Exploitation cinema has been around for a very long time; how long? Well, Shogun’s Joy of Torture was made in 1968, and it has been given the complete Arrow Video treatment in this wonderfully depraved Blu Ray release.
Three shocking tales of crime and punishment based on true-life documented cases set during the Tokugawa shogunate reign. The first tale sees the beautiful Mitsu (Masumi Tachibana) going to horrifying lengths to tend to her older brother Shinzō (Teruo Yoshida), a carpenter injured in a work accident. Still, the law catches up on them and metes out terrifying retribution after they violate the ultimate taboo.
Perhaps the films point was lost in the translation on first viewing. But Mitsu’s love for Shinzō was enough for her to confess to her incestuous relationship when she is just on the cusp of escaping death with mere exile. A bit of confusion reigns here for the audience as Mitsu is tortured to an excessive amount of time (prepare to hear a lot of grunting from the torturers and shrieks from woman combined with whipping sounds throughout the three stories). This chapter is the most emotionally compelling of the three as we want Mitsu to escape everything she has gone through. So when she reaches her end, it is most certainly the most troubling of the three endings.
In the second, unfettered passions in a Buddhist nunnery are not allowed to go unpunished after abbess Reihō (Yukie Kagawa) and her attendant Rintoku (Naomi Shiraishi) encounter a virile young monk from a neighbouring temple. This tale is far more centred on revenge and the cost of love in an environment that forbids it. We have multiple layers going on here, with Reihō very much in love with the monk when he already has fallen for one of the lower nuns. After trying to entrust him, she ventures to more vengeful torturous methods against the competition to stop their love. This as an interesting take as it was the only time that the torture was a woman on woman, with the male-only receiving psychological torture at having to witness everything.
In the closing segment, a sadistic torturer (Fumio Watanabe) attempts to show a tattoo artist (Asao Koike) how to depict convincing expressions of faces of pain in his work. Allowing him to sketch Europeans’ selection as they are brutally tortured for entering Japan to spread Christianity. Nanbara’s taunting of Horicho has the artist broken in search of the perfect skin to put his work onto. By the time Horicho has started his masterpiece, he is fully enveloped into Nanbara’s world view and enjoys the idea of torture far too much. To the detriment of not only him but also Nanbara.
As good as the films are, one main distraction appears in all of them and most certainly in our second film in the nunnery when our nuns have to be bald. Still, seemingly only a few cases wanted to take the big cut leaving us with some utterly horrible bald prosthetics. So for a fun game, have a count of how many wigs or bald caps are on display. This goes for the male characters, mind you, as the makeup doesn’t entirely cover some of their sideburns. This is a film that is 53 years old, mind you, so we can forgive this.
Shogun’s Joy of Torture tries to be more than an exploitation film, but the sheer amount of nudity and torture of just women makes it hard to look past this. There is solid cinematography, and the acting is not the worst, and it does depict well how depraved the Japanese were in older times. Ishii doesn’t hesitate in providing the audience with prime examples of what happened centuries before. Although we can see the practical effects a mile away, they still shock. Strangely the worst of these examples is presented within the first few minutes of the film. As the stories almost pale in comparison to what came before.
Despite this, there has to be a lot of credit for those practical effects as, for the time, they had not been seen as much utilised this way. Showing quite easily how audiences at the time were shocked, critics firmly appalled at what they witnessed. What is also apparent is that there has been sufficient backing to make this feature something more. The difficulties with how women are treated is a severe issue. While it can help the film give more sympathy to those being tortured, it is an easy trick that is still overly utilised.
Shogun’s Joy of Torture looking like the narrative is split between three stories is one overarching story. With Nanbara initially showing how he just goes by the law in the first chapter. When we get to him further down the line in his life, he is still upholding the law. Still, there is now a strong sense of enjoyment into what he is doing. “Stab deeper” really resonates and causes an involuntary shudder as we realise these and hundreds of poor people’s lives are now in the hands of a maniac, and there is nothing anyone can do.
By the time we reach the third chapter Nanbara has wholly lost it and is conducting torture of Western women like all of his staff are an orchestra. He goes to our tattoo artist because he wants him to document the agony better. He needs to be stopped someway; somehow, his nastiness begins to show in all its horrible glory in that final chapter. While this is exploitation at its worst and best, this is also a wonderful picture.
While the effects are severely dated, and we do not see so much more gore and blood. For a film from 1968, this is a testament to the work of Teruo Ishii’s skills that Shogun’s Joy of Torture still affects you. While an exploitation film, it should always be regarded as essential cinema.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
• High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
• Original uncompressed mono PCM audio
• Optional English subtitles
• Audio commentary by Japanese cinema expert Tom Mes
• Teruo Ishii: Erotic-Grotesque Maestro – an exclusively newly filmed interview with the author Patrick Macias
• Bind, Torture, Thrill – author and critic Jasper Sharp discusses the history of torture in Japanese exploitation cinema
• Original trailer
• Image gallery
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Mark Schilling
Arrow has given us a pristine transfer, and while on occasion (especially in that opening) you would rather it didn’t have such clarity, it is still great to see such older films this way again.
The audio commentary by Tom Mes is an excellent in-depth look into the production and the cast of the feature. With the film being broken down into effectively chapters, there is plenty of time for him to do it. For Ishii fans, this is an excellent commentary to find out how he came about making films like this and the others in his series.
When we come to the featurettes, they run a little shorter than you would like as this is a fascinating genre that many people don’t overly document, so to get slight details and not say an hour-long piece on Ishii or this genre is a shame. That said, it is such a joy that you will be consumed by the featurettes and only feel sadness when they are done.
Overall, Arrow’s Shogun’s Joy of Torture is worth your time, and if you are hooked a little into this film, Arrow Player has one or two of Ishii’s other films waiting for you to enjoy.
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