Rampo Noir 乱歩地獄 (2005) Dirs: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisyasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko

Happy Halloween! This is the time of year when people celebrate the supernatural and ghoulish aspects of popular culture and national myths. I do my part by highlighting horror movies on Halloween night. So far I have reviewed Nightmare DetectiveStrange CircusShokuzaiPOV: A Cursed Film CharismaDon’t Look Up, Snow Woman (2017) Snow Woman (1968)  Fate/Stay Night Heaven’s Feel, Gemini, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’ll be returning to Japan for the next Halloween Review, an anthology film based on the erotic-grotesque-nonsense works of Edogawa Rampo.


Rampo Noir    Rampo Noir Film Poster

乱歩地獄 Rampo Jigoku

Release Date: November 05th, 2005

Duration: 134 mins.

Director: Suguru Takeuchi (Mars Canal), Akio Jissoji (Mirror Hell), Hisyasu Sato (The Caterpillar), Atsushi Kaneko (Crawling Bugs),

Writer: Suguru Takeuchi (Mars Canal), Akio Satsukawa (Mirror Hell), Shiro Yumeno (The Caterpillar), Atsushi Kaneko (Crawling Bugs), (Script), Edogawa Rampo (Original Stories),

Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Yumi Yoshiyuki, Susumu Terajima, Yuuko Daike, Chisako Hara, Mikako Ichikawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Hanae Kan, Nao Omori, Yukiko Okamoto,

IMDB

Hirai Taro aka Edogawa Rampo. A prolific writer whose stories were serialised in newspapers and published as novels. Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, the source of his pen name, Rampo turned his literary talents to stories of detectives, the supernatural, the erotic and the psycho-sexual. These works proved ripe for cinematic treatment, particularly around the time of the pink film boom.

Blind Beast (1969, Yasuzo Masumura) Black Lizard (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968) Horrors of Malformed Men (Teruo Ishii, 1969), Watcher in the Attic (Nobuo Tanaka, 1976), and Gemini (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1999) stand as the most famous adaptations. Even this year there have been adaptations with Hiroki Inoue’s drama Hito de nashi no Koi released in June.

And we return to Rampo Noir. Back in 2004, as the J-horror genre started to shamble along zombie-like on the back of recycled tropes and trends, this anthology film was made that allowed its directors to approach Rampo’s macabre and menacing material in their own unique and memorable ways. It also allowed some of the leading acting talents of the early 2000s to wrestle with some truly disturbing material, particularly Tadanobu Asano (Bright Future, My Man, Survive Style 5+, Vital) who appears in the four chapters of the film and plays Rampo’s famous Detective Akechi Kogoro in two. While Rampo Noir does not feature jump scares or bone-chilling frights, it packs in a lot of ero-guro sights to leave an average viewer sickened and disturbed.

The anthology begins with a quiet bang with music video director Suguru Takeuchi’s Mars Canal that sees a nude Asano play a solitary man who brutally wrestles and murders an equally nude woman (Shana) in a grim hospital-like environment and stumble across a barren landscape to collapse at a lake.

Twisting bodies of the nude performers wrestling with ferocity are shown in slow motion, their hair and limbs flailing in a grimy environment. This is intercut with the man shambling along a lifeless marsh. The soundtrack is silence until it is broken by scratchy audio hiss that coalesces into a climactic static that morphs into a high-pitched scream that scrapes through speakers as the man gazes upon his reflection and descends into madness.

Shot in a distinctively lifeless location in Iceland, this film is the most disturbing segment of the anthology as it displays in stark and bleak terms a destructive male impulse to dominate and destroy and the dreadful violence men visit upon women, something that media is all-too often ready to use and that the other segments in the film will visit but in more decorative and ornate ways.

The next instalment, Mirror Hell, comes from Akio Jissoji, whose career spanned children’s television with entries in the Ultraman series to Art Theatre Guild movies like This Transient Life (1970), Mandala (1971), and Poem (1972) of the Buddhist trilogy. He even did adaptations of Rampo with Murder on D-Street (1998) – which was remade in 2015. This should be no surprise…

Jissoji’s more adult films feature perverse sex, bondage, and abuse of women and an intense visual formalism and all of that comes together in Mirror Hell, an Akechi Kogoro story where the great detective is in Japan’s ancient capital of Kamakura where he investigates the death of women who have had their faces melted away. Artfully shot and grisly to think about, a supernatural cause involving “shadow mirrors” is investigated, all while there are erotic forays into S&M sequences. Everything leads logically to a narcissistic mirror-maker whose invention of a sphere with an interior composed of mirrors is a memorable and imagination-capturing slice of madness.

