Inferno of Torture AKA Tokugawa irezumi-shi: Seme jigoku (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th July 2020).
The Film

Inferno of Torture (Ishii Teruo, 1969)

Synopsis: In order to pay off a debt, sexually-inexperienced Yumi (Katayama Yumiko) is press-ganged into working as a geisha in a brothel run by cruel pimp Samejima (Tanaka Haruo) and his partner, the brothel’s madam, Otatsu (Fujimoto Mieko). Yumi is horrified at the sexual depravities she witnesses clients (and Samejima and Otatsu) enacting against the prostitutes in the brothel – from rope bondage to cruel beatings. The girls are kept in line by a brutal enforcer, Genzo (Hayashi Shin’ichiro).

The death of prized tattooist Horigoro’s leaves a void, which is compounded by an impending tattoo competition that is to be judged by the Shogun. Young tattooist Horihide (Yoshida Teruo), whose tattoos are filled with beauty and wonder, is set against Horitatsu (Koike Asao). Horitatsu’s tattoos contain depictions of death and decay. Horihide chooses Yumi’s untattooed body as his canvas, and Yumi and Horihide grow closer. However, Horitatsu abducts Yumi and ‘taints’ her body with one of his dark creations. Horihide has a plan, and draws over Horitatsu’s creation another, more splendid tattoo which only appears when Yumi drinks sake – scoring an incredible coup during the tattoo competition, which is declared a draw.

Otatsu takes her cruelty out on Yumi, fitting her with a chastity belt. A rebellious and unpredictable Genzo, who has become addicted to junk thanks to Otatsu, swallows the key. When Genzo dies, Yumi sneaks into the cemetery to retrieve the key to her chastity belt from the corpse of Genzo.

The film’s second story focuses on Osuzu (Tachibana Masumi), who is railroaded into working at the brothel when her father, tattooist Horigoro, is murdered by Samejima and Otatsu. Samejima frames Horihide, whom Osuzu has known since childhood, for the murder of Horigoro, and Horihide goes to ground. Osuzu and some of the other geishas are shipped to China, where they are auctioned off to the cruel foreigner Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman). However, Osuzu manages to escape with another of the girls, Genzo’s sister Yuki (Obana Miki), who has been blinded in an act of spite by Otatsu. Osuzu is recaptured by Otatsu and Samejima, but Yuki is ensnared by a pimp who takes her to Horihide, now living in hiding, to be tattooed. Horihide learns from Yuki that Osuzu is still alive, and vows to free her from the clutches of Samejima, Otatsu and Clayton.

Critique: In 1968, Ishii Teruo’s Shogun’s Joy of Torture was released. This film, with its litany of cruelties enacted against beautiful women, was inspired by the violent muzan-e woodcut prints (‘Atrocity/Bloody Prints’) of the Edo and Meiji periods such as Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and Yoshiiku Orchiai’s ‘Twenty-Eight Famous Murders with Verse’. Arguably the first example of Japanese ero guro (‘erotic grotesque’) art, these muzan-e prints depicted scenes of extreme violence, often against women; as the title ‘erotic grotesque’ might suggest, ero guro combines the erotic (titilatting) with the grotesque (or ‘malformed’/horrific). As a literary genre, ero guro is largely associated with the writings of Rampo, whose work Ishii Teruo adapted for the screen in a number of pictures – most notably the memorable Horrors of Malformed Men (1969, which has also been released on Blu-ray by Arrow).

Made for Toei, Shogun’s Joy of Torture inspired a further seven films in the ero guro style, all directed by Ishii between 1968 and 1973. Taken together, these pictures are often referred to as the ‘Joys of Torture’ series. Inferno of Torture came in the middle of this cycle. (There is also another ‘sequel’ to Shogun’s Joy of Torture, directed by Makiguchi Yuji in 1976, and distributed in English as Shogun’s Sadism.) Ishii’s films, specifically, spearheaded Toei’s emphasis, through their Pinky Violence line, on the production of sexploitation films during the 1970s. These films, alongside rival studio Nikkatsu’s contemporaneous Roman Porno films, married sex and violence with social critique. (Some of the films might privilege the former or the latter, depending on the bent of the filmmakers.)

