Unable to pay her debts, Yumi (Yumiko Katayama) is taken by Samejima (Haruo Tanaka) to a brothel specialising in sadomasochism. All the women there are tattooed with elaborate designs across their backs. Yumi falls for Horihide (Teruo Yoshida), who is tasked with tattoing her. Horihide is hoping to win a competition by the Shogun to produce the greatest tattoo, the prize of which is the Shogun’s daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana), against his rival Horitatsu (Asao Koike). Meanwhile, the brothel where Yumi works is dealing with a wealthy foreigner who delights in the tattooed women they provide.
Teruo Ishii continues his ero-guro series of historical films with “Inferno of Torture”, a complex tale of sex, violence and revenge. Unlike previous films, “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” (1968) and “Orgies of Edo” (1969), this film is not comprised of short stories, but is a singular narrative. This leads to more complexity, with several plot threads coming together. The film features the now familiar scenes of torture at the beginning, but also a structure of flash-forwards to generate a sense of dreadful expectation as events unfold. While the film is packed with action, some of the plots do get tangled and hard to follow, lacking a substantial resolution. While Yumi begins the film, it ends with Horihide, in an unexpected yet not quite satisfactory conclusion. Similarly, the introduction of a group of prisoners who are sold into prositution fails to develop beyond providing several moments of humour and action. The two male members of their group offer comic relief, but as with the rest of the film, there seems to be little significance to their characters beyond this. Despite its lack of depth the film is stunning to look at, with colourful costumes and sets, and some creative direction. Writer-director Ishii again conscripts long-term collaborators in composer Masao Yagi and cinematographer Motoya Washio, as well as many cast member returning from his earlier films. The chase through the market is one of the best examples of the creativity that is evident throughout, using the environment to full effect. In typical Ishii style, plot is set aside at several points in favour of provocative sequences of nudity or violence, often both. The parade of half-naked ladies at the Shogun’s court for example. The pounding of traditional drums in Masao Yagi’s score helps the sense of tension and underscore the violence, helped by the sound design of cracking bamboo lashes in the background.
“Inferno of Torture” shows the dark underbelly of the period, with the mistreatment of women a continuing theme through Ishii’s work. Novel elements here include the two transgender characters and the foreign villain. Little is made of the transgender experience in the film, the characteres serving solely as comic relief, but it perhaps reflects Ishii’s modus operandi in smuggling contemporary sexual politics into his historical dramas. While in “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” the foreign Christian women were very much the victims of Japan’s oppressive anti-Christian doctrine; here we have the introduction of a foreign villain, reflecting post-war Japanese reconsideration of their relationship with the outside world. There are a number of historical films that touch on the foreign influence in Japan, both positive and negative, no doubt filmmakers seeing historical echoes through the post-war period of American occupation with earlier waves of immigration and what they brought to the country. As with much else in the film there are potential readings left open to the viewers interpretation. The film appears content to provide an exciting ero-guro revenge film, leaving aside the more satirical bite of other works, but nevertheless still has at its heart some of these ideas presented less prominently, or stridently. An entertaining film that manages to pack in so many elements, while it is not always cohesive, it never fails to surprise, excite and shock.