. However, she soon comes to indulge Hidaka, whether to satisfy him or herself is left ambiguous, but that is the heart of what the film is about. The obligations people have towards each other, the give-and-take of all romantic and sexual relationships is depicted starkly through this exaggerated example. We see the difference between Kitahara’s relationship with Hidaka and Tadashi, one asexual and based on a distinct power imbalance, while the other (perhaps considered more conventional) does not seem to satisfy her emotionally. A provocative film that forces the viewer to reassess their notions of romantic love and relationships.

Yakuza and the Family (2020) by Michihito Fujii

A poignant story of a young man’s involvement in a crime family told over two decades. In 1999, Kenji Yamamoto (Go Ayano) attends the funeral of his father, who died through drug abuse. Shortly after he finds a surrogate parent in the figure of Hiroshi Shibazaki (Hiroshi Tachi), who recruits him into his yakuza organization. 6 years later Kenji has risen to be one of the most respected members of the gang, and a personal favourite of the boss. He falls for a club hostess named Yuka (Machiko Ono) and looks out for the son of a murdered yakuza member, Tsubasa. Following a lengthy jail sentence for murder, Ken returns to the outside world in 2019 to find things much changed for those around him, discovering that Tsubasa (Hayato Isomura) has become tangentially involved in the same world as his father.

Writer-Director Michihito Fujii creates a stylish crime thriller in “Yakuza and the Family”, an emotional character-driven drama punctuated by flashes of violence. Languid shots of sunsets and cityscapes give way to creative handheld camerawork as we are plunged into the viscerally brutal realities of gang life. The sleek visuals of Keisuke Imamura’s cinematography don’t overpower the drama, but allow the story to slip in and out of the romanticised aesthetic of the Yakuza genre. Taro Iwashiro’s score also compliments the story perfectly, capturing the harsh exterior and underlying fragility of the characters. The large and impressive cast give a captivating ensemble performance. Go Ayano’s “Ken” is a deeply vulnerable and conflicted character, circumstance having driven him into a life of crime. There is a childlike aspect to him to, most obvious in his faltering relationship with Machiko Ono’s Yuka. Ono gives a powerful performance as Yuka, dragged into the orbit of the yakuza largely against her will, defined by her relationships with Ken and her daughter, but with a strong sense of self preservation and steely resolve. Ryutaro Ninomiya (director of “Sweating the Small Stuff”) also features in a small yet important role as Ohara. Hayato Isomura, as the older Tsubasa, is one of the most sympathetic characters, as we see him falling into the same trap as Ken while searching for a father figure.

“Yakuza and the Family” is a film about the paternal and fraternal bonds of organized crime families, but also about the need of young men for father figures. Both Ken and Tsubasa both appear as drifting, directionless, characters, lacking a role model or figure to turn to for support or comfort. Their search for acceptance, perhaps even love, drives them to the overemphasis of their masculine aggression and pride, Ken through becoming a vicious Yakuza member, and Tsubasa becoming a fighter. The yakuza are often referred to as a ‘family’, but we see here that it is a twisted, house-of-mirrors version of family, providing the members with only a poor simulacrum of a genuine parent-child relationship. The film ends on a bittersweet note, highlighting both the dark side of crime, yet also the importance of kindness and charity and the impact it can have on others. A superb character-driven Yakuza drama with an excellent cast that is well worth a watch.