Though Decapitation Island would make a fantastic title for a reality TV series (while obviously not as fantastic as Celebrity Decapitation Island), it is instead an example of that surprisingly near-inexhaustible 1970s sub-genre, the women in prison film. And being that it is a Japanese example of the form -- in this case from Gamera’s zookeepers over at Daiei -- you can rest assured that it includes a fair share of picturesque bondage and torture.
The film follows the classic WIP template by introducing its oppressive milieu through the eyes of a pair of new arrivals, the mouthy card cheat Okiyo (Genshu Hanayagi) and her opium addicted pal Osen (Reiko Kasahara). Together these women are ferried to a small prison colony on the remote and barren island of Nenbutsu, off the coast of Nagasaki, where they and their fellow inmates are forced to perform perilous slave labor along the island’s treacherous cliffs, overseen by both an unforgiving sun and a crew of abusive male wardens. Meanwhile, the arrival of a newcomer among the island’s administrators, a disgraced policeman who is also the son of Nagasaki’s governor, creates dissention between the officials that, along with an untimely outbreak of bubonic plague on the island, ultimately sets the stage for a daring escape attempt on the part of the prisoners.
Despite its Edo period setting, Decapitation Island bears some surface similarities to Roger Corman’s jungle set “women in cages” films from roughly the same time, though without those pictures’ gleeful debauchery. The mood is instead relentlessly grim and pessimistic -- in a manner that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s seen enough of these 70s era Japanese exploitation films. As often as not, these female centered entries come across as howls against society’s thorough and irredeemable rottenness, with society’s most manifest crime being, apparently, it’s turning of the woman characters away from the feminine ideal and instead toward a violent life as cold eyed and masculinized she-thugs. Not that these hardened dudettes exist alongside men equally, mind you; as in Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion films, Decapitation Island presents its society of women, while fractious, as being forbiddingly insular and coven-like, with its members, even in slavery, still able on occasion to exert an unearthly power over their male captors via their lady parts.
Given this vantage point, it should come as no surprise that the female prisoners in the film suffer as much at the hands of their own as they do at the hands of their male jailers. Each is constantly and ruthlessly gaming for their own advantage, with the only example of any kind of nurturing behavior being that shown between Okiyo and the doomed Osen. Omasa The Ripper -- the self-appointed leader of the group, who is every bit as delicate as that name suggests -- maintains discipline through a program of ritualized beatings, while at the same time secretly colluding with the island’s officials in hopes of gaining release. Meanwhile, Segoshi, the disgraced policeman, is positioned as something of a protagonist due only to the threat he poses to his scheming colleagues, yet is nearly as enthusiastic a participant in the sadistic goings on as the rest.
Decapitation Island came along during what was something of a golden age for torture in Japanese popular cinema, what with the success of Teruo Ishii’s long running Joy of Torture series over at Toei and its spiritual brethren. Still, the film is comparatively retrained, with little nudity and a general avoidance of being too graphic in its presentation of violence. It also helps that the tortures presented are at times baroque to the point of being surreal. One major set piece involves a naked Okiyo being poked with swords as a flaming pot of oil, attached by a chain to a bit in her mouth, teeters precariously over her head. Of course, all of this is lensed by director Toshiaki Tahara in that classic Japanese manner which, by its aggressive formalism, maintains a tenuous air of respectability in spite of however unsavory its subject matter might be.
Ultimately, Decapitation Island ends up being only nominally about decapitation, with just one token beheading in its opening moments to establish the penalty faced by the women for attempted escape. This may serve as a disappointment to fans of head rolling, but the film is nonetheless capable of satisfying the casual viewer whose demands are perhaps not so specialized. All told, it’s just one of many Japanese potboilers made with rigorous competence but little in the way of audacious artistry. While comparing it to Ito’s aforementioned Scorpion trilogy might seem unfair, there is certainly no shame in falling somewhere between the median and the high bar of artistry that those films set for the WIP genre. Nor is it necessarily damning that Decapitation Island shies away from the more confrontational approach to sleaze taken by directors like Norifumi Suzuki when tackling similar subject matter, as a lot of people find Suzuki’s movies pretty hard to take as it is.
So, despite the temptation on my part to establish my mainstream reviewer credentials by saying something like “You’ll lose your head over Decapitation Island!”, I must, like it, exercise a level of restraint that appearances might not otherwise lead one to expect. For those taxed by the extremes of Japanese exploitation cinema, the film might perhaps represent a somewhat more user-friendly middle point, while at the same time leaving more hardcore fans wanting. This, of course, leaves aside the much wider swath of humanity who see no appeal whatsoever in the spectacle of female bodies being bound and brutalized, no matter how prettily it may be realized.