When a form of entertainment is facing a crisis, when other forms of media cut into its business and make it more and more difficult to be profitable, the most tried-and-true formula for clawing your banks books out of the red: exploitation! This was what faced the Japanese film industry from the early '60s onward, when television had finally become more pervasive and people could get their entertainment without having to go to the movie theater. Movie studios worked hard to show on the movie screen material you just can't get on television...which in the case of the Japanese studios was apparently historical erotic torture movies.
All of the studios got into it eventually in one way or another, and Toei did so via Teruo Ishii's Shogun's Joy of Torture in 1968. That set the template that this release, Orgies of Edo from 1969, followed. The film is an anthology of three stories of sex and torture. Sometimes the sex follows the torture, other times it comes before. For some lucky ladies, it all happens at once. All of the stories take place in the Genroku period of the Edo era (roughly the late 17th century) where prosperity and decadence were at their height for pre-modern Japan, or so the opening narration tells us. The stories are supposed to demonstrate the depravity of the various classes throughout Japanese society.
All of which is simply a pretext to have a lot of pretty kimonos and neat-looking wooden buildings and paper walls, while women prance around in various state of undress. Not that I'm complaining. The first story is about a pair of poor sisters who barely have enough money to live on. One sells dolls on the street while the other runs around, getting into trouble. When some yakuza try to collect on a loan by selling the girls, they're defended by a handsome young man who seems to have the girls' best interests at heart. Of course, he does not, and eventually the woman is forced into prostitution.
The second story involves a merchant's daughter with a bizarre fetish: she likes to be defiled by men with deformities. In the unforgettable opening scene, a pair of dwarves (including one with brilliantly fake, flaming red hair) break into her room, strip her, and ravage her. When they're done, she takes out a whip and beats them both within an inch of their life. All in good fun. Her depraved needs escalate, all the while her faithful man-servant, who is totally devoted to her, has to procure her men, and control his desire for her.
The final story concerns an insane lord who has murderously perverse tastes. In one of the most insane sequences in the film, he fills a room with courtesans in red robes, then sets wild bulls in with torches strapped to their horns to chase them down and gore them if they don't strip out of their clothing. Several of the woman are trampled or ripped apart, while the lord watches on, shooting arrows into the room to catch the women's clothes and spear them in place so the bulls can get to them. He takes a fancy to one survivor, until he finds out she has tastes even more perverse than his.
It sounds like an elaborate horror show, disgusting to any sensibility, but the gusto with which director Teruo Ishii dives into each segment (not to mention the completely unbelievable special effects) make it more surreal and goofy than strictly horrifying. As the film runs, the stories get stranger until the increasingly bizarre imagery of that final story, which also includes a nude woman being painted gold, then thrown into a mirrored room that shows her imploring dying image from all angles, and finally a cesarean by samurai sword.
There's copious nudity in the film, of course, almost exclusively topless female. There were strict prohibitions in Japan at the time about displaying genitalia or pubic hair, and certainly no below-the-belt action was filmed. Most of the on-screen sex involves grabbing breasts and rather general writhing. Bondage is a recurrent theme, with the heroine in each story (and at least once, the man) being tied up in an elaborate harness and lifted several feet off the ground, then typically beaten with bamboo rods. There is a very thin thread of a connecting narrative: at some point, the doctor Gentatsu (Teruo Yoshida, who also stared in the director's Horrors of Malformed Men) coming in contact with all three female leads, usually near the ends of their lives, but otherwise these are short, weird tales of growing madness and debauchery.
Orgies of Edo doesn't contain much in the way of orgies. Or historical realism. What it does have is an increasingly mad vision of violence and eroticism. The film's title sequence features a bizarre display of different human oddities (and one perfectly normal, though confused looking canine) in tableau, out of which a dancer writhes out. The dancer is Tatsumi Hijikata, who went on to have larger roles in later Ishii movies Horrors of Malformed Men and Blind Woman's Curse. It's a strange display that gets stranger as it goes on - which also describes many of Ishii's films. Orgies of Edo is a curio, one of a series of 10 erotic torture movies that Ishii made for Toei. Not pornography by any strict definition, though certainly violent and lurid, but I found it all too difficult to take seriously enough to ever find it offensive.
Arrow Video has released Orgies of Edo on Blu-ray. The on-disc extras include the film's trailer and a 16-minute video interview with critic of Japanese film Patrick Maccias. The booklet includes a short essay by Tom Mes on Ishii's erotic torture films, which informed the historical portions of this review.