The philosophy of ero guro is embedded in Inferno of Torture through the competition between Horihide and Horitatsu, the rival tattooists. Tattooing the girls in the ‘stable’ operated by Otatsu and Samejima is a symbol of ownership; in this world, Yumi’s untainted skin is a prize and a symbol of her purity. Horihide’s tattoos are beautiful and filled with wonder. By contrast, Horitatsu’s tattoos are intricate but morbid, with depictions of violence and human mortality. ‘Horitatsu’s tattoos are filled with an aura of imminent violence’, one of the characters says, ‘It’s like the art of darkness. Horihide’s are bright, with pure and refined expressions’. The tattoo Horitatsu draws on Yumi’s back is titled by its creator ‘The Tortures of Hell’, and depicts skulls and severed heads. The women are put on display with these tattoos, for potential buyers/clients: the women are crowded into a room with glass walls, ceiling and floor, from which they can be viewed from all angles.

Inferno of Torture’s opening sequence depicts a litany of cruelties over which the film’s credits play out in blood red lettering. Five women are crucified; a spear is thrust into the crotch of one of these women. She screams. Three women are buried up to their necks in sand; as a feudal lord watches, two men are ordered to use a two-man tree saw to decapitate them. Simply describing these images results in something not dissimilar to De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and the sequence itself is truly Sadeian – depicting outrageous cruelties enacted against women, under the patriarchal gaze of a feudal lord, with a clear sense of these cruelties being performed in order to titillate the viewer.

Following this opening montage, we are taken to a cemetery where a young woman (Yumi) desecrates a grave before cutting open a corpse (Genzo’s) in order to retrieve a key. ‘This small key has locked away my womanhood’, she narrates, using the blood-soaked key to unlock a chastity belt. Her narration becomes more hysterical as she declares, ‘I’ll be a woman again!’ However, the key breaks in the lock. From here, we are taken to an extended flashback that depicts Yumi’s work in the brothel, the tattoo competition between Horihide and Horitatsu, and how she came to be placed in the chastity belt. This concludes with a return to the diegetic present, in which Yumi exhumes Genzo’s corpse before being captured and killed brutally. The narrative resumes with a new focus on the cruelties inflicted against Osuzu.

Yumi’s first encounter with the brothel is interesting. Yumi’s curious gaze at its contents is conveyed through a long point-of-view shot (as Yumi is shown around the building’s interior) accompanied by Yumi’s narration. It is a place of seemingly impossible geometries: ‘The hallway curved on and on; it seemed never-ending’, Yumi narrates. The building is dominated by various small rooms, all decorated differently. Samejima makes Yumi watch a curious sexual act in one of these rooms, deducing from her reticence that she is a virgin. Samejima offers to ‘correct’ this by trying to rape Yumi: ‘It’s bound to happen at some point, anyway’, he goads her. Elsewhere in the brothel, Yumi sees the girls being subjected to kinbaku/rope bondage and other forms of torture and humiliation – such as a girl begging of thirst being forced to drink the piss of another girl who is in restraints.

As Tom Mes notes in the commentary on this release, it’s difficult to separate the film’s depiction of misogyny from claims that the film itself is misogynistic. When the women are put on display for the clients, they are of course also on erotic display for the film’s audience. Genzo attempts to rape Yumi and tells her, ‘Now I made you a woman. This is how a man and woman should be’, and in retaliation Otatsu places the chastity belt on Yumi, telling her that ‘As long as it remains locked, you shall not be a woman. As a woman, you’re useless now’. It’s easy to argue that the film depicts ‘womanhood’ as something tethered to the erotic/sexual capital of women, but nevertheless this is an inevitable part of the milieu depicted in the narrative. Whether the film is best understood as a depiction/critique of misogyny or is itself a misogynistic text is perhaps in the eye of the beholder – and is arguably a non-question, in the sense that it can of course be both at the same time.

What is undoubted, however, is the film’s depiction of foreign (ie, non-Japanese) culture as exotic and somewhat abhorrent. The most perverse offenders within the narrative are the cultural outsiders, including Clayton and an unnamed Chinese client. In Osuzu’s story, the geishas are taken by ship to an overseas location (which seems to be China), where they are exhibited to various potential buyers – British, American, Chinese. The women’s disgust at these foreigners is made explicit. ‘We’re more than just playthings for hairy foreigners’, one of the girls protests. When Osuzu and Yuki escape from captivity, they flee through an exotic food market, and the sights there fill them with horror: snakes are being cooked, and animals slaughtered. A pig is bled out very graphically, via a knife to its throat (in an unsimulated shot which may upset some viewers). Puppies are shown in baskets, waiting to be sold for meat; small dogs are shown trussed up (alive) and hanging from market stalls, the imagery recalling the kinbaku used on the girls in the brothel. ‘Everyone here has a murky past’, Horihide tells Yuki; and of course, Horihide has fled to this locale in order to escape an accusation of murder. There’s a clear sense in this sequence of foreign culture being corrupt and threatening, compounded by the activities of the non-Japanese clients – particularly the gruff Clayton.


