Director 101: Teruo Ishii: A Journey into the Seedy Underbelly of Japanese Cinema

In Japan, Teruo Ishii has been dubbed the "King of Cult" but he is much less well known here in the states. Although he directed many standard films in the yakuzua and noir genres, he made a lot of very strange and trangressive works as well. This article is just meant to be a starting point for someone who is unfamiliar with his work and would like more information. All of these films, except Shogun's Joy of Torture, are available on DVD or Blu-ray.

Shogun's Joy of Torture (1968)

This was the first film in Ishii's Tokugawa Series of which there are seven entries! It depicts the methods used by the Shogunate to punish criminals, though it was sometimes used unfairly. The film is split into three short stories about unfortunate individuals who, due to terrible circumstances, end up being subjected to torture.

Each tale has considerable set-up, and although it would be easy to categorize this movie as mere exploitation or torture porn, the amount of care put into both the narrative and the cinematography give the film more depth. While the torture scenes are indeed meant to be titillating, the morality behind the stories is sound. It's made quite apparent that Shogun's Joy of Torture is a critique of Feudalism and the environment it fostered. Peasants had next to no rights and were at the mercy of a cold and uncaring government that could at any time subjugate them. Ishii, through the dialogue of the characters, expresses the idea that this all controlling government is not a good thing.

It is strange for the film to simultaneously have sex and violence used as entertainment and be a scathing social commentary, but Ishii often tackles complex diametrically opposed ideas in his films, whether it be genre-mixing or ideology-mixing. Stylistically speaking, this film has fantastic gore effects and excellent editing. The torture scenes look uncomfortably realistic and at times it is an extremely hard watch. This is one of Ishii's more intense works and it is less accessible than his other films. Fans of pinku films will want to put this on their watchlist.

Unavailable as a physical release in the West

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)

Ishii was a huge fan of author Edogawa Rampo and adapted many of his stories onto film. One such tale is Panorama Island Oten, a mystery with surreal horror elements. This was renamed to Horrors of Malformed Men and became one of the the catalysts for Toei's pinky violence era of cinema.

The story concerns a man named Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida), who has lost his memory and been wrongly imprisoned in a mental asylum. He escapes and flees to a local circus. He eventually discovers that he has an uncanny resemblance to a recently deceased wealthy man named Genzaburo Komoda, and decides to assume his identity to live out his life in the lap of luxury. Unfortunately, the Komoda family has more than a few skeletons in their closet with some of them being downright deadly.

For the first two-thirds of the film, the events are depicted as straightforward, but in the third act, things take a turn for the bizarre. Hirosuke takes a trip to an island off the coast of the Komoda residence, an island that his "father" Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata) has been using to conduct terrible experimentation on humans. At this point of the movie the visuals go into hyper-drive with bright colors, flashy gold-painted nude women, and grotesque abominations cobbled together by Jogoro. The island represents depravity and hedonism on a grand scale with a man who is satisfying all of his basest desires no matter the cost.

There seems to be a recurrent theme in Japanese films post WWII where those who are disfigured or considered "freaks" are depicted as evil people unworthy of respect. One can't help but think of the parallel between this idea of disfigurement equaling evil and the way the burned survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were ostracized after the war--often times becoming scapegoats for the weakness or failure of Japan after they surrendered. Jogoro has a webbed hand that he is sensitive about and this abnormality causes him to become overly obsessed with his beautiful wife. When she cheats on him he goes insane, and begins hurting everyone he can, even those who are innocent.

In a way, this is a morality play and none of the players have clean hands (though their transgressions vary) and tragically nobody escapes unscathed. At its heart Horrors of Malformed Men is a tragic exploration of the secrets that families can bury and the darkness that can lurk just around the corner.

Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

Blind Woman's Curse (1970)

This is one of the more bizarre entries in Ishii's filmography: it's a yakuza tale, a ghost story, and an exercise in the ero guro or "erotic grotesque" genre. None of these pieces really come together in a fully satisfactory way, but the entire thing is so stylishly directed that it doesn't really matter.

A female yakuza boss named Akemi Tachibana (Meiko Kaji's very first role) is pursued by a malevolent ghostly black cat that is connected to an woman swordsman she blinded in a rival gang fight. Although Akemi tries to lead a more peaceful life after the incident her previous transgressions come back to haunt both her and her loyal gang members. As the story progresses it shifts gears constantly from hard boiled gang warfare, to slapstick comedy, to disturbing horror. Apparently Nikkatsu studio told Ishii at the last minute that he had to add supernatural elements to a more traditional yakuza film and he just rolled with it and did the best he could.

As for the ero guro elements, the blind swordswoman is part of a traveling performance troupe that is comprised of strange freaks and ghoulish looking creatures. One such individual, a humpbacked dancer (Butoh inventor Tatsumi Hijikata) is particularly creepy, with his while spastic dancing and long matted hair (which he uses to lovingly wash the swordswoman's legs after hours). The Butoh style of dancing shown in the film adds an extra layer of subtext as the dance was invented as a counter to traditional dancing. Butoh often deals with dark and subversive emotions and elements and it's a perfect accent to the general debauchery present in Blind Woman's Curse.

The third act of the film is visually fantastic as Akemi and the blinded warrior face off under an extremely stylized night sky filled with spirals of clouds. Both of these characters occupy a moral grey area but you can't help but hope that the outcome isn't bad for either of them. Although the ending is a bit abrupt it is poignant and poetic. 

Available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

Bohachi Bushido: Code of the Forgotten Eight (1973)

Bohachi Bushido is a nudity and blood filled chambara film that plays out like sleazier version of the Lone Wolf and Cub franchise. The story concerns a nihilistic ronin named Shiro who tires to kill himself by throwing himself into a river. He is rescued by the nefarious Clan of the Forgotten Eight, so-named for their disregard of the "eight virtues": god, servitude, loyalty, trust, propriety, justice, conscience, and shame. They take him back to their hideout and show him the horrible deeds they perpetrate upon their helpless victims. Basically, they run a prostitution ring and "train" young women to become sex slaves. Most of these women are either kidnapped or taken as payment from families who owe them money.

Shiro doesn't seem to be offended at these practices and the gang decides to hire him as an assassin to murder rival prostitution rings. As a protagonist, Shiro is an interesting choice because he doesn't have the strong sense of morality that most do in other films. He seems to have no pity for others (or himself, for that matter) and just drifts around doing whatever is needed of him. It's extremely off-putting to experience the narrative from his point-of-view and he doesn't have any sort of character arc.

The stylized direction by Ishii is what keeps this film from diving too far down into soft porn/exploitation territory despite the copious amounts of sex and violence. His shot composition is beautiful and the fight scenes, while not on par with more mainstream samurai classics, are still quite good and dynamic. In the third act of the film Shiro ingests a large amount of opium and the visual aesthetic becomes very surreal and dream-like. 

There are sex scenes set to neon lighting interspersed with dream sequences set in a misty forest. This all culminates with an insane battle between Shiro and a large group of assailants with Shiro having to stab himself repeatedly to counteract the effects of the opium. It's a bizarre nightmarish atmosphere and it ends rather anticlimactically. I find that this fits with the theme of nihilism well, because according to Shiro nothing he does has a point and there is no end to his suffering whether in life or in death. 

Available on DVD from Discotek (out of print)

--Michelle Kisner