Take what you know of torture, and think of what you’d consider the most excruciating thing someone could do to you. There are countless ways torture has been used throughout history. Sometimes these ways may be steeped in traditions hard for an outsider to understand. For each person, the threshold between pleasure and pain varies, and for many, that threshold is a dangerous line between life, death, and obsession. Imagine lying naked and exposed, face down on a phosphorescent table as an aggressive captor repeatedly and aggressively drives a steep, wide diameter steel needle in and out of the flesh on your back. Each thrust of the needle is followed by another, then another, each more sensitive than the last. Does this sound like a form of torture or pleasure? Any right-minded person would probably say torture, but for the deeply twisted minds in Shisei: The Tattooer, there is no greater pleasure.
Irezumi is the ancient art of Japanese tattooing where a steel needle at the end of a long piece of bamboo is plunged in and out of the skin to create an intricate tattoo. Seizo is an Irezumi artist who has long searched for the perfect skin on which to make his art. Bimyo is a beautiful young art student with ghostly pale skin, an obvious match for Seizo’s search for the great canvass. Seizo kidnaps Bimyo and holds her captive in a windowless room he claims to be the inside of his submarine. The room is not a submarine, but rather a subterranean hideaway he uses to manipulate his victims away from escape. Seizo is sadistic, and throws himself at Bimyo in an aggressive attempt to make her a slave to his art. Sadism is at play in this Hisayasu Sato directed thriller, but the waiting for these thrills to actually surface is more excruciating than anything Seizo could hope to do to his victim Bimyo. There’s a better chance of the pretend submarine surfacing.
Shisei: The Tattooer is overflowing with talking for a film with only two characters; Bimyo and Seizo. The back and forth is so boring and contrived that you can’t help but yell out to the characters to “get on with it.” It’s obvious from the start that Seizo plans on tattooing Bimyo against her will but it takes almost an hour to get to that point. The rest of the time is spent talking in hushed tones about the mysterious allure of ancient woodblock art, and the demons and spiders of Japanese folklore. Sure, the act of the Irezumi tattoo is painful and long, but as an antagonist the whole process seems weak and fairly light for a Japanese horror flick. This is the kind of film that wants to be all dark and moody but fails. The blue color correction on its bleached out images provide the sense of doom and gloom, but the story is so much like the subplot of an American Soap Opera that everything collapses around it. A soundtrack of mechanical ambience, recorded sonar, and dripping water provide subterranean edge to a setting filled with plastic tarps, mannequin pieces and instruments of pain that make it look like the lair of a complete psychopath. Turns out, its just the apartment of a lonely Japanese artist.
Shisei is a release of Japan Flix, a US distributor of rare Japanese films that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the States. Where Takashi Miike’s horrifying 1999 film Audition is one of the most terrifying tales of torture to come out of the genre, Shisei is one of the most timid and dull. The strange twists and turns of Bimyo’s Stockholm syndrome and affection for Seizo completely strip away any tension and conflict that could have played out. What worked best in the film was the sexual tension between the two characters. As Seizo inserted the needle into the naked back of Bimyo, her moans, lip biting facial pains and contortions of her feet added a real intimate and emotional scene to a film that had up to that point been without any. Unfortunately, any potential that the sexuality may have provided was quickly erased as the story took even stranger turns towards a possible brother and sister connection between the two. It seemed like the writers had three films in mind here and just tossed in a little of the dialogue from each to make the hodgepodge that was Shisei: The Tattooer.
Sadomasochistic tortures have been played to perfection in scores of films from every genre and every film market around the world. The twisted contortions of a mind taking pleasure from pain provides a rich subtext of warped characterization. Irezumi is a harsh art form, and the sadomasochistic tendencies of Bimyo and Seizo are apparent, but feeble in their attempts to stack up. In the end, Shisei is nothing more than a quickly shot, poorly written drama that is sadistic only in theory. Thank goodness its only seventy-two minutes long, otherwise next time I might consider some Irezumi over having to watch Shisei: The Tattooer once more.