Monday, July 23, 2007

Rampo Noir / Rampo Jigoku (2005)

Rampo Noir is one of those films you're not really expecting or know what to begin with and just drift along in awe or disgust until the end. Hate or love it, classify it as pretentious or lofty, arthouse cinema, or put it into little drawers of understanding, it may fail at a lot of things except one. It's impossible to ignore.

A filmed collection of four short stories by Japanese writer Taro Hirai, or rather Edogawa Rampo (a play on the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe's name), adapted for the screen by Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko, and having Tadanobu Asano as the common figure that links and ties all the stories together, Rampo Noir is a fresh, bizarre and artful look into madness, love and a study of the horror of the human mind.

Japanese Horror Cinema of the last few years has turned into an array of expected and predictable stories, a re-digested repetition of clichés and overdone ingredients, and in this somewhat tired second-hand becoming genre, Rampo Noir, with it's almost David Lynchian approach to storytelling, set design and direction, offers a strange, expressionistic look at the human psyche and the horror within, at the darker sides of love, at all those aspects that don't need the supernatural or creepy girls with long hair to scare and disturb, and that make it thus even more unsettling.

Mars Canal, the first short, serves as a sort of cryptic intro to the rest, high on metaphors and beautifully composed. There is no apparent plot, no sound, just a crescendo of white noise from the middle to the end, a surreal background of barren landscape imagery, lakes, and mirrored images. A naked Asano runs through an empty grass filled wasteland, towards a hole in the ground filled with water. This seemingly pointless and sometimes nightmarish run is intercalated with flashbacks of a violent struggle, a beating of a woman. Mars Canal may play on the Narcissus myth, on the duplicate of the mirror, of the genders and their attraction and repulsion, on the hole as a symbol of the feminine mystery and consumption, the fear before it and the hate and utter destruction that comes out of it, but in the end it's a strange prologue to what lies ahead in both theme and tone.

Mirror Hell features Kogoro Akechi (also played by Asano), who is by far Edogawa Rampo's most famous character, a Sherlock Holmes type of figure in a detective tale investigating the strange deaths of several women. The common link of these deaths being old Japanese mirrors that trace back to a temple and a bizarre and disturbed manufacturer. The most interesting and probably most arresting thing, visually at least, is the ingenious stage setup and direction, literally a defragmentation and omnipresence of mirrors and a deranged reloading of the Narcissus myth.

Caterpillar continues with Akechi, but this time as a less important character, in favor of the drama of an emotionally and literally crippled couple and their equally perverted or justiciary voyeur neighbor. This third character, Taro Hirai (the author's real name) serves as a mirror character, in the frame story tale of Lieutenant Sunaga (a former soldier returned home as a disabled, disfigured, dismembered torso of a man--a human caterpillar) and his twisted wife, Ikeko. As we, through Hirai's eyes, witness the story and the reality and horror of this relationship unfold, Hirai, the "Man with Twenty Faces," the villainous rival of Kogoro Akechi both here and in Rampo's stories (fact not important or highlighted much in here) - serves his role as narrative device, as the truth revealer and (maybe) justice bringer as he leads us through a series of caterpillar-cocoon-butterfly symbolisms, sexual frustrations, deviations, and destructive impulses in a grotesque and disturbing tale of love.

Crawling Bugs, the last installment of the collection brings all emotions and perceptions of horror to a surprising and shocking climax. A pathologically shy, anxious, germophobe and paranoid taxi driver's love for a theatre actress horribly gone wrong, this short blurs reality and imagination into a surreal display of madness. Asano's character ends up killing the actress he loves and finds an illusory way to preserve her from the degradation he so much fears. As the "crawling bugs" he tries to keep at bay in real life, that he obsessively tries to scratch, wash away and scrape from his skin take over him and his mind, disintegrating, dissolving everything to a point, we witness his own mind's disintegration, the complete and utter dissolution to absolute obliteration of anything sane. It's love laced with madness and obsession, with panic and fear and trying, with stages, imaginary and real, with "Pierre et Gilles"-like statuesque projections of beauty, with adoration and complete and utter irrational. The end is the perfect, most disturbing and final completion of the ride, guaranteed to shock to the core at least in some way.

Rampo Noir's beauty lies in the mystification of love's sinister and bizarre aspect, in the symbols and imaginative ways of portrayal and narration, in the stories themselves and the sense of horror that comes not out of gore (though gore, grotesque, disturbing images abound), but the strange realization that, on some level, it makes sense, on some level a tiny tiny piece of what you see may be found in everyone, and what the shorts show you are just the same pieces taken to extreme. A feast to the eyes and the mind, Rampo Noir's horror lies in the realization that it's possible.

All in all, Rampo Noir is a lurid, strange, sometimes macabre and definitely gruesome exploration of the darker sides of some of the most mysterious and inexplicable human emotions, love.