Director: Teruo Ishii
Stars: Asao Koike, Masumi Tachibana, Mitsuko Aoi
Last week the esteemed independent distributor Arrow Video added Orgies Of Edo to its far-reaching range of curious titles. And while this release has gone without fanfare, it is one worthy of your investigation, especially if you have an interest in cult Japanese cinema.
To at least partway understand the hypnotic and transgressive strangeness of Teruo Ishii’s Orgies Of Edo, it is worth noting the context of its creation. By the mid 60’s a sea change was occurring in Japanese cinema. The rise of television was having a significant impact on box office takings. The majesty and prestige that typified the preceding decades wasn’t cutting it anymore. Nervous, the major studios looked to the loosening restrictions of censorship to offer ‘new’ thrills to movie-goers. In short the highbrow was exchange for the low. Sex, nudity and violence exploded onto the screen, often in scandalous combinations.
What have come to be known as Pinky Violence pictures were born; cheaply made exploitation pictures that promised and delivered gratuitous female nudity and adult story lines that often included rape and torture. These films were often set in the Edo period (1600-1868). Japanese cinema had long been fixated with the country’s own history… but never quite like this. Many of these films and their content struggle to appear defensible by today’s standards, evidencing the antiquated attitudes toward women typical of the time. Talking in generalities, sexism has always been strongly prevalent in Japanese culture. And so – from Western eyes – the extremes depicted appear more extreme.
But sweeping generalisations are not helpful, and a rule of thumb won’t ever tell the whole story.
At Toei studios, established action director Teruo Ishii was approached to spearhead their new line of skin flicks. He took on the task, generating the new genre’s fledgling title Shogun’s Joy Of Torture. He went on to direct several more, and this fruitful period (running from approx 1968 to 1972) saw the filmmaker using the opportunity to flex his creativity. A more ambitious and daring flavour entered his style. In the midst of this hot streak comes Orgies Of Edo. True, it is not the most celebrated, but not only does the film example Ishii’s increasing flamboyance, it also makes strong statements against the misogyny that defined these movies. It is self-reflexive, forward-thinking, filled with satirical bite. Even as it doubles-down on the salacious content and circumspect titillation. That move in itself is almost the point.
Allow me to elaborate. Like many Pinky Violence films, Orgies Of Edo is an anthology piece, telling three vaguely connected stories over its 94 minute running time.
In the first of these stories, Ishii tells a familiar tale of an innocent woman coerced into a fall from grace and modesty. Masumi Tachibana plays Oito, a chaste young woman who falls for the handsome but untrustworthy Hanji (Toyozo Yamamoto). Hanji uses emotional blackmail to entrap Oito financially, all but forcing her into a brothel where she becomes known as Itoharu. By the end of the piece both of them are strung up and beaten; the pregnant Oito/Itoharu so badly that a miscarriage becomes inevitable. Sex and violence, indeed.
The debasement of Oito sounds like prime fare for such misogynistic filmmaking, but the tone and Ishii’s depiction of the ordeal places her firmly in the viewer’s favour. Gratuitous it may be, but we are undeniably asked to condemn the injustices that befall her. It may not contain the artful heft of, say, Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life Of Oharu, but I would argue that cinematic joie de vivre is exemplified in other ways. Consider, for instance, the sequence in which Oito and Hanji embrace as new lovers which takes place within a maze of patterned rugs. It is as though the two of them are lost within a kaleidoscope. These are the kind of dazzling images one might expect of Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Hanji gets his comeuppance by the story’s end, while all other male figures depicted in the segment are debased low lifes. Oito, with sad inevitability, winds up dead. The story is absolutely a tragedy, albeit one depicted in a style that aims also to entertain through its cartoonish extremes. The two approaches might sound counter-intuitive, and indeed Ishii walks a strange, lopsided and drunken gait while doing so. Still, the result is never less than interesting.
In the second story things get a lot stranger. We are invited to meet Ochise (Mitsuko Aoi), the daughter of a merchant who finds gratification in sexual encounters with what Ishii’s cinema would come to describe as “malformed men” (at least, in the west). The sequence opens with her being molested by twin dwarves. The insinuation of rape as a pleasurable experience is an extraordinarily problematic one, yet Ochise places herself in role-playing scenarios in which she ultimately maintains the upper hand. Her two diminutive lovers, for instance, are whipped for their insolence when the mock-reality of the encounter is broken. In modern S&M parlance, she is “bottoming from the top”; playing the submissive, but entirely on her own terms. She is empowered. Her faithful man-servant Chokichi (Akira Ishihama) assists her in procuring her lovers, allows himself to be rode like a bull (more bulls to come later) and even assists in her aftercare. The story is as much a woman’s sexual fantasy as a man’s. Perhaps more so.
Not understanding her desires – or not allowing them credence – the men in her life attempt to cure her, with reasoning, with hypnosis. Ishii is criticising these men and their inability to engage with Ochise as an equal. That her desires might have legitimacy isn’t considered by Chokichi or her father. Ishii’s camera, on the other hand, allows her indulgences their beauty. For what its worth – and given the genre, its worth a lot – Ishii’s depictions of bondage and female pleasure are sensual, even if the frame also has to contend with lovers wearing conspicuously shoddy facial prosthetics. The story’s finale sees Chokichi disfiguring himself in the hopes of winning Ochise’s affections, and acting violently when she is repulsed by him. To these eyes the segment becomes a criticism of irrational male entitlement and the idea that sex should be given as some kind of reward.
The final story is the most conflicted, containing some of the most striking imagery of Orgies Of Edo and some of the weakest. Toei veteran Asao Koike gives an astonishing performance as a sadistic lord who gains satisfaction from the debasement of women. In a most memorable set piece he has his female subjects dressed in red kimonos and pursued by bulls with flaming horns; should they wish to avoid being gored, they must disrobe for his pleasure. Another hallucinatory sequence is an overt homage to the Bond film Goldfinger, as the object of the lord’s desire is held down and painted gold, her skin suffocating.
By this stage, it seems to me, the film has made its intent clear. While it comes with the dressings and platitudes of a sexploitation movie made for an explicitly male gaze, the themes and content of all three stories are far more confrontational than that audience – particularly in 1969 – might have expected or even wanted. Orgies Of Edo catalogues inequality, presenting the victimisation of women as deplorable and tragically endemic of society. We pine for Oito. We understand Ochise. And, in the last segment, we find Koike’s lord wholly reprehensible in spite of the charm in the performance. Orgies Of Edo is a criticism of inequality and a thoroughly empathic treaty on bondage sex and the pleasure of pain. Yes, it is a product of its time, and as such riddled with contradiction, but it is both gaudy and beautiful, leering and rich. It shows that cinema, even within the most disrespected and disrespectful of genres, can be complex and creative. It’s probably one of the most interesting films on the subject of sex I’ve ever seen.