Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) by Teruo Ishii

Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji), the head of the Tachibana crime family, has to deal with the rival Aozora gang who are threatening to take over their territory. Dobashi (Toru Abe), head of the rival gang, plans to flood the area with opium. He is helped by a traitor Senba-Tatsu (Shiro Otsuji) from the Tachibana group, who is also scheming for control, and a mysterious blind woman (Hoki Tokuda) who is looking for revenge against Akemi. Akemi is helped by a group of women who she met in prison some years before and a man Tani (Makoto Sato), who offers his assistance. Akemi believes that she is cursed, being haunted by dreams of a black cat.

“Blind Woman’s Curse” stars Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) in a violent crime thriller, touching on the sex industry and drug trafficking. While it is restrained in comparison with director Ishii’s other exploitation films (such as “Shogun’s Joy of Torture” or “Orgies of Edo”) it nevertheless does not shy away from revealing the darker side of human nature. In particular the scenes of opium addiction manage to evoke a sense of absolute moral decay and humanity brought low. The weird and surreal elements also see Ishii at his most creative, with the supernatural, supersitious elements. The hunchback, the blind woman and the cat could almost be from an ancient myth or fable transposed into a historical drama. Ishii is a master of creating unsettling imagery and the inexplicable sights of the circus show, children in baskets, a man making a stew of human body parts, are a great example of achieving genuine chills through bizarre, inexplicable, yet simple visuals. We also see familiar motifs reappearing here, including flashes of torture, tattoos, and bloody sword fights. Ishii excels at strong female characters, and Meiko Kaji gives a fantastic nuanced performance as a dangerous woman who constrains herself in an attempt to tread a new path. Her reluctance to engage with Dobashi creates a tension as the increasing violence forces her to action.

The film features two central plots: the first of a gang war with one reluctant side being pressured to act; the second of the blind woman’s revenge against Akemi. While one is very rooted in the real world, speaking to human violence, competition, criminality, and disloyalty, the other is an archetypical story that seems based in a mystical past, but which mirrors perfectly the contemporary story. This sense of a moral fable is made more explicit in the scenes with the hunchback, a character who seems out of place in the story, a semi-mythical personage imbued with magic powers. It is clearest at the end when we see the sky whorl in an unnatural spiral above the final duel. Ishii draws a line from the violence present in society to these primordial themes of violence and revenge, perhaps suggesting an eternal cycle of cruelty, one that is reflected in humanities earliest stories, represented by the fear of a violent grudge coming back to haunt you. While Akemi wants to move her family out of the criminal world, forces constantly conspire to drag her back into her violent past. A fantastical story that perfectly balances elements of crime and horror to create an entertaining experience led by the exceptional Meiko Kaji.

Jigoku: Japanese Hell (1999) by Teruo Ishii

A journey into the depths of hell from master of the macabre, Teruo Ishii. Rika (Miki Sato) is a young woman who is brought to hell by its supreme ruler Enma (Michiko Maeda). Rika is shown the eternal punishments that await sinners there, excruciating tortures meted out to the most vile and reprehensible, so that she may return to mankind to warn them from wrongdoing. Through a magic looking glass she is able to witness the crimes of a child murderer, who is later brought down to hell to be dismembered, before being reconstituted in an endless horrifying cycle. The reason Rika has been chosen is then made apparent as we are shown her past as a member of the real-life Aum Shinrikyo cult, who were responsible for the Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo.

Teruo Ishii’s ouvre is characterised by the violent and the grotesque, so it is perhaps unsurprising to see him tackle the ultimate depravity and horror of hell itself. Essentially a modern day parable, warning people from straying from the path of righteousness, it is littered with his trademark brand of extreme gore and often blackly comic undertones. The sequences of hell are theatrical, with stark colourful lighting, masked characters, demons and creatures of the underworld. The special effects of the tortures, as with his previous films, tend to the extreme, with arterial spray, scorching, disfigurement, often too over-the-top to be taken entirely seriously. It is certainly a visually stunning portrayal of hell, particularly in the more abstract scenes of writhing bodies in agony. The overworld portion of the film is largely concerned with a reconstruction of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s activities, and the machinations of its leader. We see the cult leader abusing his position to rape the women in the group and the paranoia of the members. As with much of Ishii’s work, there is violence, torture, sex and nudity, in abundance, whether it is warranted or not.

“Japanese Hell” is a film with a very specific target: the Aum Shinrikyo Cult that caused so much suffering and a reconsideration of religiosity and group think. The early sequence of a child murderer, and a later scene involving an enigmatic samurai figure who has ‘broken every man-made law’, seem like odd bookends which have little to do with the central plot. The concept of hell as a real place is something that has been used throughout history to keep people obedient to laws, and to keep people safe from harm, or safe from harming others. This film is an attempt to modernise that notion and portray a truly horrific vision of the infernal underworld to warn people from committing acts of violence against other humans. At the end of the film, Ishii does give us a hopeful alternative, in the suggestion that people should pray to the life-giving, eternal things, such as the sun. Overall, “Japanese Hell” is an entertaining, perhaps indulgent attack on Shinrikyo and criminality in general, a vicarious revenge for that atrocity and a plea for humankind to consider their actions.

Inferno of Torture (1969) by Teruo Ishii

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.

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.

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.