Video

Presented in 1080p using the AVC codec, Arrow’s presentation of Inferno of Torture fills approximately 27Gb on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, and is in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

The film appears to be uncut, with a running time of 94:57 mins. The aforementioned bleeding out of the pig is intact, but there is a noticeable, and quite jarring, jump cut during the climactic fight between Horihide and Samejima which very well may be an intentional part of the film or may perhaps be the result of print damage.

Inferno of Torture was photographed anamorphically on 35mm colour stock. The presentation is very good, with a pleasing level of detail throughout. There is some softness at the periphery of the frame which speaks of the characteristics of the anamorphic lenses used in many Japanese productions of this era. Colour is rich and consistent. For the most part, colour is very naturalistic, though there are some sequences featuring strong primary coloured gels/lights (eg, blues and reds) and these are handled superbly in this presentation, with a real sense of depth and vibrance to these colours. Contrast levels are very good, with rich midtones accompanied by a gradual curve into both the toe and the shoulder. Finally, the encoded to disc is strong, and the presentation retains the structure of 35mm film.



NB. Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented by a Japanese LPCM 2.0 mono track. This is rich and vibrant, with a pleasing sense of depth. Optional English subtitles are provided. These are easy to read and clear in terms of grammar and syntax.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio Commentary by Tom Mes. Mes offers a thoughtful examination of Inferno of Torture, considering the suggestions by some that it is a misogynistic picture. (Mes argues that this has some validity, but that the film is also a picture about misogyny.) He discusses the film’s representation of period torture methods, and makes an interesting point about the manner in which Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cut and Run (1985) contain depictions of methods of torture that are noticeably similar to those in Inferno of Torture. Mes also reflects at length on the involvement of the film’s key cast members, talking about the picture’s relationship with their broader bodies of work.

- ‘Erotic Grotesque Nonsense and the Foundations of Japan’s Counterculture’ (29:55). Earlier this year, Jasper Sharp delivered a lecture on ero guro in Japanese art, and cinema, for the ‘Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies’ in London. This lecture was recorded and is presented here. It’s an illuminating piece, with Sharp exploring the origins of ero guro, discussing the work of Ishii Teruo and other filmmakers associated with the form. Sharp talks about the significance of the story of Abe Sada, which formed the basis of a number of ero guro films – most notably Oshima Nagisa’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976).

- Trailer (2:54).

Overall

Inferno of Torture is an odd film, even for fans of ero guro or Pinky Violence cinema. Aside from the intricately woven narrative, which is comparable to Horihide and Horitatsu’s competing approach to tattooing, there are strange left-turns in the story – such as two geishas who are clearly played by men, which becomes something of a running joke in the film (eg, when the hairy chest and lack of breasts of one of these ‘geishas’ is depicted as a fetish of one of the brothel’s clients). The film’s multiple narrators (Yumi, Horihide, Osuzu), its somewhat non-linear approach to storytelling, and its dovetailing of different narratives is ambitious but can make the film slightly confusing to a casual viewer. A first-time viewing may leave the viewer with the impression that the film is a series of finely-crafted vignettes; a second viewing would reveal the intricacies of the narrative. Certainly, it’s in line with Ishii Teruo’s other pictures (eg, see our review of Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Ishii’s Yakuza Law here), and there is an interesting cynicism/disgust/repulsion expressed within the narrative towards foreign (ie, non-Japanese) culture which, despite some of the outrageous violence in the picture, is perhaps the feature of the film which lingers most in the memory.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Inferno of Torture is excellent. The main presentation is very good, on par with Arrow’s HD releases of other Japanese films of a similar vintage. The film itself is also accompanied by some good contextual material: the lecture from Jasper Sharp places the film in the broader context of ero guro art in Japanese culture, whilst the commentary with Tom Mes provides a detailed analysis of this specific film and its relationship with Ishii’s body of work as a filmmaker. Fans of Pinky Violence will find this to be an essential purchase.

Please click to enlarge.
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