Zankoku Ijô Gyakutai Monogatari: Genroku Onna Keizu (Orgies of Edo) (Teruo Ishii, 1969)
[note: review originally published 24May2011]
There’s a wonderful line from Ryu Murakami’s novel Odishon (the basis for the 1999 Takashi Miike film…which is much superior to this, but that’s neither here nor there, really) which put me in mind of this film for no reason I can really discern: “Back in the day, in the geisha world, you’d run across a kind of girl like her every now and then. Breathtakingly beautiful, very popular with the clients, nothing but the top class of patrons, but basically unfathomable. They’d have an almost unnatural sort of beauty, the sort of beauty that made you wonder if it hadn’t been nourished by all the misery and misfortune in the world. That sort of beauty can destroy a man.” (p. 138 in the McCarthy translation released by Norton.) In some ways it reminds me of the main character in these three related stories, whose name now escapes me (and, surprisingly, the Internet is failing me on this; I didn’t think that would happen, so I didn’t jot down notes). She is played by Mitsuko Aoi, who would also appear in Ishii’s other legendary 1969 pinky-violence film, Horrors of Malformed Men.
In any case, this is reminiscent of a number of other sixties exploitation films in its episodic nature, with its female lead wandering through the stories, having a more or less central part depending on the story. She is at the center of the first, where we meet her and her sister. As we open, financial woes have forced her into prostitution, but she meets a warrior who falls in love with her, pays her family’s debts, and goes to live at the family home with the sister while our heroine is training to be a geisha. You can see where this is going, right? The second story sees her having attained geisha status, but she’s relegated to the background as we learn more about the woman who runs the house, a sadist who, talking to a psychiatrist, reveals the things that happened to her over the years that made her that way. Finally, our heroine is taken into the household of a very rich, but insane, man who devises all kinds of deadly games for his flock of geisha to play. (The most infamous scene in the film, with geishas trying to avoid charging bulls with flaming horns, is in this bit, as is the “try to kill someone by painting them completely gold” scene—not lifted, as so many people believe, from Goldfinger, but from the 1946 Mark Robson film Bedlam—which may well have also inspired Ian Fleming.) At the end, of course, there’s all kinds of big reveal and the stories all come together and Ishii tries to make something coherent out of the mess he’s created, and he’s about as good at doing that as Just Jaeckin and Abel Ferrara. Which is to say, not good at all.
If you’re looking for a film that will just give you an artistically cheap thrill, Ishii’s usually a good go-to guy; it’s decently acted, the perversity and gore are lovingly rendered, and there is a plot, however hard to may be to follow sometimes. In this, it’s reminiscent in many ways of the American porn industry in the mid- to late seventies, and it does hold that same sort of odd fascination. However, if you’re looking for decent character development, a good plot, etc., Ishii is not your guy. **
No trailer. Shirley Bassey!