DIRECTED BY: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissôji, Hisayasu Satô, Atsushi Kaneko
FEATURING: Tadanobu Asano
PLOT: Four experimental stories of sex and madness adapted from the works of Edogawa Rampo: a man regrets a rape, a killer strikes through mirrors, a wife cares for a husband who is a human torso, and a limo driver is obsessed with a stage actress.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ll dismiss it for uneveness, although even the best segments probably would not merit inclusion in a list of the greatest weird movies of all time.
COMMENTS: Rampo Noir is more of a series of visual and stylistic calling cards than it is a tribute to the literary talents of Edogawa Rampo (Tarō Hirai, “the Japanese Edgar Allen Poe,” who selected his pseudonym to pay tribute to the American horror/mystery writer). The narratives here are either nonexistent (“Mars’s Canal,” the impressionistic Rampo-inspired first course), slight (“Caterpillar” and “Crawling Bugs”), or founded on dated pseudoscience (“Mirrored Hell”). Of course, one would not sense what made Poe great by watching Roger Corman‘s Tales of Terror; the four directors here aim at capturing Rampo’s perverse atmosphere (with greater explicitness) rather than showing accuracy to his texts. The results, as might be expected, are all over the map (sometimes within the same segment).
The first film (“Mars’s Canal”) begins with a warning advising your that your disc is not defective. Entirely silent, with deliberately glitchy video, it’s an indulgence by heretofore (and hence) unknown director Suguru Takeuchi. It’s built around one magnificent shot (filmed in Iceland), but even at six minutes long it tries the patience of the average viewer.
In contrast, Akio Jissôji’s “Mirror Hell” is a (relatively) conventional murder mystery, probably the most accessible segment of the omnibus. There is a (somewhat) rational explanation to the mystery of beautiful tea-ceremony teachers who turn up dead, although it does depend on strained early-twentieth century science fiction-style explanations (undiscovered elements with properties that mimic magic, that sort of thing). It also features a Rampo-esque theme that dreams are reality, and that what we think of as life is but a reflection in a mirror, “neither real nor unreal.” It as, as might be expected, filled with multiple mirrors in almost every shot (there’s an interesting composition of mirrors on a beach, each reflecting a different landscape, that evokes a vintage Continental Surrealist painting).
Hisayasu Satô savors the sickness inherent in “Caterpillar.” The story involves the unhealthy relationship between a resentful wife and her war hero husband, now a mute quadruple-amputee, whom she must care for. Satô takes Rampo’s original anti-war parable (which was adapted more accurately in Kôji Wakamatsu‘s feature length film) and focuses almost entirely on the salacious sadomasochistic aspects of the story. Like all of the entries, “Caterpillar” is visually superior, but this one lacks a meaningful reason to exist: Satô’s treatment bludgeons the original’s subtleties, and due to a lack of substance in the main tale he introduces an unnecessary character (a nosy collector who considers the caterpillar a work of art) and shoehorns in a ridiculous appearance by Rampo detective Kogorô Akechi (Asano, reprising his role from “Mirror Hell”). “Caterpillar” may impress some with its perversity, but it doesn’t so as much with the premise it was handed as it should have.
Although this rarely happens in anthologies, in Rampo Noir the best is saved for last. In an inversion of the dynamic we saw with “Caterpillar,” Atsushi Kaneko’s “Crawling Bugs” takes a well-worn idea (the shy, unhinged man obsessed with an unobtainable iconic beauty) and uses style and psychological details to make it feel fresh. There are many odd touches here, from the actress’ bizarre pyramidal hairstyle to alternating inserts of a nebula and an amoeba. While our timid limo-driver suffers from an itchy psychosomatic condition that causes him to feel like he has bugs crawling over his skin, his obsession plays a strange sexual game involving a leech-like bug that crawls over her neck. The glowing forest glade he constructs as an altar to his lady inside of his shabby apartment is a rainbow fantasy refuge that makes us feel as disconnected from reality as he is. “Bugs” is the only segment here that feels like it could stand on its own, and singlehandedly raises the quality of the anthology from “take it or leave it” to “worth watching.”
Tadanobu Asano appears in every episode and is clearly the main domestic draw. Of the directors, only Hisayasu Satô is somewhat known in the West, for exploitative sadomasochistic pink movies like Unfaithful Wife: Shameful Torture (AKA The Bedroom) and Splatter: Naked Blood. Akio Jissôji has made numerous movies not widely seen outside of Japan, but Suguru Takeuchi and Atsushi Kaneko have done nothing of note before or since this.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Rampo Noir’s hallucinogenic approach to narrative and visuals is nothing short of invigorating.”–Jasper Sharp, Midnight Eye (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Kat,” who said she was “amused, intrigued and sickened; sometimes simultaneously” by the experience. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)