Arrow Video: The Art of the Erotic Grotesque: Orgies of Edo (1969)

Japanese director Teruo Ishii was incredibly prolific in his time at Toei, directing  many films in various genres. In the early '70s the Japanese film industry was losing a lot of money and viewership to western films and the proliferation of televisions so they turned to good old-fashioned sex and violence to get people to come back to the theater. Ishii was the one who provided the template for these kind of films, as he would mix sex with violence and humor which proved to be an appealing combination. This genre of lavishly produced exploitation films is known as the Toei Pinky Violence era, an evolution of the traditionally low-budget pinku sexploitation films. What makes Ishii's work so enthralling is his attention to detail and beautiful shot compositions, as well as his use of color and bizarre elements.

Orgies of Edo (1969) contains a lot of the elements that would become prominent in his later work: the critique of feudalism, anthology format, insane set-pieces, torture scenes, rape, and random splashes of humor. Most of these pieces are problematic due to them being exploitation films, but they are surprisingly complex and nuanced for something that could have been just throw away titillation. Ishii's films also embraced what is known as ero guro nansensu or "erotic grotesque nonsense" (also shortened to ero guro). This art movement was all about mixing decadence and hedonism with sexually explicit material and an almost carnival like aesthetic. Anything goes and films, art, and books would explore all kinds of taboo themes that would frequently incorporate horror elements as well.

The narrative in Orgies of Edo is presented anthology style with three separate tales that are connected by a common narrator: a physician that is telling stories about various patients he has had over the years. The stories start out rather tame and each subsequent one ramps up the weirdness. The first tale is about a woman who is sold into prostitution and ends up in a love affair with the man who sold her out. The second tale (and my personal favorite) concerns a rich woman who has an attraction to deformed men and who has a handsome man that is in love with her who she constantly rebukes. The final story revolves around a sadomasochistic feudal lord who has a harem of women that he subjects to his unusual fetishes, and who becomes obsessed with one particular woman who shares his taste for blood and pain.

Although the material in this film will definitely not be to a lot of people's tastes (it can get very intense at times) it's hard to ignore how well made and gorgeously filmed it is. There are bright colors, dada-inspired insane backgrounds, gold painted women, bulls with their horns set on fire, butoh dance sequences, sumptuous interiors, artfully directed sex scenes, and fantastic music. Imagine a sexploitation film but with a huge budget and a prominent studio backing it and that will give you a good idea of what was going on during this time period at Toei. 

There are caveats to these films and it mostly revolves around the treatment of women. While Ishii is self-aware enough as an artist to imbue these female characters with their own desires and agency (to a degree), they are at the end of the day being objectified for entertainment. He simultaneously is making a statement about human nature and also contributing fodder to this ideology. This paradox is inherent in almost all of his films and it makes for interesting discussion to say the least.

That being said, Ishii's filmography is exciting to explore and worth considering as a high point in cult Japanese film.

Arrow Edition Extras:

-High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
-Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
-Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
-The Orgies of Ishii – an exclusive, newly filmed interview with author Patrick Maccias
-Theatrical trailer
-Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin

-FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Tom Mes

--Michelle Kisner