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Review: “Inferno of Torture” from Arrow Video

Tuesday, July 14, 2020 | Blu-ray/DVD

Starring Teruo Yoshida, Masumi Tachibana, Asao Koike
Directed by Teruo Ishii
Written by Masahiro Kakefuda and Teruo Ishii
Arrow Video

I’m not one to turn my nose up at anyone’s chosen poison, but the films of Teruo Ishii leave me feeling especially icky. Of course, that was the desired effect of Japan’s Ero guro (“erotic-grotesque”) art movement, but Ishii’s pinku eiga push the boundaries of violence directed against females far enough to make even torture-porn diehards shift in their seats. His most famous film, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) is heavy on the guro, not so much on the ero, but his most infamous films, like Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1968), Orgies of Edo (1969), or the rest of his six “strange love” films are rife with erotic cruelty, marking them as low entertainments in period trappings that offer up violence against women as the main course. 

Inferno of Torture (1969) tells the story of Yumi (Yumiko Katayama), who, through flashback, tells the story of her abuse at the hands of a cruel sapphic madam, named Otatsu (Mieko Fujimoto) and her ashen-faced partner, Samejima (Haruo Tanaka) who kidnap, torture, and tattoo young women before loaning them out at sex slaves to affluent merchants, respected samurai, and Westerners. Eventually, Yumi exits the story, which refocuses on her fellow captive, Nami (Masumi Tachibana), who finds herself caught in the crosshairs between two dueling tattoo artists (Teruo Yoshida and Asao Koike) employed by the brothel. 

The somewhat complicated narrative that Inferno of Torture spins isn’t terribly involving and sets it apart from Ishii’s other strange love films, which are omnibus features made up of multiple stories. Aside from the dueling tattooists, the film’s most interesting feature (and selling point) is the proud display of what must be hundreds of female backs adorned with tattoo art. Though sometimes more obviously painted on than others, these are truly stunning works of art and Ishii finds moments of more gentle eroticism photographing the pliant, human canvas dotted by beads of sweat. 

But, of course, nobody comes to a house of horror for the window dressing. As the most intensely cruel of Ishii’s works, Inferno of Torture’s buffet of depravity includes body binding, chastity belts, crucifixion, gut stabbing, eye stabbing, vaginal stabbing, rape, catfights, head sawing, transphobia, homophobia, live burial, the slaughtering of pigs (real), the eating of dogs (implied), kidnapping, forced tattooing, grave-defilement, immolation, and so many bare breasts it would be a fool’s errand to try and count them all. The opening passages let you know just what you’re in for right out of the gate, with spears spilling pudendal blood before the title card even pops up. The final image, as well, is so jaw-droppingly gratuitous, it’s hard not to laugh in disbelief. 

Arrow’s Special Edition release goes a long way to increase one’s appreciation of Inferno of Torture, and Ishii’s films more broadly. The restoration is expectedly stellar, but the small yet potent offering of special features is the real draw here. These include a can’t-miss audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes, as well as Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture–a condensed version of Jasper Sharp’s insightful Miskatonic Institute lecture. These, plus the included booklet (first pressing only) with writing by Chris D., add considerable cultural value to a film that could easily be written off as violent smut. The disc is adorned with a reversible sleeve featuring original and eye-catching new art by Jacob Phillips.

Flamboyantly violent and sexually cruel, Inferno of Torture is one of Teruo Ishii’s most extreme visions of the erotic-grotesque. Though to modern eyes, its depravity may seem a bit tame, the sheer amount of it on display and its tonally grey morality chips away at the defenses of even the most jaded viewer. Arrow Video’s transfer is vibrant, and the included special features help contextualize Ishii’s bizarre Ero guro opus within its broader cultural and artistic context, making Inferno of Torture’s forbidden delights worth sampling, even if they aren’t to your taste.

Inferno of Torture is available now from Arrow Video 

Rocco T. Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer, critic, film journalist, and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is a regular contributor to Screen Rant, Slant Magazine, and other cinema-centric publications.