Among the many cinematic movements that flourished in Japanese cinema in the late '60s and throughout the '70s, the period torture film must surely rank among the most outrageous. Toei in particular managed to cash in at the end of the '60s with a string of flamboyant and brutal sagas including a series from director Teruo Ishii, the madman behind such films as Horrors of Malformed Men and Blind Woman's Curse, beginning with Shogun's Joy of Torture and continuing with this film, Orgies of Edo, and Yakuza Law. Baroque, sadistic, and frequently jaw-dropping, Ishii's sex and violence spectacles are still something to behold with this one in particular offering a cavalcade of tattooed mayhem you won't soon forget.
Her womanhood imprisoned by a chastity belt, Nami (Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell's Katayama) resorts to a bout of nocturnal grave robbing to get the key that could set her free. Unfortunately it turns out that failed gambit is just part of her predicament rooted in her debt to a band of vicious loan sharks run by the conniving Samejima (Ikiru's Tanaka). He ends up shoving her without warning into a geisha house -- "I didn't know about such places!" -- where the women are forcibly tattooed to cater to a warped international clientele. After some extreme discipline involving wine and bondage, she's sentenced to work for two years to pay off her debt and becomes the latest obsession of tattoo artists Horihide (Yoshida), the nice(ish) guy, and Horitatsu, whose work is "filled with an aura of imminent violence." After multiple violent developments, more elements turn up including comic cross dressing, a fateful ocean voyage, a horrific market for tattooed virgins, Horhide's former girlfriend and current enslaved geisha Osuzu (Tachibana), an elaborate escape attempt, and a scheming, drug-dispensing madam (Fujimoto), who holds sway over them all.
Ishii's film wastes no time assaulting the viewer with a harsh opening featured the feudal-era execution of several women with saws and spears before the opening credits have even finished. That curtain raiser may have no narrative connection to the rest of the film but it certainly sets the stage for a world where everyone can be debased and turned to savagery, a theme that turns up numerous times in what almost feels like a three-part anthology with shifting protagonists. The approach also feels a bit similar to another film from the same year, The House That Screamed, with viewer expectations being repeatedly upending to a disorienting degree. The jagged storytelling approach may throw off newcomers to Ishii's approach, but if you just sit back and go with the flow you'll be bombarded with one insane set piece after another before the insane climax involving a literal inferno and psychedelic, glow-in-the-dark body paint.
Initially available only on Dutch DVD in an English-friendly edition, Inferno of Torture came to U.S. and U.K. Blu-ray from Arrow Video in 2020 as part of its ongoing, very much appreciated line of Ishii releases. The transfer is on par with the rest of the Toei titles, looking very colorful and nicely detailed while retaining the original look of the late '60s film stock. As with the vast majority of other Japanese-sourced transfers, you may want to turn the brightness down a couple of notches to achieve richer blacks that really help the film's aesthetic seem to pop off the screen. The LPCM Japanese mono track sounds perfectly good with no major issues and comes with optional English subtitles. A new audio commentary by reliable Japanese film expert Tom Mes is a fine companion to the film as he addresses the film's alternate translated title (Hell's Tattooers), the actors' backgrounds, the history behind the locations including a sojourn to Edo, the inherent misogyny or lack thereof in certain sequences, the "Abnormal Love" title initially bestowed on the series, the novelty of a story about dueling tattoo artists that holds the whole thing together, and the striking similarity to a certain later Ruggero Deodato film during the staggering final moments. He also mentions that this is following Arrow's release of Shogun's Joy of Torture, which hasn't happened yet but hopefully will in the near future. Also included is "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense & the Foundations of Japan’s Cult Counterculture" (29m55s), a condensed version of Jasper Sharp’s Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies lecture about Ishii and related topics like Edogawa Rampo with a great detail of useful historical context about the extreme and sometimes legally problematic indulgence that overtook Japanese cinema, resulting in sensationalism that merged visual artistry with frequently subversive social commentary. Also included is the Japanese trailer, which accurately promises "A Sordid Tale of Sado-Masochism" and "A World of Gruesome Beauty."