This is probably the stand-out of the anthology due to the visual formalism Jissoji employs. In terms of tone, it matches the aforementioned D Street in its general coldness but with an eye for complex shot composition involving mirrors.

Rampo Noir Mirror Hell

For the camera Jissoji uses canted angles and lots of pans to take in the stark light and shadow cast upon sets. Water and steam from mirror-making distort what we see and act as a method to segue between scenes when cutaway shots are used. Then there is the use of a myriad of mirrors on set in many shots. These mirrors expand the scope of the locations as they throw light around and add an extra spatial dimensions to sets. We watch people walk in and out of rooms from multiple angles and see other sides to them. It is all highly theatrical in look, especially with the non-diegetic music of an opera singer warbling away. This is pure Edo-gothic horror that culminates in a bravura ending where CG is used to imitate a shattered screen effect after the murder culprit throws themselves against mirrored glass, the screen exploding and twinkling shards tumbling down the screen like snowflakes and the camera takes on a kaleidoscopic effect. The whole segment is beautiful, beguiling, and a treat for those who like detective fiction.

From something beautiful to something disgusting as we are led by Hisyasu Sato to an adaptation of The Caterpillar that revels in the explicit as we witness the sadomasochistic relationship between a limbless war veteran and his wife, all while Kogoro Akechi looks on from a distance. Shot on a bleak-looking island in what appears to be a dilapidated warehouse, the focus is on the mutilation of the ex-soldier’s deformed body as it is remade into something new that the title suggests at.

Rampo Noir The Caterpillar

Strong practical effects deliver the sight of broken flesh and there is plenty of sex shown, as would be expected from a leading Pink film director. Despite his ability to depict body horror, as evidenced most memorably and grotesquely with Splatter: Naked Blood (1996), the sights presented by Hisayasu fail to be stomach-churning enough. Tame in contrast to this other work and without the emotional dimension of suffering needed from Nao Omori’s flat performance as the victimised husband, the film fails to leave much of a mark or a reason to re-watch it save for Yukiko Okamoto’s cloying performance. Other standouts include Ryuhei Matsuda, Asano’s Gohatto (1999) co-star, as a murderous fop, and Hanae Kan as a fresh-faced assistant to Kogoro.

Caterpillar is a story often adapted, the last major attempt being Koji Wakamatsu’s 2010 version. Perhaps by interrogating the material in a different way rather than this flat re-tread of the thin line between love and hatred, this particular segment might have worked better?

The film wraps up with what is the most visually exuberant entry, Crawling Bugs, the directorial debut (and only director credit?) of manga artist Atsushi Kaneko. Asano is back but as a clean-freak chauffeur to a stage actress who he has an obsession with. It is the only section that appears to take place in the modern day (mobile phones) and it features a noir-like set-up of clandestine meetings and kidnappings but it is done with a candy-coloured aesthetic.

At its most creative, moments, such as when the characters are stuck in a papier mache forest and an ornate hotel, it is cutely colourful but there is a dark undertow of the chauffeur’s obsession that is often heard via the drone of a washing machine – a la Cure (1997). This one goes from a display of unhealthy male obsessions to turning into a physically disgusting segment that, to bookend the film thematically and visually, culminates with Asano lying on the edge of madness after hurting a woman only this time it has a squishy squelchy sights and sounds of necrophilia that could make viewers gag. You have been warned.

And so, even if the film features uneven segments, they all feature enough to warrant watching the whole film through at least once. Viewers will probably pick out their favourite moments and return to them and for me, it was the Jissoji work.

As a whole, the film is still notable for the creative risk-taking on display from cast and crew. Beyond the envelope-pushing erotic and grotesque visual sights, the film really does strike horror notes based on gender roles and the depiction of violence towards women and the extreme imagery. By tackling any of this with such verve and art, the creatives make a refreshing and unique J-horror title.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

2 thoughts on “Rampo Noir 乱歩地獄 (2005) Dirs: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisyasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko

    1. I’ve put off watching this one for years but the description of MIRROR HELL has always intrigued me so I’m glad that I watched it. It didn’t frighten me in the way that BLIND BEAST did but I still found parts of it really gripping. I’ll review MURDER ON D STREET soon – not as audacious but equally well made.

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