Inferno of Torture
(Tokugawa irezumi-shi: Seme jigoku) (1969)
Directed by Teruo Ishii

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * ½

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In Nineteenth Century Japan, various women are forced into prostitution in a particular brothel. There, they are raped, tortured, and abused, and the body of each is covered with elaborate tattoos. The artists creating these, meanwhile, participate in a competition to display their skills, which is to be judged by the Shogun. Unfortunately, rivalries amongst these men, together with the greed and ambitions of the owners of the brothel, lead to murders, attempts to sell women into sexual slavery, and other crimes besides these.

Teruo Ishii's Inferno of Torture is a vicious, sometimes incoherent, and yet captivating film.

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I will concede that the story Ishii tells is very poorly developed. Characters appear and disappear with such rapidity that the viewer is rarely able to immerse himself in their lives. The director has actually included some interesting details about these persons, such as how one woman is thrown into the brothel in order to pay the debt she owes for her ailing younger brother's medical treatments, how a particularly skilled tattoo artist loves one of the prostitutes, how another such artist, being jealous of others' greater talents, tries to outdo them by working for the panderers (though these persons retain his services only by addicting him to drugs), how the brothel owners attempt to sell women overseas with the help of a vicious white man living in Japan, and so on. Regrettably, these elements, though introduced, are never given sufficient attention. They first tantalize the viewer and then frustrate him.

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Although the film's narrative is disappointing, Inferno of Torture is still thoroughly engaging. It is alive with a wild cruelty, with a deliciously nihilistic appreciation of human suffering. Over and over again, Ishii exposes the ordeals endured by one or another of the women confined in the brothel that is the focus of his movie. He shows women being suspended upside down and then flogged for the pleasure of their assailants, other women being brutally raped, yet others being tortured or mutilated, and still others being degraded in yet different ways. There is hardly an activity the film's female characters are presented as engaging in that is not lurid and exploitative. Whether they are being paraded naked in front of potential male clients, fighting amongst themselves, or being humiliated by their masters or by one another, they are constantly reduced to the most abject of conditions. Though relatively few of the scenes depicting such deeds are truly gruesome, most are harsh and a few are pretty nasty. The film's very first moments, for instance, reveal one woman being speared in her crotch and another having her head sawed off. Later scenes include depictions of a woman who, having been hung upside down, is beaten and stabbed, and who has her eyes gouged out, another woman being torn in half when the pair of trees to which her legs have been fastened, and which have been bent towards one another, are suddenly released, and a woman who, in order to escape her tormentors, hides in a coffin with a corpse, which is then placed upon a funeral pyre. The movie is enthrallingly vicious.

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What is more, Inferno of Torture is always appealing visually. The director alternates between the most beautiful of locations, including rocky beaches, gorgeously decorated rooms, and courtyards thronging with well dressed noblemen, and others that are utterly grim or terrible, including filthy, crowded dungeons, markets filled with the carcasses of various sorts of animals, and corpse strewn execution grounds. Such locations are inhabited by individuals who are as lovely or as fearsome as they are. The movie is absolutely packed with gorgeous women, almost all of whom are at least partially naked throughout nearly the whole of the film, so that the elaborate, stunning tattoos that cover the body of each are continuously displayed. These, I might add, though probably not real tattoos, are genuinely lovely and are made the focus of a large portion of Inferno of Torture. Lastly, I should say that all of these places and individuals are beautifully filmed. The director shows real skill in his choices of composition, camera angles, colors, and the like. The movie really is visually arresting.

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Whatever its faults, and these are considerable, Inferno of Torture is a memorable, affecting, and beautiful movie.

Review by Keith Allen

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