Euo guro (Erotic/Grotesque), 99 min
Distributed by: Synapse Films
There’s a popular misconception that Japanese horror movies are a recent novelty that starts with the success of Hideo Nakata’s Ringu 1998. Yes, it’s true, several people recently looked completely puzzled when I noted that J-Horror is in no way a new entry into the horror genre, although the name may be new as we have an anal need to categorize themes and topics into one definable slot, the Japanese horror scene has always been an item. J-Horror and Ringu as we know it, based on Koji Suzuki’s splendid book Ringu, was already shot in two different versions before the international success had genre fans looking to Japan and Asia for the next big thing. In 1995, director Chisu Takigawa directed a TV movie based on Suzuki’s book. The TV movie opted to focus on the sexual relations of the kids instead of the profound terror found in the source material and it comes off more like an episode of O.C., The Hills or even Beverly Hills with a supernatural element thrown in. Following this there was even a sequel produced Rasen, directed by Jôji Iida in 1998, the same year that Nakata revisited the original text only to end up with an international hit on his hands which opened the floodgates for Japanese and Asian horror in the same way directors like Ringo Lam and John Woo shot their way to fame with their ballistic ballets during the late eighties.
J-Horror isn’t new in any way and the tales told within the J-Horror sphere are really folktales modernized for a new audience. The origins of the J-horror iconography, themes and style have their foundation in the Kabuki and Noh theatre of feudal Japan. During the sixties, directors like Nobuo Nakagawa, Kaneto Shindô and Masaki Kobayashi where shooting movies that relied heavily on their ancestors folktales, and just like the J–Horror wave, the antagonist was more than often a bloated woman with long hair hanging over her face out to claim revenge from her frequent male wrongdoers.
It would be a far stretch to say Teuro Ishii’s once banned for decades, Horror of Malformed Men is a horror movie, as it in all honesty won’t scare anyone these days. It is more of a thriller, whodunit movie with elements of horror aesthetics interwoven in the narrative. But that can’t really be discussed without first talking about Edogawa Rampo first. Rampo was the pseudonym of Japanese writer Tarô Hira, who mainly wrote "pulpy" detective stories in the fashion of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Maurice Leblanc. Many of these detective stories incorporated themes and elements of the fantastic, the erotic and on many occasion saw lead character super detective Kogorô Akechi go up against a varied assortment of mastermind criminals set out to succeed with the perfect crime, such as the antagonist in Kenji Fukasaku’s campy pop-art masterpiece Black Lizard 1968. But Rampo also frequented the fantastic and horror scenes, where the influences of the gothic and Edgar Allen Poe are obvious, his pen name; Edogawa Rampo is a Japanese rendering of Poe’s name. (Painfully obvious when you see it isn’t it) These stories often saw disfigured or seriously wounded characters in key roles; the monsters taking command. It is from his original text Panorama-tô kitan (The Strange Tale of Paranormal Island) that the main source to Ishii’s Horror’s of Malformed Men can be found, but Ishii knew his Rampo and used several other stories of Rampo’s to bump the script up several notches. Among them The Twins that later was shot as Gemini 1999 by Shinya Tsukamoto.
Teuro Ishii was no stranger to the genre either, and just like Takashi Miike in later years, Ishii could direct up to ten movies a year! After a few years of working for the Shintoho studio, Ishii moved to Toei Studios, and with declining cinema vsitors due to the novelty of TV, he quickly became the right man in the right spot as the Pinky Violence movies hit the silver screens. With a couple of successful Pinku flicks to his name (The Joy of Torture 1968 and Orgies of Edo 1969 to name two) he finally got to make the movie that all those Edogawa Rampo stories had influenced, Horrors of Malformed Men. But instead of becoming the success that he expected, it soon vanished from the screens banned from being shown and plummeted into oblivion.
Still there's the question why was Teuro Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men banned in Japan? It isn’t more sexually explicit than other movies of the time, neither is it more visually violent than contemporary movies… But still it was banned never the less, hence becoming one of Japanese cinemas’ most notorious oddities.
Sure by today’s standards it is quite a gentle movie, but the ban was not due to a public outcry, there where no fainting and vomiting in the aisles, there was no audience fleeing from the theatres disgusted with what they saw on screen… They left the cinemas confused and dazed. Where the title, Horrors of Malformed Men may have led the paying blue-collar audience to believe that they where going to be in for a damned good freak show with loads of smut, gore and violence, they got a suggestive, mystic movie with performer Tatsumi Hijakata’s Butoh dance spastically strutting around on screen. Instead the ban came from the studio itself as Toei, worked up about the movie and the lacking results at the box-office, in their panic that the movie would offend someone put it on the shelf and banned it.
Being a land of stern rules, ethics and strictness, the cultural elite turned their backs on Tatsumi Hijakata’s Butoh during the fifties considering it ridiculous, embarrassing, scandalous an definitely not Japanese dancing. Luckily the western world embraced Butoh and today it is definitely a dance that is strongly associated with Japan. There’s a sweet irony in the fact that western worlds took to too Hijakata’s Butoh, as he initially invented the dance as a protest to the way western dance had evolved.
Tapping into the collective fear of nuclear holocaust that traumatized Japan after the war, showing disfigured characters would in one way or another be provocative then, but with today’s standards it probably wouldn’t create the same reaction… but there are other topics in this grand movie that still today will provoke an audience. Try grave robbing, two gender Siamese twins, incest and necrophillic relations for a starter!
