Set in the Edo period of Japanese history, Teruo Ishii’s Inferno Of Torture sets out its stall in no uncertain terms, the opening credits splashed across a tableau of women being crucified, speared, buried up to their necks and then decapitated with a massive saw operated by two men. It calms down a little after this startling intro but not all that much.
In financial difficulty with the local loan shark, Yumi (Yumika Katayama) agrees to repay her debt and win her freedom by serving as a geisha for the next two years. Of course, even this somewhat dubious offer is too good to be true, as the geisha house turns out to be a front for a particularly seedy brothel which makes its money by providing tattooed girls to eager, rich, Western scumbags.
Recognising Yumi’s skin as the perfect canvas for art, tattooist Horihide (Teruo Yoshida) sees an opportunity to create a work of such beauty that it will win an upcoming competition organised by the local Shogun, the winner of which will receive the hand of the Shogun’s daughter Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana) in marriage.
Horihide’s relatively kind treatment of Yumi does not go unnoticed by Otatsu (Mieko Fujimoto), the madam of the brothel Otatsu (Mieko Fujimoto), who goes out of her way to make sure Yumi’s time in the brothel is as unpleasant as it can possibly be, subjecting her to…well, the title gives you more than a hint. To make matters worse, rival tattoo artist Horihatsu (Asao Koike) does not want his status threatened and Yumi’s body becomes the battleground upon which they will clash.
Inferno Of Torture is one of no fewer than SEVEN movies Teruo Ishii made in 1969 but gives few hints, if any, of being any kind of rush job. Ishii used the sets from other Toei productions of the time in order to make his movies and this is just one of a series of ero guro nansensu works for which he was responsible. This term means “erotic grotesque nonsense” and there’s certainly a case to be made for this movie being all three of those.
Even a half century on from when this was made, Inferno Of Torture contains material which, especially to Western audiences, continues to be troubling now. The frequent abuse dealt out to the women of the piece is certainly uncomfortable to watch, perhaps even more so in the way that some of the sequences possess a certain camp quality to them. The tortures vary from oddly tame to unrelentingly brutal so you’re always on alert as to what might be coming next.
There’s also a fairly consistent level of nudity throughout, although the rules about how much of it is allowed to be shown in a Japanese film are clearly evident, with some scenes cutting away coyly at the point where the proceedings would have otherwise have become more graphic, others being shot from more tasteful angles (well, as tasteful as you’re going to get in this film) or placing objects in the foreground to obscure certain areas of the female anatomy.
The first half of the story, in particular, is a parade of rampant misogyny in which women are demeaned verbally before being slapped, bound, flagellated and sexually violated, which inevitably leads to the question of whether or not Ishii is making a comment on misogyny or just filling his movie with it. I don’t believe it’s there solely for titillation as the evidence appears to support Ishii as too skilled a filmmaker for that. However, there is so much naked flesh, so much whipping and torture, that it’s questionable as to whether or not it moves from being a critique of the era’s practices and crosses the line into queasy sexploitation.
The second half sees the brutal goings on at the brothel take a back seat as the conflict between Horihide and Horitatsu comes to the fore, Osuzu being thrown into the mix to raise the stakes even higher. Fate throws them together for one final battle in their titanic struggle to claim their place as the master of body art, there’s yet more nudity (no surprises there) and it all ends in a melodramatic maelstrom of fluorescent erotica, knife fights, points of honour, sacrifices and some eye-wateringly gory justice being meted out to one of the characters.
The characterisations here veer from considered to cartoony. Yoshida is rather good as the brooding, troubled, de facto hero of the tale, Katayama elicits all of sympathy required and then some as the doomed Yumi and Fujimoto gives her matriarch a cruel, icy presence. The dastardly Clayton, played by Yusuf Hoffman in what I believe was his only film role, sits at the opposite, “what the hell?” end of the scale. He’s a pantomime bad guy who is just asking for his comeuppance, as much for his bizarre sartorial choices as his moustache-twirling villainy.
In many ways, giving any sort of rating to Inferno Of Torture seems irrelevant somehow. As a subgenre this is far more of an acquired taste than most and the content within will actively find different ways to put people off, even those of us who generally enjoy exploitation cinema. I found it to be a genuinely fascinating snapshot of a point in a nation’s history but I also found it to be vaguely repellent. There’s plenty of impressive body art on display if you like that sort of thing and there are plenty of topless Japanese women on display if you like that sort of thing.
If nothing else, Inferno Of Torture made me want to check out more of Terui Ishii’s filmography.