By Jeremy Carr.
The emphasis on carnage hardly indicates what is truly the film’s more disturbing content, namely its brutal treatment of the women.”
Teruo Ishii’s Inferno of Torture is a difficult film to assess. On one hand, it fails to live up to the bold assertions made by Arrow Video on their Blu-ray release, celebrating the 1969 film as “incredibly violent and salacious” and stating it “[depicts] some of the most perverse violence ever captured on screen,” including its “shock ending that will leave the audience’s mouths agape.” Certainly, the imagery under its opening credits is audacious, showing crucified women speared as geysers of blood flow, while others, buried underground save for their head, are summarily decapitated. But until that “shock” ending, what follows is, in terms of violent explicitness, relatively mild. On the other hand, this emphasis on the carnage – to whatever its actual degree – hardly indicates what is truly the film’s more disturbing content, namely its brutal treatment of the women subject to the story’s (and the actual production’s) fundamental aim.
Before addressing this content, though, there is indeed a story. Three of them, actually. There is, first, the tale of Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), a young woman who recalls her degrading misfortunes in flashback. As payment for a debt, she was sold to a deviant brothel headed by the sadistic madam Otatsu (Mieko Fujimoto) and her pallid partner Samejima (Haruo Tanaka). She was tortured and assaulted and is eventually, when the timeline catches up, killed. At this point, Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana), another victim of the house of horrors and pleasures, becomes the ostensible protagonist as we follow her similarly sullied trajectory, with rather less exposition. While they were present and integral to preceding scenes, Inferno of Torture’s third act primarily revolves around dueling tattoo artists (Teruo Yoshida and Asao Koike) who are also subject to assorted mistreatments.
Even where there are clear through lines, the plot of Inferno of Torture is not only minor but muddled, a deficiency Tom Mes acknowledges in his commentary track for the film. As he notes, Ishii’s prior work often took shape as omnibus tales of depravity, so here, where the narrative is comparatively complete, there is the tendency to “pad” the story’s progression with superfluous inserts and extended sequences (confusing voiceovers and digressions likewise hinder cohesive headway). If there’s a surprise in the way Inferno of Torture develops, though, it’s the stress placed on tattooing and the related plight of the two central artists. Amongst so much unpleasantness, the film’s accent on the aesthetics and craft of the body art is unusually positive and prominent, emphasizing beauty and genuine talent even when serving more perverse purposes. Furthermore, in the slightest of hints toward some semblance of morality, while one of the artists, Horihide (Teruo Yoshida), is established as inherently good from the start, his more malicious counterpart, Horitatsu (Asao Koike), is granted a chance for redemption via his capabilities.
Yet therein lies a troubling aspect of Inferno of Torture’s narrative, and its own making. The theme of complicity is inescapable. No matter how virtuous or redeemable some characters are, they nevertheless conform to the corruption. Certainly, some are more obviously ingrained in the impiety than others, like the madam and the Dutch businessman Clayton (Yusuf Hoffman), who figures into another of the film’s subplots concerning the commercial industry devoted to tattooed geishas. But even Horihide, and especially Horitatsu, are consciously subservient to the wicked whims of those in charge. Perhaps more significantly, this conflict of disposition is indicative of Inferno of Torture itself, in terms of its position on such matters and its own genesis.
No matter how virtuous or redeemable some characters are, they nevertheless conform to the corruption.”
As with the many Toei Studios exploitation films produced at the time, Ishii’s film is driven by the male gaze and aberrant modes of voyeurism, with shots lingering on naked and debased female bodies (mostly from the waist up) and assorted forms of sexual humiliation framed by holes in walls and through glass panes above and below the spectacle. (For all its faults, Inferno of Torture does boast some admirable production design, from the winding chambers of the brothel to a Nagasaki marketplace; the colors are vivid and the compositions, as in these peepshow perspectives, are imaginative.) And what is one to make of the film’s stance on misogyny? Mes questions if the movie is itself guilty of this bias or is merely about it. The answer he arrives at, correctly so, is it’s a “bit of both.” More disconcerting, however, is not the film’s obvious devotion to provocative material (such fare is hardly unique and has been featured in some admittedly entertaining films) but its apparent creation, which was likewise culpable in the shamelessness. Mes states that the initial lead left the production because of what she was asked to do and one actress was essentially starved into compliance. Suggesting the difficulties of what occurred behind the scenes, and the apparently limited reward for conformity, he adds that some of the women who do figure in the film were simply those willing to appear.
With that said, one has to credit Arrow for placing the entire film in context. Aside from Mes’ insightful commentary, the disc contains an essay by Chris D. and a lecture by Jasper Sharp, both of which, like Mes’ observations, discuss the status, the history, and the complexities of films like Inferno of Torture. In addition to exploring Ishii’s filmography, alluding to some of his most popular features like Joys of Torture (1968) and Orgies of Edo (1969), these extras support the director’s productivity (Inferno of Torture was one of seven films he made in 1969 alone) and note how a film like this situates itself within Ishii’s “strange love” series. Inferno of Torture is also a film more broadly emblematic of the so-called ero guro nansensu genre, which translates as “erotic grotesque nonsense,” a more than apt description of this particular entry. Still, forgetting its other transgressions (an offensive presentation of crossdressing one can reluctantly chalk up to the era in which the film was made), and stepping away from any appeal derived from the cinematic sensationalism, it’s hard to take Inferno of Torture for what it is knowing how exactly it came to be. Having a bondage master on set to ensure authenticity scarcely makes up for the degradation that also occurred, which was, according to the Arrow disc’s supplements, tragically commonplace.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.