Whatever else you could say about the films of Teruo Ishii, he had a way with a title. A ludicrously prolific period in the late ’60s saw the likes of: Yakuza Law, Orgies of Edo, Horrors of Malformed Men and Inferno of Torture churned out at bewildering speed. The last of these is the latest to find its way onto Blu-ray courtesy of a glossy reissue from Arrow. As with the others, it’s a phenomenally mean-spirited slice of exploitation. And just like the others, Ishii’s garish artistic sense makes it well worth investigation.

In the late Edo period two tattooists (Teruo Yoshida and Asao Koike) use the bodies of the Geishas at a perverted brothel as a living battleground for their rivalry. Two women in particular suffer the consequences of this enmity, as their skin is marked with both the artists’ ink, and the less aesthetically-inclined attentions of the sadistic madam (Mieko Fujimoto) and the European patrons who fetishise the women of this exotic culture newly opened up to the world.

Ishii’s films are often associated with the ero guro nansensu movement (erotic grotesque nonsense), and that fairly neatly sums up the content of this diptych of squalid tales. With a relatively equal ratio of beautiful art, bare flesh and sexual violence, Inferno of Torture feels like a cinematic extension of the more prurient literary trends that arose in the Shōwa period, and itself saw a new western influence on Japanese culture. With a strangely psychedelic edge, it also feels in keeping with the counter-culture of the time. It’s a weird mix that pulls no punches in terms of its content.

While the two duelling tattooists are the ostensible antagonists of the two stories, the women who come under their needles are the narrators of both. The first and most brutal sees Yuki (Yumiko Katayama) put through a series of indignities to rival de Sade‘s Justine. Far from the least of her ordeals has her digging up the grave of her rapist to retrieve a key to a chastity belt. This device was bolted on to her like a car clamp in an act of victim blaming that is particularly cruel due to the pregnancy that resulted from her violation. As with de Sade’s heroine, no virtue goes unpunished and there is no justice to be found. Osuzu (Masumi Tachibana) picks up the dubious mantle in the second tale, which unsurprisingly plays out like the first, albeit with retribution meted out to a few of those who acutely deserve it.

For those familiar with Ishii’s films, the decadent aesthetic of Inferno of Torture will be instantly recognisable. As a contract director with the famed Toei studio, Ishii was able to make his films cheaply using the intricate sets that remained from the previous 20 years of production. The film’s design is therefore of a notably higher standard than most exploitation cinema. Narrative plays second fiddle to spectacle, but Ishii’s eye for startling imagery and blood-soaked provocation are always present, keeping the film curiously watchable.

While criticisms of Inferno of Torture as misogynistic in outlook are undoubtedly valid, comparisons with other films like Yakuza Law and Horrors of Malformed Men demonstrate a streak of equal opportunities misanthropy. In fact, the first segment in particular has narrative similarities to Kenji Mizoguchi‘s beloved tragedy The Life of Oharu. The fate of poor Yuki is more likely to draw winces than tears, but one senses Ichii is concerned with more than just empty spectacle and is drawing from established literary tradition.

As with many films that fall under the loose banner of exploitation, the level to which this can be recommended is often limited. Inferno of Torture will be a hugely acquired taste, but will likely attract a crossover audience from fans of giallo cinema for instance. You can also see its DNA in the likes of Female Prisoner #701 and Lady Snowblood that would follow in its wake. Strange, twisted, and stylish enough to make up for a disjointed narrative, it’s up to the usual standards of Ishii’s bizarre, BDSM-inflected savagery.

Available on Blu-ray from Mon 6 Jul 2020