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.