Inferno of Torture, Tokugawa Irezumi-Shi: Seme Jigoku (1969)
Directed by: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Asao Koike, Haruo Tanaka, Masumi Tachibana, Mieko Fujimoto, Shin'ichirô Hayashi, Teruo Yoshida, Yumiko Katayama, Yusuf Hoffman
INFERNO OF TORTURE (1969)
aka Tokugawa Irezumi-shi: Seme Jigoku
Directed by Teruo Ishii
Japanese Language with English Subtitles
To pay back her debt, Yumi is sent to an unusual brothel-type institution where tattoo artists ink their masterpieces on the virgin flesh of young women when they’re not being whipped and tortured by businessmen with peculiar tastes. The geisha ladies merely become canvases in a competition to see who can gain the highest praise from the shogun. The winner will win Osuzu’s hand in marriage, of which her father is adamant her lover, the quiet, contemplative Horihide, will win with his tranquil, sophisticated pieces. However, he has stiff competition from rival Horitatsu, who’s ink creations outshine the rest but who’s subject matter comes from a place of darkness and horror compared to Horihide’s work of light and hope. With the brothel owners betting on their man Horitatsu to win and bargaining a deal with a wealthy foreigner, Clayton, to provide him with tattooed slave girls, Horihide must do everything in his power to ensure their face off is a fair fight and to win the heart of his beloved Osuzu.
With a title like Inferno of Torture, I was expecting a film quite shocking in nature and, with the opening credit sequence displaying a woman being speared between the legs, it seemed like gratuitous torture porn was definitely on the menu. Strangely enough, this is as dark as it generally gets before the rolling credits with the majority of the film focusing on the competition between a group of tattooists, in particular two highly-skilled artists.
After the nastiness of the opening credits, we’re treated to a touch of Euro sleaze exploitation as a woman named Yumi, wearing a chastity belt, scrambles in the grave of what appears to be some kind of slaver before finding the key to unlock her lady garden. Unfortunately for her, the key snaps in the lock, her genitalia destined to be locked forever more. It’s from here that the film works backwards to show us exactly how this young woman got herself in this situation. Cue lots of topless women, mostly inked whilst those sporting unmarked skin become the perfect canvas for the artists to lay their disturbed, ink creations onto.
As Inferno of Torture unfolds, we see exactly how depraved the brothel business is from a fresh pair of eyes; Yumi’s eyes. Forced lesbianism, whipping, bondage, torture and pain become commonplace as brothel madam Otatsu and her sidekick Samejima rule the roost. However, Genzo, another henchman at the brothel, looks to sample the goods himself but this doesn’t go down well with Otatsu who finally discovers what he’s been secretly up to.
Yumi’s story only tells half the tale as the rest is taken up by the rivalry between Horihide and Horitatsu. The duo not only fight for the prestigious honour of being the best tattooist but also the hand in marriage of Osuzu, who’s skin remains unmarked. This is possibly due to the fact her father is the current tattooist grandmaster but is sick on his deathbed which is why the tattoo competition is being held by the Shogun to find a worthy successor. This part of the plot takes over halfway through the movie after Yumi’s segment concludes and isn’t especially clear at first as Osuzu just seems to pop up out of nowhere, resulting in me having to rewind and rewatch segments after the film finished. What does seem to connect Yumi and Osuzu’s plot-threads is the fact that a group of inked women are being kept prisoner and are due to be sold off to Westerner, Clayton, who’s appetite for tattooed, naked beauties know no bounds. I’m not sure if he realises he’s being ripped off a little, however, as some of the “women” being transported and sold as sex slaves are men badly passing themselves off as women, something which eventually causes a scrap between the trafficked geisha girls, providing a little comic relief from the darker subject matter at hand.
Outside of the nudity, tattoos and torture, there’s very little in the story neither much depth to the characters to make you care about what’s going on whilst the main thread of the tattoo rivalry feeling rather superficial and egotistical, and you could say rather chauvinistic as women are exploited for their gain. There’s only really one scene that really makes an emotional impact and that’s when two women attempt to escape their fate and run through a wet market in order to flee. Be warned, there are images of live and dead puppies on display throughout this segment which isn’t a pleasant visual to behold. It’s during the escape that we get a true sense of the world outside the brothel as most of the film, up to that point, is centred around the brothel and its activities. This is the only real shot of the women trying to fight and change their circumstances and it’s a shame there’s not more. Instead, the women are means to an end and disposable.
In my opinion, Inferno of Torture is a very shallow movie which feels part women-in-prison flick and part revenge thriller, but together they seem to cancel each other out due to the women becoming not much more than set dressing and filler for the tattoo rivalry to feed off of. Even Horihide, a kind, caring protagonist of the movie who’s full of honour compared to the rest, uses the women sent to him as a blank canvas for his artwork without their consent so, in my mind, his actions cannot be excused either even though we end up rooting for him.
As the film concludes, Inferno of Torture can’t help but treat us to one last shocking visage which pretty much sums the film up: all style but no real substance.
The Arrow Video release comes with a fascinating lecture presentation by Jasper Sharp, who discusses the nature of Japanese cinema and culture of this style, as well as an audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes.