Punishment of the Tokugawa
Synopsis & Analysis
Ishii here relates three separate stories, all of which are set in the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In the first of these, a poor man suffers an accident, and although he cannot afford the medical treatment he requires, a wealthy neighbor pays for a well-known doctor to attend upon him. Unfortunately, this neighbor is doing so only in order to force the man to consent to give him his sister as a mistress. The injured man refuses, but the woman secretly agrees to meet her suitor, who then rapes her. After her return home, her brother confesses to her that he loves her as a woman, not as a sister, and proceeds to rape her himself. The pair subsequently engage in an incestuous relationship, which is revealed when the man, out of guilt, kills himself. After this, the woman is arrested and tried for the crime of incest. In the second story, the abbess of a Buddhist convent is involved in a lesbian relationship with one of her nuns, but the latter woman secretly begins a sexual relationship with a monk who resides nearby. The abbess, though she seduces and has sex with the monk herself, nonetheless orders a number of the nuns under her authority to torture her erstwhile lover in various grisly ways, until the woman dies, after which she decapitates the monk and keeps his head to be her companion. She does not get to enjoy her possession of the head, however, as she and her followers are soon arrested and tried for their crimes. In the last story, a tattoo artist, having created on the back of a geisha what he considers to be his best work, an image of a woman in agony, is criticized by a professional torturer for not having accurately depicted the expression of a person in extreme pain. The tattooist asks this man to let him observe his work, and when the torturer agrees, follows him to Nagasaki, where he is posted. There, the tattooist witnesses the torturer inflicting diverse agonies on a group of European women whose ship was wrecked nearby and who are accused of spreading Christianity in Japan.
Although Ishii does not bring these stories to the screen using many truly enthralling images, Female Punishment of the Tokugawa is still appealing to look at. The director does show real skill in conjuring up another age and at capturing the emotional tenor of particular situations. The scene in the first tale during which the female prisoner, having been accused of incest, appears before a magistrate who happens to look like her brother manages to catch both her feelings of insignificance and confusion and the magnificence of the official. That in the second story depicting the meeting of the young nun with the monk who is her lover in a field alive with green leafed trees and blossoming flowers, conveys a real sense of joy, and those scenes in which various women are being tortured burn with terror and repulsiveness. Virtually every moment of the film is a pleasure to look at, even if few of these are genuinely bewitching.
Those sequences presenting some woman or another being tortured are not, I should mention, especially graphic, but they are still pretty sleazy and leering. What is more, over the course of the movie, the director depicts women enduring a seemingly endless series of agonies. One woman is pulled apart by oxen, another is hung upside down in the surf so that she will be drowned, a third is beheaded and her body lopped into halves, and a whole group of women (the murderous nuns of the second story), having been hung from crosses, are repeatedly speared. Over the course of the third story, the viewer is treated to an especially large number of such acts. Women are put in cangues and whipped, set upon grills and roasted, fixed to wheels so that they can be repeatedly ducked, and so on and so on. It is the second story, however, that has one of the film's most nasty sequences. In this, the nun who took the monk as her lover is tortured in various ways by the abbess and her lackeys. The victim of these torments, having been caught in a net hung from the ceiling, is first submersed in a tub of water into which a a ridiculous number of loaches is poured so that these fish can swim, en masse, into her vagina; then, again having been hung form the ceiling, the woman is forced to endure having red peppers thrust into that same orifice, and, finally, her genitals are burned with a red hot brand. Even this list does not include every such incident in the movie.
As vicious as these scenes can be, the viewer is likely to find that much of the intensity of his reaction to them is due to his actually caring about the characters suffering the different punishments shown. The stories Ishii tells are engaging, and they are about persons who are, on the whole, nicely delineated. The young woman who is at the center of the first part of the movie, for instance, is an appealing human being. The viewer is sure to see how she loves her brother so much that, in order to save him, she is willing to submit to the sexual desires of the man who paid for his medical treatment, and how, though she does love her brother, she is, at first, reluctant to become involved in a sexual relationship with him (though, once this has begun, she not only accepts but even relishes it). The character comes across as a genuine person, someone who gets caught up in a situation that is not of her making and whose emotional reactions are, at once, conflicted and powerful.
Though it is by no means Ishii's best film, Female Punishment of the Tokugawa is still an fascinating, well made work.
Review by Keith Allen
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