Starting off with a superb collage of some awesome spiders to get your flesh creeping during the opening sequence, Ishii next slings us into pitch black as we hear Hirosuke Hitomi [Teruo Yoshida, the leading man from Hajime Sato’s excellent GOKE – The Bodysnatcher from Hell 1968] tell us that this tale starts in a gray room, an unusual room… The camera pans down from the eyes of a woman, eyes that will get those Asian horror references going trough your mind, it continues down revealing the woman’s naked breasts before finally landing on the protruding blade of a knife aimed at us the audience. A great mix of emotional signals evoked, curiosity, lust and fear.
The knife is a fake and this somewhat summarizes the movie, as the theatrics of the prop knife metaphorically refer to things not being as real as they may seem, something that will be revealed in great magnitude at the end of the movie. Hitomi is in prison for reasons untold, and in his cell he keeps having visions of a strange island, an island he also has drawn perfectly from his confusing memories of the place.
This is where Rampo’s Detective plot comes into action with the horror/grotesque. Hitomi goes about his task to solve the questions concerning the strange island, and at the same time is drawn into a murder mystery after fleeing the prison and meeting Hatsuyo [Teruko Yumi in her only acting part]. Hatsuyo is a trapeze artist at the travelling circus, and she also knows of the strange island Hitomi is trying to find for she has memories of the location too
A knife that is thrown from out of nowhere strikes down Hatsuyo and Hitomi takes to the run. During this escape he reads in the paper about the death of Genzaburô Komoda, a wealthy businessman who looks to be Hitomi’s doppelganger. This is later confirmed twice as the blind masseuse identifies the swastika scar Hitomi has on his sole as identical to one Komoda had, and shortly thereafter as Hitomi plunders Komoda’s grave to check the scar and switch identities with the deceased mirror image.
The switch of identities gives place for some really out of place slapstick tomfoolery that comes across as ridiculous in the context. If I wanted screwball monks reacting to ”ghosts” I’d have chosen a Ricky Lau or Samo Hung Kam-Bo Kung Fu horror comedy instead. But it’s only there for a few moments and then the story straightens out again, as Chiyoko [Michiko Kobata, also in her only movie role], the wife of Komodo tends to her seriously misdiagnosed, now inexplicably resurrected husband. But pulling off his plan isn’t easy as Hitomi thought, as he is constantly near to being exposed as he tries to get away with the masquerade. The traits of Komodo’s everyday life, Chiyodo the wife, Shizuko the lover, [Yukie Kagawa from Nobuo Nakagawa’s Ghost Story of the Snake Woman 1968, and Shunya Ito’s Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41, the sequel to his Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion both 1972 with the magnificent Kaji Meiko] all become obstacles on his way.
Settling into his new persona he continues his investigations, but very now and then weird things happen, snakes attack the maids, disfigured beings sneak around the house, and Chiyodo dies under strange circumstances once again leaving Hitomi with a mysterious murder on his trail.
He has to make a move fast and at midpoint, Hitomi makes the decision that they have to make a trip to the island… On the beach he realizes that his visions have not been dreams, he has been there before. And this is where the movie if possible gets even more cryptic and bizarre, as the enigmatic Jôgorô [here's the splendid Tatsumi Hijikata] greets him on the shore. Hitomi is treated to a grand tour that shows him the strange beings living there, beings that Jôgorô has created. During this first night on the island Hitomi comes upon a strange house where he finds Hideko, a woman that looks just like the dead Hatsuyo! As his lust for her draws him closer he realises that she is intact a Siamese twin, joined at the hip with a hideously disfigured monster.
Eventually the terrifying secret of Hitomi’s background is exposed creating a spiral of emotions, as his world is shook to the foundations. Let me just say that the twist is family oriented! Hitomi’s bond to the horrific island and it’s inhabitants force him to take actions he never thought possible, and to put a terrific spin on the final act, guess who has come along for the ride in a sudden subplot about the investigations into where all the missing girls of Tokyo have gone? Yes, you may have guessed it, Rampo’s infamous detective Kogorô Akechi! The Komodo family manservant Shinhichi [Minoru Ohki who also starred as Akechi in Fukasaku’s Black Lizard] and through as series of flashbacks he renders the mystery, reveals the plot, exposes the culprits and brings light to the story. It’s cunning, unexpected and wonderful twist, as Rampo and Ishii don’t even give the lead protagonist Hiromi the satisfaction of explaining or solving his quest. But he does go out with a bang; I’ll give him that. (There’s even a nod at Akechi’s nemesis Back Lizard in the flashbacks) Now how’s that for a surprising use of sub plot in the last fifteen minutes!
So there you go, a bizarre, disturbing, trippy, stunningly visual, and very enigmatic movie that comes highly recommended. Obviously you should take the banned labelling with a pinch of salt now that you know the origins of that story, but at the same time you will for sure find that the movie is a magnificent piece of film to be finally enjoyed once again in the leisure of your own home. Every now and again you will find yourself thinking of the imagery of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain 1973 or Hyeon-il Kang’s Mago 2002 to name a few, tantalising and haunting images that you will struggle to make sense of, but that’s part of the reason we watch these trippy movies isn’t it! For those crazy plots, shocking revelations and mind-expanding imagery.
2.35: Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital Mono2.0, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles, or a commentary track by film critic Mark Schilling
A fascinating half-hour documentary on Teuro Ishii featuring Shinya Tsukamoto (who starred in Ishii’s Blind Beast vs. Dwarf 2001 as Kogorô Akechi, based on a story by Rampo) and Minoru Kawasaki, the director of The Calamari Wrestler 2004. Ishii at the 2003 Far East Film Festival, the Original Theatrical Trailer, a poster gallery of Ishii movies and biographies on Ishii and Rampo.
For more on the iconography of J-Horror check out my article on the ConstructingHorror.com website.