Inferno of Torture is the third of Teruo Ishii's ero-guro (erotic grotesque) films that have recently been released by Arrow Video. Orgies of Edo and Yakuza Law were anthology films, each with three stories ostensibly about the brutal systems of torture used by, respectively, the ruling class and the criminal class. Made in the late '60s and early '70s, these films are framed as historical docu-dramas, but are in fact exploitation films with historical themes. Whatever the intent, the films themselves consist mainly as ways to display sado-masochistic soft-core pornography, punctuated with sequences of gruesome horror.
More specifically, topless women (and occasionally bottomless, though Japanese censorship laws restricted any hint of genitalia or pubic hair) get vaguely struck with whips or other devices, are bound with really weirdly intricate ropes, and writhe a lot. There's the vague outline of a story, usually involving some sort of debt that has to be paid off in prostitution, all in an effort to frame the baring of breasts and the spilling of blood.
What makes the movies interesting (if anything does - ero-guro is an acquired taste) is the strange complexity, the roundabout way the stories take to excuse the tasteless exposure of flesh and the presentation of violence. Generally, in American soft-core, the stories are much simpler: the guy is a photographer down on his luck. The girl wants to get into pictures, and maybe showing a little extra skin will help her out. Things go too far. Nipples appear. Tee-hee.
In Inferno of Torture, which has a single story set some time before the mid-19th century, though it is as discursive and unfocused as an anthology film, there is a girl who wants to make money for her sick brother. There is a pair of tattoo artists both vying to take over their master's practice, and win his daughter's hand in marriage. There's the pimp blackmailed by the madam of the brothel. There's an international trade of virgin girls to be tattooed and sold into houses of torture for the pleasure of German businessmen. For just T&A, these story developments are way surplus to requirements.
None of which is surprising for a film directed by Teruo Ishii. Apparently a mild mannered and accommodating worker in the factory atmosphere of the Japanese studio system, working for Toei and occasionally Nikkatsu for most of his career, he managed to create some of the strangest, most outré films of '60s and '70s Japanese cinema without ever developing a reputation for difficultly or personal idiosyncrasy. He just liked making his strange stories, and was given his leeway.
These torture movies were part of the rather desperate strategy of failing Japanese film companies to try and lure audiences into theaters and away from television which, after an uphill struggle, was finally beginning to dominate Japanese pop culture in the late '60s. Much as Hollywood moved into widescreen and edgier content, in Japan the film companies sought to find things to put on the screen that could not be broadcast on television. Softcore pornography was the basic answer, often accompanied by gore.
Inferno of Torture begins following the formula similar to other movie in Ishii's series of torture films - there are a couple of scenes of spectacularly bloody violence (pretty spectacularly filmed) completely unrelated to the story, and then we go into whatever horror- and sex-laden narrative he has prepared for us. Inferno of Torture tells a single story, not an anthology like most of the films in the series, but it is not a particularly coherent story. It's told non-linearly, with characters who are majorly important introduced with less fanfare than more minor players, and without a hint of what narrative we're supposed to be following as an audience.
It's very stylized, and frequently beautiful. It's also kind of a dumb story, and one that might have had much more power had it been told in a more traditional narrative. Tattooing is the film's major theme, but that doesn't become clear early enough for it not to seem like a strange distraction, and just a point of exploitation: Japanese tattooing generally means full back portraits, so there's plenty of opportunities for the female canvases to show off their fronts before turning their backs.
As simply a film, Inferno of Torture isn't much. The story isn't that interesting, and is told in an infuriating way that makes it less interesting than it could be. As an exploitation piece...we live in the world of the Internet, and thought it might be a sad commentary to say it, at some point boobs can get boring. A 10-minute scene of bare-chested girls walking up to a Shogun, turning their backs to show their tattoos and then turning around again to make sure their breasts get enough camera time is less scintillating than it must have been in 1969. Some scenes might rise to the level of genuine eros (I'm not your shrink or your priest, these are for you to decide) but the more engaging parts to me are the stranger horror scenes. When one girl and her blind friend try to escape from their fate while on Nagasaki, they end up in a creepy wet market that looks genuinely horrifying, including a bowl full of puppies that look like they're headed for a wok instead of a walk. The final confrontation between the enemy tattooists who have covered Western girls with glow-in-the-dark tattoos is as strange and kaleidoscopic a sight as one could hope for a film like this. And the very final scene (really, the last two or three shots) are as graphic and strange a gore shot as one could hope from any exploitation movie.
Inferno of Torture is only going to appeal to anyone who, off the bat, does not balk at seeing a movie titled Inferno of Torture. If that's not appealing, nothing about it will redeem it from that title. But even that audience will have to endure a non-linear story that is not improved by its non-linearity, a coherent narrative that tries to de-cohere at every point. Inferno of Torture is, basically, a pretty stupid movie, but one that will occasionally show you things you haven't seen before.
Inferno of Torture has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. Extras on the disc include a full length commentary track by Tom Mes and a 30-minute video presentation of Ero-Guro titled "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japanese Cult Counterculture" by Jasper Sharp. Also included in the booklet is an essay by Chris D. on Teruo Ishii, as well as the director's filmography.