Set in the Tokugawa (or Edo) period, the first in Teruo Ishii’s Joys of Torture series opens with a montage portraying a succession of women being decapitated, burnt alive at the stake and torn in two by oxen. The film then adopts a portmanteau approach of three short stories which all culminate in lengthy torture sessions
Director Teruo Ishii starts 1968’s The Joy of Torture (one of four movies he put out that year) with a barrage of quick gut-punches. A girl is tied up and hanging from a tree, a human piñata, until a man approaches with a sword and cuts off her head, then splits her body in half. Another girl is tied naked to a stake, begging for her life as dried branches are placed around her and she is burned alive. A third girl is drawn and quartered, split in two by oxen. And this all happens just during the opening credits! It would seem we are about to embark on a rapid-fire exploitation journey, but then two things happen. Through the early deaths, a voiceover comments on crime and punishment, nudging us to keep our eyes open for a possible lesson within the next ninety-five minutes. Second, and more detrimental, the pace of the film goes from warp-speed to slow crawl as soon as the first of three tales begins.
The Joy of Torture tells a story in three sections, each depicting its own misogynistic tale of crime and moral depravity and the consequences that come with it, each tale summed up by two soldiers opining on what just happened. The first story shows a woman (Mitsu) whose brother (Shinza) is injured and the lengths she will go to take care of him. A doctor is called in, one of the best around but one whom she could never afford. His services are covered financially by another man, “The Master,” who expects Mitsu’s “services” in exchange for her brother’s health. She is eventually raped in front of her brother, somehow sparking an incestuous relationship between the siblings. Things go from bad to worse as emotions flare, building up to a murder and a controversial trial.
Our second story is set in a convent as Mother Reiho, the newly named abbess (a mother superior of nuns), and her servant Rintoku explore their new home. They notice a priest sneaking away and are told their new convent sits against a monastery for priests, and the two communities share a “silent agreement” that they will not disturb one another. Foreshadowing occurs when Rintoku confronts the abbess, accusing her of being tempted by the male presence, then engaging her in a bizarre sex scene. As one would expect, Mother Reiho soon observes a nun and priest having sex in the field, which, of course, she watches from beginning to end. Rather than punish the nun, she confronts the priest, trading sex with him for his girlfriend’s safety. When he tells her he would never drop his relationship, but only engaged in sex with her to bring them to an even playing field, she becomes furious. She begins torturing the nun, ruining her for any other man, much to the chagrin of the other nuns, pushing them to report her to the authorities.
Finally, in the third section, we are introduced to Horicho, a tattoo artist. After giving a girl a full back tattoo which he considers his best work ever, he shows her off to display his masterpiece. All those in attendance are impressed, but a soldier walking by laughs at his art, saying the girl in the tattoo does not show true agony in her face. Horicho is crushed by this criticism, angry that his work is not as good as he thought it was. He asks his friend at the local spa to find him a girl with perfect skin to be his new canvas (a scene which suddenly introduces humor into the movie, a strange decision so late in such a macabre collection of stories). He kidnaps a girl, drugs her, then tattoos her, which somehow makes her decide she must be his obedient servant (as all women in this movie seem to want to be). In order to truly capture the agony which he was told was lacking, Horicho watches the soldier from before torture some random (female) prisoners. If Hardgore showed us a Satanic orgy, The Joy of Torture shows us an orgy for sadists; numerous nude women are lashed, whipped, waterboarded, stretched, poked, crushed, beaten, and in every way humiliated.
The Joy of Torture is a tough film to rule on. At one point, you have great scenery, great camera work, good enough acting, and an interesting moral dilemma presented throughout, then summed up in the end. At the same time, while some of the torture ideas are vicious and disturbing, the gore itself is for the most part subtle, much of the gruesome bits happening off-screen. The stories are fine in their short forms, but the characters are somewhat thin and two-dimensional, especially the women who are nothing but needy, human punching bags (I get that it is set in Japan in the 1600s, but still…) We do see a couple nasty depictions of torture and punishment, including hot peppers inserted into a very private female place and upside-down crucifixion in the ocean while onlookers await the tides. But it’s hard to say if these scenes are worth the wait.
The Joy of Torture (1968) – CAT III