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Skin is In: Ishii’s Signature Erotic Violence in Inferno of Torture (1969) | Blu-ray Review

An unsung eccentric of Japanese cinema is Teruo Ishii, referred to in his native country as ‘the King of Cult,’ whose forays into Ere Guro (erotic grotesque) cinema play like the exploitational love child of the cinematic hits by Hiroshi Teshigahara and Yasuzo Masumura. Many of the titles from his prolific career remain largely unavailable in the West, but Arrow Video continues to recuperate his work with the re-release of 1969’s Inferno of Torture, which, as its title indicates, is a violent, torture-porn narrative chock full of memorable items hellbent on shock value.

Perhaps best known for his titles Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), which was headlined by Meiko Kaji (she of the Female Prisoner Scorpion fame), or his Island of Dr. Moreau riff Horrors of Malformed Men (based on the Edogawa Rampo novel), this was but one of seven titles Ishii released in 1969, and like an unshackled bubble of a warped nightmare, at last returns to consciousness.

Opening upon a gruesome sequence of crucified “criminal” women stabbed through their orifices, the narrative turns first on Yumi (Yumika Katayama) as she desecrates the grave of Genzo (Shin’ichiro Hayashi), clawing a key he swallowed out of his corpse which will unlock the chastity belt slapped on her body by Otatsu (Mieko Fujimoto), the madame at a funky geisha house Yumi has found herself trapped in. But then the key snaps off in the lock. Backing up a few paces, we learn Yumi began working for Otatsu after she was unable to pay a debt, but she discovers too late it is a geisha house involved in the trafficking of tattooed women. Here, the women are valued for their virgin skin as tattoo artists use them as canvases to gain acclaim in competitions. But some of the clients like to take other things, and Genzo’s proclivity for rape ends in Otatsu not only punishing Yumi but murdering the miscreant. Yumi was also caught between the kind hearted tattoo artist Horihide (Teruo Yoshida), who wished to use her body to win a competition, and, therefore the hand of Yumi’s cohort Nami (Yasumi Tachibana), but Otetsu attempts to have his work erased by rival Horitatsu (Asao Koike). The plot backfires, but then Nami becomes embroiled in Otatsu’s next scheme to frame Horitatsu for murder.

Inferno of Torture is bookended with two of its most extreme sequences, which is where the title might earn the distinction of, as nominated by this re-release, “depicting some of the most perverse violence ever captured on screen.” However, it depends on one’s own level of desensitization, although these sequences are certainly gruesome and misogynistic.

Although both Yumi and Nami are allowed limited agency, it’s really the lesbian madame Otetsu who shares some equality with men, if at least in her penchant for brutality, and, natch, sexual assault. Like a cross between Mizoguchi’s swan song Street of Shame (1956) and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996), violence, oppression and sexuality are inextricably intertwined in ways which Ishii plumbs more for exploitational thrills than anything else. Still, with some unforgettable visuals and entertaining snippets of dialogue (not to mention a splendorous tattoo reveal when Otetsu’s machinations find Horitatsu blotting out Horihide’s work with his own on Yumi’s body), Inferno of Torture is one of several testaments suggesting “The King of Cult” has yet to find the wider recognition he deserves.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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