Flesh Pier (1958) by Teruo Ishii

Hidden behind the glamourous streets and bright lights of Tokyo’s Ginza is a seedy underbelly of sex and criminality. With prostitution outlawed, gangs run “call girl” businesses fronted as legitimate enterprises. One such operation is being run out of the “Arizona” nightclub. Detective Yoshioka (Ken Utsui) is an undercover cop from Osaka working with the Tokyo police to unravel the various criminal connections which link Japan to international groups. He soon meets an old flame Rose Rumi (Yoko Mihara), a dancer at “Arizona” and part of the criminal conspiracy, and Haruko (Akemi Tsukushi), a reporter who has followed him on the lookout for a big scoop.

Directed by Teruo Ishii and written by Ishii and Akira Sawada, “Flesh Pier” is a crime thriller centred on the world of sex work and prostitution. The film shies away from titillation, with sexualised scenes being confined to the nightclub “Arizona” and their scantily clad dancers. Utsui is a charismatic lead, the slick noir detective playing double-agent in the dangerous Tokyo underworld. Mihara gives a great performance as Rose Rumi, a woman who has made mistakes but is intent to put them right, bringing sensuality, heart and toughness to the role. The film is well-written with a number of characters all of whom have their own personal stories going on but which pull together in a thrilling showdown. There are twists and turns as characters are threatened with being uncovered. The dialogue is snappy, with the sparse, noir style delivered stylishly by the actors. The music moves from the jazz of the nightclub to a sinuous orchestral score that envelops the drama.

“Flesh Pier” is a film about a city and a country going through major changes. One of the major changes is a more outward looking Japan than may have been common pre-war. We see the police dealing with international crime syndicates trafficking women. English newspapers are seen, American characters feature, and the Japanese characters are well-travelled and familiar with other cultures. The foreign influence extends to the smart suits, casino roulette wheels, and cabaret clubs, and other cultural imports. The foreign characters are the villains in the film, but the film does not shy away from showing the darker side of Japanese society either. The film’s portrayal of women is equally balanced. It shows the objectification of women in nude photoshoots and cabaret clubs. But also has two strong female characters. Rumi and Haruko are both fearless and forthright, a sign of the changing times in a typically male-dominated society. We see the shame associated with prostitution and how it is something typically levelled at women. The film seems to be dealing with many of these themes just at the point they were reaching the public consciousness or able to be discussed openly. It does a perfect job of capturing a period in time with a thrilling narrative and a director with a great sense of style.

Yakuza Law (1969) by Teruo Ishii

Three stories set in different historical periods, connected only thematically, show the yakuza way of life in all its cruelty. The first takes us back to the era of samurai and swordfights in the street. We are told that the yakuza have only two rules: don’t steal and don’t sleep with married women. Following the violent overthrow of a rival group, one gang feels their position is secure. But affairs and a loss of control by the boss leads to a devastating climactic showdown. The second story is set many years later and follows a gang member recently released from prison. Having served three years for an attack on a rival boss, he is disappointed when his fellow yakuza do not come to visit. He is further upset to find his former girlfriend, believing he had died, to be with another man. The final story centres on a gold heist gone wrong and an elite marksman. Double-crossing gangsters and gun fights abound.

Director Teruo Ishii delights in the most violent and extreme of human drama. “Yakuza Law” begins with credits playing over scenes of grisly and creative tortures employed by gangsters (most of which are not even seen in the film itself). This clues the audience in to the shock value that is at the heart of much of this film and also creates an atmosphere of dread that follows every character. Death and punishment are ever present threats in the world of the yakuza. The three stories act as morality tales (albeit emphasising the twisted moral code of the yakuza), with simple plot structures and broadly drawn characters established to make a point about honour, betrayal, and retribution. The film is packed with action and doesn’t shy away from the gory details of their various punishments, whether cutting off body parts, drowning, burning with a lighter, or even more creative tortures used in the final chapter. Tonally the film is a great example of the exploitation genre, moving from disturbing to comedic with startling alacrity. By the time the third part rolls around it’s no longer clear whether any of it is meant to be taken seriously. The special effects are pushed to their limits (and often beyond) to show the depravity of these people. Even when the effects are shoddy, the sheer cruelty or bizarreness of what is happening is enough to make it alarming. The fact that “Yakuza Law” is essentially three films in one is amazing, as all three parts are all equally engaging and do something different with the premise of gangsters breaking their promises and the backlash that follows.

