Rampo Noir (AKA Rampo Jigoku) Review
[This review originally ran all the way back in December, but with an English subtitled DVD finally available it seems like a good time to revisit a pretty remarkable collection of work.]
When word began to circulate about the anthology project Rampo Jigoku it was universally termed a collection of horror films. Having now seen the remarkable collection I must disagree. Horror films exist for their audience, they are constructed from the ground up with the sole intention of provoking a response from the audience and thus are completely dependent upon them. And while I am sure that Rampo Jigoku’s producers had the audience in mind these component films do not seem to care at all. They are not about the audience at all. As bizarre, disturbing and repulsive as they can be – all good things in this context - these films exist for themselves, as a tribute to famed Japanese author Edogawa Ranpo, and they are all the stronger for it. By focusing on their origins rather than their consumption they succeed enormously in creating their compelling, utterly unique worlds.
Now, I must confess that I have not read any Ranpo and thus cannot directly compare the films to the source material but the films share an unmistakable commonality in tone, a remarkable thing considering that none of the four share a writer or director leaving me to conclude that the shared element must be Ranpo’s influence. And what does Ranpo bring to the table? Surreal dream logic, physical disfigurement and deviant sexuality all fused to a certain formal elegance. Ranpo is often labeled a Japanese Poe and while his subject matter is markedly different the fusion of the formal with the grotesque is definitely shared.
The curse of anthology films is the lack of consistency from segment to segment, more often than not there are major gaps in quality and approach and the whole thing just ends up feeling cobbled together. Rampo Jigoku minimizes these problems thanks to the consistent use of Rampo for story origins as well as the presence of Japanese cult icon Tadanobu Asano in all four segments, albeit only briefly in the third section. That said all four segments take markedly different approaches, a fact sure to leave viewers arguing over which are the strongest.
The film begins with the shortest of the four segments, Suguru Takeuchi’s Mars Canal. Playing in complete silence until the closing moments – and I do not mean that the film is dialogue free, I mean actual, complete silence – the segment opens on a blasted, barren landscape all rocks and sand but for the mirror still pond in its center. A naked man (Asano) staggers across the landscape and peers into the water where his reflection confronts him with the horrifying violence of his final encounter with a lover and the nameless man recoils with horror at his own depravity. Mars Canal will certainly be one of the most divisive pieces of the film, some – myself included – will be enthralled by its stunning cinematography and razor sharp editing while others – the person I viewed it with, for example – may simply find it pretentious. Whichever side of the fence you fall on there is no denying that Mars Canal features an absolutely brilliant physical performance by Asano. With no sound in play he is left to express himself purely through his body and he proves beyond any doubt why he is one of the most sought after performers in all of Asia. Simply brilliant.
Next comes Akio Jissoji’s Mirror Hell, the most linear and conventional of the shorts and, as a consequence, the least interesting to me. Asano stars as famed private investigator Kogoro Akechi – who I gather is a key repeating character in Ranpo’s world – who is drawn into the investigation of a series of bizarre deaths. Women are being found dead in empty rooms, their faces melting away, their only common link the old fashioned mirrors found in the rooms with them and their shared connection to the mirrors’ maker Toru (Hiroki Narimiya). Is it possible that the vain Toru has had a hand in their deaths despite being nowhere close to the women at the time of their demise? And what will Toru find if he succeeds in creating his ultimate mirror, a sphere with a mirror lined interior? Bukkake sequence aside the formalism and society aspect of Mirror Hell make it the sequence where the Poe comparison makes the most sense.
Simultaneously the most art-house and most bizarre installment, Caterpillar is a bizarre, repulsive tale of physical deformity, sexual power, and an inversion of gender roles. Asano again stars as the private detective Akechi, but only briefly before being supplanted by Ryuhei Matsuda (Blue Spring, 9 Souls, IZO) on the starring cult icon front. The story opens with Akechi receiving a reel of film from an artist identifying himself as The Man With 20 Faces. On the reel? His art, composed of formaldehyde tanks filled with severed limbs. The story then switches locations, following Matsuda (The Man) voyeuristically watching a woman alternately tend and torment her husband, sent back from the war a mutilated husk. Having lost his limbs in the war (or did he?) she refers to her mangled husband as her caterpillar, soon to blossom into some new form of life. This, of course, occurs when not lashing him with a whip or clawing at his eyes.
The final installment is Atsushi Kaneko’s Crawling Bugs, a giddily Technicolor story of celebrity obsession coupled with extreme sociopathy. Limosine driver Aizo Masaki (Asano) ferries successful stage actress Fuyuo Kinoshita to and from her late night trysts with a secret lover. He has become obsessed with her but is frozen, unable to act, by his repulsion from humanity in general. Convinced that people are all dirty, that they are covered with crawling bugs, Masaki has such a strong revulsion to people that he breaks out in a rash whenever he comes in contact with anyone. How, then, can he make his love known? Kaneko charges his film with a gleeful retro feel – the rear projected driving sequences, Masaki’s vintage limo and Kinoshita’s collection of ridiculous wigs are particularly nice touches – and introduces a gruesomely comic edge sure to make Crawling Bugs the crowd pleaser of the lot. Gorgeously shot on lush sets the film is a treat to look at while balancing humor with paranoia and gore perfectly.
Rampo Jigoku has not yet found itself a home outside Japan but, believe me, it will. Ranpo’s world is completely his own and the films it has spawned, while a little uneven, make for some compelling viewing. Mars Canal and Crawling Bugs are both strong enough to merit the price of admission on their own, put them together with the others and you’ve got a solid package.