As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, the major studios in Japan realized they needed something unique to compete with the audience-consuming rise of television. Taking a page from the local independent producers doing erotic productions, the majors would soon devote entire lines of releases to films with daring sexual content. For example, Toei unleashed a three-pronged series (the Sensational Line, the Abnormal Line and the Shameless Line) of films known as “pinky violence” that combined sex with visceral thrills.

One of the directors tapped for this line was Teruo Ishii, a veteran journeyman director who had made successful films in multiple genres: sci-fi, sex comedies, prison films, etc. However, he showed a special flair for the grotesque and unnerving. As the ’60s came to an end, he pushed the boundaries of commercial cinema with wild films like Horrors Of Malformed Men and the Joys Of Torture series. He also made an excellent anthology-style feature called Orgies Of Edo, a 1968 film that reflects these interests as it points in the direction of his later pinky violence fare.

Orgies Of Edo offers three stories, set during the prosperous Genroku era of Japan’s history and all connected by the appearance of a doctor character, Gentatsu (Teruo Yoshida).  In his opening narration, Gentatsu admits this was financially a good time for Japan but also an era where sickness and decadence were hidden beneath the affluent surface. His three stories illustrate why…

The first tale revolves around a woman (Masumi Tachibana) who is tricked into becoming a prostitute by her lover. The second tale focuses on a noblewoman (Mitsuko Aoi) with a compulsion for sexual encounters with societal outcasts, often deformed, much to the chagrin of the servant (Akira Ishihama) who not-so-secretly loves her. The final tale focuses on palace intrigue in the home of a feudal lord (Asao Koike) who rules by violence to indulge sadistic sexual urges.  He finally meets a submissive woman (Miki Obana) who can fulfill his perverse fantasies but she has a secret that could be his undoing.

Those quick synopses might sound luridly compelling but that can’t prepare you for the shocking yet artful force of Ishii’s direction.  He was the rare director whose love of perverse content was matched by an impeccable sense of precision in how he stylized his bizarre subject matter. As a result, Orgies Of Edo hits as hard as any wild grindhouse film you care to mention but it has the visual sense and production values of an art film.

A breakdown of how Ishii handles each segment illustrates how his unique touch makes the material come to life. The first tale is the simplest, kind of like the tragic/romantic melodrama subplot from a Zatoichi film, but Ishii stages it with an eye for both beauty and carnage. For example, a scene where the heroine is seduced is staged against a stunning backdrop where multicolored reams of fabric extend in all directions.  There’s also a vicious dual-beating near the end staged with a sadist’s attention to detail.

The pot boils over in the second tale: it begins with a bizarre tableau where the noblewoman is ravished by two dwarfs before turning on them with a whip.  The blend of carnality, freakiness and violence here shows off Ishii’s flair for Japan’s ero-guru genre, culminating in a jaw dropping finale that mixes amour fou, disfigurement, arterial blood spray and an unexpectedly lovely/tragic final tableau.

The final story finds Ishii achieving a glorious peak of madness.  The lord’s twisted fantasies are established with a stunning scene where he unleashes a pack of bulls on a group of red-robed women, a situation that forces them to either strip or be fatally gored/trampled by the beasts. You see plenty of both in the scene, which is staged with an impeccable visual design that maximizes its use of red (both robes and blood), a stunning juxtaposition of brute force with delicate flesh and a masterful use of fast editing that is ahead of the curve.

And that’s just the beginning of the third tale: you also get a scene of torture by gold body painting and a finale that finds a meeting point between De Sade and Oedipus.  The fact that this all happens on gorgeous sets with perfect period costumes and scads of often flesh-baring extras just heightens the magnificent weirdness of it all.  As the film ends, you’ll have trouble picking your jaw up off the floor if you haven’t already passed out from the sheer S&M-goes-Grand-Guignol delirium of it all.

In short, Orgies Of Edo captures that transition point of Japanese genre cinema into its hyperviolent, sexualized ’70s period and shows Ishii had both the artistic madness and the mastery of craft to excel in this time.  As any fan of his work will tell you, he was a perfect director for the pinky violence trend.

Blu-Ray Notes: the best option is a recent blu-ray release from Arrow that boasts an impressive transfer, plentiful extras including a cool interview with Japan genre film specialist Patrick Macias and, in the first pressing, a thick liner notes booklet.