Out hunting with other samurai, Tokugawa-era Shogun Ietsuna (Teruhiko Aoi) spies sexy peasant girl Onatsu (Yumi Iori) bathing under a waterfall. Overcome with lust he has his wicked way with her before inducting her into his harem of beautiful concubines. Even as the more seasoned ladies titter at eager young Onatsu's naïve country bumpkin ways, they school her in the art of pleasing the Shogun so on her first night she has him howling in ecstasy. Meanwhile, lovely Osumi (Kyoko Tsujisawa), the Shogun's favourite, secretly laments her lost freedom and confides in her onetime sweetheart, local doctor Genshiro (Hiroshi Katsuno) who doubles as a backstreet abortionist. When fellow courtesan Omino claims she is expecting Ietsuna's first child, Osumi discovers this ruse is part of a sinister conspiracy orchestrated by malevolent matriarch Madame Anekoji (Emi Shindo).
Back in the early Seventies Toei Film, Japan's most lovably disreputable and populist movie studio, drew big profits from a run of historical sexploitation epics, most notably Tokugawa Sex Ban: Lustful Lord (1972) written and directed by versatile studio hand Norifumi Suzuki. Suzuki had one of the wildest careers in Japanese cinema. He got his start scripting Toei's widely respected lady yakuza film series Red Peony Gambler (1968) then went on to make some of the most outrageous so-called "Pinky Violence" girl gang sexploitation-horror movies of the Seventies, e.g. Sukeban: Girl Boss Guerilla (1972) and Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom! (1973). He also pioneered the immensely popular family friendly Truck Rascals (1975) franchise that spawned ten sequels and reinvented scowling yakuza movie icon Bunta Sugawara as a wacky comedy star, and directed two of the most extreme J-horror films ever made: School of the Holy Beast (1974) and Star of David: Beauty Hunting (1979). Come the Eighties when big-budget sleaze briefly went out of style, Suzuki surprised everyone by becoming the Japanese John Hughes with a run of wholesome teen comedies. These proved profitable enough for Toei to let Suzuki do what he really wanted which was revive the glossy historical sexploitation epic on an even grander scale with The Shogunate's Harem, also known as Dolls of the Shogun's Harem.
Part pornography, part history lesson, the artfully photographed kinky couplings might be the chief raison d'etre but the film boasts impeccable period detail including well-researched historical facts (Miki Nanbara is credited as historical consultant), intricate sets and costumes as gorgeous as the starlets they adorn. The Shogunate's Harem is also part J-pop musical. Arriving in the Eighties post-MTV, this new style of softcore romp stages several sequences like music videos with an electro-pop score by Haru and Masahide Sakuma that sounds a little like David Bowie in his "Serious Moonlight" phase combined with traditional ballads.
Suzuki devotes much of the first half to detailing the daily regimen of the harem, exploring the intricacies of courtly etiquette, grooming and the strict hierarchy amongst concubines. As a filmmaker Suzuki is utterly unique, combining the aesthetic precision of Ridley Scott with the taboo-busting satire of Ken Russell, the lurid sensationalism of Italian sexploitation with the comic book energy of an anime auteur, and the bawdy slapstick humour of Benny Hill. Throughout the first half the plot remains very episodic as Suzuki's scattergun approach yields some jarring shifts in tone that shift focus away from the core story. Yet his staging of individual sequences remains energetic, idiosyncratic and exciting. Most notably the topless female tug of war match wherein two teams of concubines grapple with an enormous stone phallus, edited into a frenzied montage of chanting, cheering and bouncing breasts designed to set the Shogun's pulse racing, along with the viewer's too.
Once the plot kicks in proper Kyoko Tsujisawa dominates as the beautiful Osumi, defined by her courage and decency. Equally fetching Yumi Iori steals more than a few scenes with a compelling character arc that veers unexpectedly from comic to tragic, but it is Osumi's actions that drive the plot forward. As if that weren't reason enough to admire her she also proves quite adept at wielding martial arts weapons. After Omino's deception results in the nastier concubines donning demon masks to pour hot wax on her breasts and stomp her vagina inside a hellish torture dungeon, Osumi intervenes to discover Anekoji arranged her impregnation with the aid of a randy monk in another bravura sequence styled like a Gothic horror manga. Intertwined with Osumi's amateur sleuthing is a disarmingly charming, Cinderella romance between Shogun Ietsuna and devoted, compassionate maidservant Yoshino (Mami Nomura).
A surprise twist then takes the story in another direction altogether. A new shogun takes charge, the concubines are unexpectedly expelled, Osumi goes into hiding, Onatsu goes crazy and Genshiro is tasked with tracking down an elusive pregnant concubine to abort Ietsuna's baby. At first he refuses but changes his mind when the authorities threaten his beloved Osumi. Informed the woman in question emits a "special musk" from her intimate area when in sexual ecstasy, Genshiro and his horny sidekick Kanji (Bengaru) decide that to identify the target they must track and have sex with each of Shogun Ietsuna's many concubines. See how that worked out for them?
As usual the double standard allows the protagonist to have sex with a plethora of beautiful women whilst remaining righteous in the eyes of his one true love. The film has a cavalier attitude to rape that while commonplace in pink movies (the Japanese term for sexploitation) remains no less unsettling despite the jovial, light-hearted tone. Suzuki throws in some lively swordfighting action and amazing montages juxtaposing sex with surreal imagery but also laces the racy plot with affecting emotional scenes. After all that sex and sadism the conclusion proves disarmingly heartwarming.