“Yakuza Law” has a very tongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter that makes it difficult to easily judge its sincerity. The yakuza are shown to be both terrifying and ridiculous in equal measure, with their strict code of honour barely disguising their underlying thuggish behaviour. Setting the three stories side by side also gives the film a theme of the eternal atavism and strips away the veneer of civilisation to show that throughout the generations these men do not change. The perceived cruelty of yesteryear is in fact replicated in modern times, with only the uniforms changing from yukata to sharp suits. Despite their reputations the yakuza are seen as pitiable figures, who lack empathy and are separate from the outside world. They are insular and trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that is doomed to eventually swallow anyone in its orbit. “Yakuza Law” will appeal to fans of the exploitation genre, with plenty of off-the-wall action and torture. It also provides an examination of the pathology of violence and gang mentality that is brought into stark contrast by the triple narrative structure.

Orgies of Edo (1969)

“Orgies of Edo” tells three stories connected with themes of sex and violence. The first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), a young woman who is tricked by a gangster into a life of prostitution. The second features a woman with strange sexual perversions. She has a fetish for rape by men who are disfigured. In flashback we learn the dark secret that lies behind her perversion. She is attended by a man who harbours unrequited feelings for her, though towards whom she has no affection. The final story begins with a sadistic lord who delights in watching his harem being gored by a herd of bulls. One of the women takes his eye, seemingly a masochist with an equally insatiable appetite for torture and pain. However, she is also carrying a secret, one that threatens to end their twisted relationship.

The film written by director Teruo Ishii with Masahiro Kakefuda is a portrayal of the most base impulses of human society, lust and violence. Each tale unfolds almost as a dark parable, although the moral of each tale can be hard to discern at first. Despite a heavy emphasis on sex and gore it would be wrong to dismiss the film as mere titillation. There are deeper themes at work. Likewise, although the women are shown as victims in almost all cases, the film is sympathetic towards them. There is a certain sense in which the film delights in the most obscene material, incest, bestiality, rape, sexual violence and sadomasochism, but the film’s almost art house opening and closing sentiments set these things in context. The opening, with grotesques coming forth from a cabinet cues the audience in to the idea that this is intended as gruesome theatre. The stories are exaggerated portrayals of the very worst kinds of behaviour. The opening credits to the film are offensively garish, with names juddering and flashing across the screen while the music blares in concert with the images. Like with other films of the exploitation genre it intends to assault you with its message and has little time for subtlety. Ishii’s voyeuristic directorial style makes the viewer complicit in the horrors, peering from above as the terrible events unfold. There are great performances in all of the stories, especially from the main cast of women. The gory special effects are a little dated, and certain plot points cross the line of unacceptable racism, but a film of this kind is almost obliged to be as offensive as possible.

“Orgies of Edo” is disturbing from its first moments and in a little over 90 minutes manages to cover prostitution, infidelity, rape, incest, bestiality and sadomasochism. The film lays out a brutal worldview, one in which characters do despicable things and women are subject to all manner of sexual and psychological violence. The shock tactics are highly effective and it is not a film that could be considered boring, although some may find it offensive or distasteful. It is hard to summarise the messages of the film as they are multifarious. It does touch on ideas of power in sex relations, on the male tendency to violence, and on the underlying psychological causes of sexual perversion. In a sense the film is intended to provoke strong emotions, both of disgust and empathy towards the characters. The god-like perspective of many scenes also hints at a possible anti-theistic reading, as we are forced to watch impotently as the horrors unfold. This is a world in which morality, if it exists at all, is pushed aside and humans are shown as base and atavistic organisms. While passing decades and an increasingly liberal society may have dated certain scenes (particularly the use of dwarves and a black man as shorthand for ‘difference’ in the middle story), the film works well as a shocking exploitation drama with a message.