A trilogy of stories exploring the depths of human depravity in lurid detail by one of Japan’s most noted directors of the eroguro genre…
The 1960s saw the birth of the independent pink film (pinku eiga) in Japan. Politically motivated, these films intertwined sex and violence as a statement against the State. Toei, like the other big Japanese Studios of the time, sought to capitalise from the increasing popularity of pink cinema by developing their own mainstream variant on it. While Nikkatsu focussed on sex with Roman Porno, Toei focussed on the more violent aspects of pink cinema with their Pinky Violence strand: the extremes of which were inhabited by ero-guro (erotic grotesque) films. These films pushed boundaries in their representation of perverse desire including but not limited to sadomasochism. Arguably it was Ishi’s Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1969) which marked the beginning of the ero-guro genre at Toei. Orgies of Edo was Ishi’s follow-up and along with his Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) and Blind Woman’s Curse (1970) formed a trilogy of films that loosely drew on the work of Edogawa Rampo: the literary father of ero-guro.
Like Shogun’s Joys of Torture, Orgies of Edo is also set during Genroku period (1688-1704) – a time of unprecedented prosperity in which the middle and merchant classes grew at an exponential rate – and focusses in on sexual decadence and depravity of the wealthy. An anthology made up of three intertwined stories, focalized through the eyes and experiences of a physician (Teruo Ishii), the film tells of the tragic consequences of untrammelled desire. Such desire can never be sated, giving in to desire’s extremes can only end up in the non-joyous dissolution of the self as it rests on the total objectification of the other. In the first story, a young woman, Oita (Masumi Tachibana), is persuaded to sell her body in order to pay the debs of her handsome but feckless yakuza lover. When she becomes pregnant, she no longer has any value and the pregnancy is forcibly terminated. In the second, Ochise (Mitsuko Aoi), who was kidnapped and abused by a visually scarred and deformed member of a travelling circus when she was younger, discovers that she can only feel pleasure by having sex with visibly different men. The last story centres on Omitsu (Miki Obana) who is initiated into a strange world of pain and pleasure by the sadistic Lord (Asao Koike) and whose identity once revealed will lead to his downfall.
Orgies of Edo is a beautifully shot with Ishii capturing the essence of the Genroku period with broad, vibrant brush strokes against a saturated canvas dominated by primary colours. From the bustling market place to the intimate spaces of the boudoir, Ishii communicates the extravagances of the period which was marked by the flourishing of the service and commodity industries. Here the female body is commodified with [male] desire constraining the contours of the flesh and the delights that are hidden just below the surface. Just as in pink cinema more generally, and mainstream variants more specifically, sexual violence against women is used as a medium through which to critique the functioning and operation of power under the State.
This is not unproblematic as clearly demonstrated here especially in the story of Ochise where perversion becomes the desire for the Other. She desires the differently marked body, a process which conflates visible deformity and race through the construction of the monstrous. She persuades her lovelorn servant to procure for her a man who is visually different in order for her to be able to re-enact her traumatic (but ultimately pleasurable) experiences with her captor from the past. The man that he brings her is not small in stature or terribly disfigured; instead his difference is constructed in racial terms as he is revealed to be black. Miscegenation then is depicted as the very epitome of perversion marked through the visual signifiers of difference. It is a reminder of the fact that white privilege can operate in non-white cultures and that the ethnic purity of Japanese nationalism has its roots in the discourse of eugenics, however uncomfortable this fact may be. While not as problematic, bestiality is evoked in the last segment when we are told that Omitsu has been having sex with her dogs, replaying her encounters with the sadistic Lord. This is a salutary reminder that [sex] exploitation cinema sometimes exceeds the boundaries of what is morally and ethically acceptable.
In so many ways Orgies of Edo is an exceptional firm, especially in terms of ero-guro cinema, and can be interpreted as a radical commentary on political power. However, the discourse on race as difference and deviancy undermines this commentary and casts a long shadow over the film.