The Land of the Rising Sun has hundreds of totally bonkers, unbelievably outrageous, highly offensive, and kookily creative examples of cinema that go beyond what would be deemed the mainstream here in America. Below are five obscure samples (outside of cult film circles) of Japan's alternative, controversial, and or downright quirky brand of outcast cinema.
***WARNING! This article contains nudity***
1. SHOGUN'S JOY OF TORTURE 1968 aka TOKUGAWA ONNA KEIBATSU-SHI (PUNISHMENT OF THE TOKUGAWA WOMEN)
Outlaw filmmaker, the eccentric Teruo Ishii, was the perverse, yet ingenious mastermind behind a string of inflammatory films that dealt with the most grotesque tortures and gruesome deaths imaginable. Misogynistic in the extreme, this series (whose only connection from one film to the next are its depictions of humiliation and bodily destruction) officially kicked off with this anthology that showcases women being decapitated, cut in half, burned alive, and crucified before being repeatedly stabbed with spears. If that weren't enough, there's also incest, vaginal tortures, and a convent of sex-crazed, psychotic nuns! Ishii's similar TOKUGAWA ONNA KEIZU (TOKUGAWA WOMEN'S GENEALOGY) was released earlier in '68, but the extremes didn't set in till this entry. Somewhere lost within all the screams of pain and broken bodies is a message about capital punishment and the psychological damage incurred by those who indulge in it. Ishii's movie is powerful stuff even today, and is the unheralded progenitor of the so-called 'Torture Porn' sub-genre. If you've seen Takashi Miike's MASTERS OF HORROR episode, 'Imprint', then you have some idea of what to expect from this 17th century set sadism story.
Other films in Ishii's torture-ography include: TOKUGAWA TATTOO HISTORY (1969), ORGIES OF EDO (1969), MEIJI ERA, TAISHO ERA, SHOWA ERA: GROTESQUE CASES OF CRUELTY TO WOMEN (1969) and YAKUZA TORTURE HISTORY: LYNCHING! (1969). There were other similar films made by other directors in the 70s and 80s. See also Norifumi Suzuki's SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974), Ishii's BOHACHI BUSHIDO: CODE OF THE FORGOTTEN EIGHT (1973) and Yuji Makiguchi's beyond nasty SHOGUN'S SADISM (only if you have the stomach for it) from 1976.
2. LAKE OF DRACULA 1971 aka NOROI NO YAKATA: CHI O SU ME (LAKE OF DEATH: THE BLOODTHIRSTY EYES) aka THE BLOODTHIRSTY EYES aka JAPULA
The last place you'd expect to find a European style Dracula movie would be Japan, but they did them; most notably a triumvirate of terror in the 1970s from director Michio Yamamoto. His second film in his unrelated 'Bloodthirsty Trilogy' is arguably the best of the three films. It adheres to the typical Anglo interpretations of the fanged fiend, and even draws blood from the YORGA movies that were popular at the time. A visually impressive, and Gothic assimilation, this remarkably unusual movie nonetheless feels totally out of place within the folkloric conventions of Japan's own supernatural denizens. It has some genuine 'boo' moments, too, that are still effective over 40 years after its release. Mori Kishida gives an incredible, yet underrated performance as Dracula. He played the character again, if ambiguously, in 1974s lesser, but sleazier EVIL OF DRACULA. Arguably the eeriest, most beautifully bizarre movie on this list.
LAKE OF DRACULA and EVIL OF DRACULA were dubbed into English and released to videotape in America. The first film of the 'Bloodthirsty Trilogy', THE VAMPIRE DOLL, was not. LAKE was reportedly released as JAPULA in some markets. See also GOKE, BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL.
3. SHURA 1971 aka DEMONS aka PANDEMONIUM
After helming FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (1969) -- a film about Tokyo's underground gay scene -- famed filmmaker Matsumoto Toshio fashioned this dark, forbidding jidai-geki horror tale that explores the blackest recesses of the human psyche. A variant of the many interpretations of the '47 Ronin' historical account, Matsumoto's movie presents a 48th Ronin whose desire for a prostitute gets in the way of his duty. Lies are piled upon lies, and the end result is a gruesome revenge that punctuates a cruel, ironic finality that leaves no one unscathed. Banned in some territories, the 134 minute film spirals to hell in an ever encroaching B/W after but a single opening shot of color. One of the grimmest presentations you're likely to encounter in your lifetime. Matsumoto's movie is among the finest examples of samurai horror.
SHURA is based on the 19th century play 'Kamikakete Sango Taisetsu' (The Love Crazed Samurai) written by Nanboku Tsuruya -- who also wrote the oft-filmed, and famous 'Yotsuya Kaidan', aka GHOST OF YOTSUYA. See also DAIMAJIN (1966), KURONEKO (1968), SAMURAI REINCARNATION (1980), or GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959).
4. ESPY 1974 aka ESUPAI (ESPy)
Arguably the most gonzo, outrageous, and infinitely imaginative movie on this list is this SciFi-spy-gore movie from Jun Fukuda (GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA ). It's about a secret syndicate of psychic super spies at war with an equally powerful organization of psychic assassins led by Ulrov (a must see, Draculean performance by Wakayama Tomisaburo), a powerful ESP'er hellbent on mankind's destruction. A duel within his trap-filled castle closes this live-action manga movie on a high note. Assassinations, exploding bodies, breasts, Willie Dorsey's tongue is psychically ripped out of his mouth, and an array of Extra Sensory Perception powers keep this one from ever losing steam. Katsumasa Uchida makes a mark as the relentless, telekinetic terminator Goro. Fukuda's lively action married to exploitation elements will blow your mind.
Along with JAPAN SINKS (SUBMERSION OF JAPAN) and DAY OF RESURRECTION (VIRUS), ESPY was among the many works of Science Fiction writer, Sakyo Komatsu that was brought to life on the big screen. ESPY kind of stands alone, but you might also like Daiei's YOKAI MONSTERS trilogy and MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978).
5. ROARING FIRE 1981 aka HOERO TEKKEN (HERO FIST)
Norifumi Suzuki gave the world some thoroughly wild Japanese movies like SEX AND FURY (1973), SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST (1974), THE KILLING MACHINE (1975), and SHOGUN'S NINJA (1980). Suzuki's HOERO TEKKEN, a solo effort for Sanada Hiroyuki from 1981, is a kitchen sink movie from Toei Studios that finds him living in Texas and raising cattle till he ends up in Japan trying to find out what happened to his twin brother. The threadbare plot concerning a valuable family diamond, Hong Kong gangsters and Karate fights only exists to trot out a parade of colorfully costumed characters -- Abdullah the Butcher (who was very popular in Japan at the time) as a guy named Spartacus, Sonny Chiba playing an undercover Interpol agent moonlighting as a magician (?!) and Narita Mikio as the Nazi villain (?!?!). For the first hour the tone fluctuates wildly (generously splashy blood squibs share the screen with screwball comedy bits) and finally settles on being serious thereafter. The filmmakers manage to find room for Etsuko Shihomi, too; and there's some impressive stuntwork including a double decker bus set piece that Jackie Chan must have seen. Logic is totally tossed out the window for this one; and it seems glaringly apparent Suzuki was attempting to replicate the nonsensical, madcap approach of Ishii's THE EXECUTIONER 2 (1974).
This boneheaded Nipponese kitsch was released here as ROARING FIRE in 1982 where Sanada (often referred to as Henry Sanada) was marketed as Duke Sanada! Watch for the huge movie theater marquee showing Marino Girolami's ZOMBI HOLOCAUST (1980)! THE STREETFIGHTER (1974), THE EXECUTIONER films, and SISTER STREETFIGHTER series are in a similar vein.
There you have it -- five films of varying levels of good taste and production quality, but all representative of Japan's 'anything goes' approach to movies. If you're looking for something off the beaten path, or of a classy, dark nature; or simply looking to have a good time, any one of these five obscure movies will do.