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Friday, Nov. 11, 2005

Sick master of old rejuvenated

Rampo Jigoku

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Various
Running time: 134 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The stories of Edogawa Rampo, born Taro Hirai in 1894, exert a continuing fascination over Japanese filmmakers that some Westerners find hard to understand.

News photo
Ryuhei Matsuda in "Rampo Jigoku" (C) 2005 RAMPO JIGOKU SEISAKU IINKAI

Modeled on the work of Edgar Allan Poe (from whom he took his pen name) and Arthur Conan Doyle, Rampo's tales of the mysterious and the macabre are commonly regarded by Western scholars of Japanese literature as little more than curiosities of the Taisho Era (1912-1926), when Rampo first rose to popularity.

An Amazon.com search reveals only one title in English, a 1956 collection titled "Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination."

Rampo's namesake, Poe, is also lightly regarded in the land of his birth, where he has traditionally been an author who bridges the gap between children's and adult literature. There's something in Poe's ornate language and fantastic conceits -- the hero being walled up alive by an enemy in "The Cask of Amontillado," the huge blade swinging closer, ever closer to the trapped man in "The Pit and the Pendulum" -- that appeals to the 13-year-old imagination, but most fans move on. (These days, kids this age usually move straight to Harry Potter, but no matter.) In Hollywood, Poe's stories have long been fodder for the Roger Cormans of the business -- makers of cheap exploitation product. Directors with pretensions to edge or quality tend to avoid him. "The Ring," yes, "The House of Usher," no.

But two hot young Japanese directors -- Suguru Takeuchi and Atsushi Kaneko -- and two well-regarded older ones -- Akio Jissoji and Hisayasu Sato -- have joined to make "Rampo Jigoku (Rampo Noir)," a four-segment omnibus based on Rampo's stories that is being screened in, not a Kabukicho flea pit, but the eminently respectable Cine Saison and Theater Shinjuku. All four parts star Tadanobu Asano ("Zatoichi," "Ichi the Killer") -- the impeccably hip king of the indies. This, in other words, is not a slumming expedition.

As the segments show, Rampo differed from his namesake in not only era and nationality, but sensibility. Poe, an early Victorian romantic, made his women into sexless angels. Rampo, on the other hand was a Taisho roue, whose famous story "The Human Chair" is about a chairmaker who, obsessed with a woman, sells her an upholstered chair made so that he can climb inside when she is sitting in it -- and enjoy an anonymous "lap dance."

The film's first segment, Takeuchi's "Kasei no Unga (Mars Canal)," takes this idea one mind-bending step farther. A naked long-haired man (Asano) wanders through a desolate, overcast wasteland (Iceland, standing in for the "Mars" of the title). He happens upon a circular pond and peers into the water. Seeing his lover's face, he flashes back on a scene of violent sex with her -- a tall, muscular woman whose hair is as long as his own. Then he notices that he now has the body of his lover. With his long fingernails, he begins to tear at his flesh.

Takeuchi films this shortest of all segments without sound -- only images flashing like a schizzy nightmare that, horror of horrors, might not be a nightmare at all, but karmic retribution. Why film in Iceland? The landscape is suitably creepy and otherworldly. Bjork country indeed.

The second segment, Jissoji's "Kagami Jigoku (The Hell of Mirrors)," is more conventionally shot -- but equally primal in its shocks. Kogoro Akechi (Asano) -- Rampo's version of Sherlock Holmes -- becomes interested in the sudden deaths of two women. In both cases a Japanese-style mirror was present in the room where the death occurred, made by one Toru Itsuki (Hiroki Narimiya), a wickedly handsome stationery shop master who knew the victims intimately. In his hands, mirrors become powerful occult objects, able to suck out their victims souls. Then Toru seduces his sister-in-law (Harumi Ogawa) and presents her with his latest mirror, the deadliest of all.

More than his collaborators, Jissoji brings out the characters of his principals, including the sexual current flowing between Toru and the poker-faced, but preternaturally aware Akechi. He also generates more narrative excitement, despite his absurd pseudo-scientific rationales for the mirrors' powers.

More straightforwardly ero-guro (erotic and grotesque) in the classic Rampo style is Sato's "Imomushi (Caterpillar)." Lieutenant Sunaga (Nao Omori) returns from the war a mangled human stump, with no arms or legs, able to communicate only with grunts and moans -- and his agonized eyes. His young, nubile wife Tokiko (Yukiko Okamoto) tires of caring for her "caterpillar" of a hubby and begins to use him as a sex toy. Then she discovers a more exciting game: torture. Meanwhile, a resident artist (Ryuhei Matsuda) begins to take a twisted interest in the erotic goings on. To him Sunaga is a human objet d'art, who needs further work to become truly "perfect." Unknown to this pair, Akechi (Asano) is on the case, intrigued by images of Sunaga's severed limbs, preserved in formaldehyde.

One of the so-called "four emperors" of the pinku eiga (pink film) scene, Sato films his story's S&M horrors with an undisguised relish and barely contained black comic streak (or was it only me smirking nervously as a knife approaches a helpless eyeball?)

The final segment, Kaneko's "Mushi (Crawling Bugs)," is the most extreme and confusing. Asano plays two roles -- the first as a shy, allergy-prone driver for a sultry actress (Tamaki Ogawa), the second as the actress's commanding lover, who can make her do things the driver -- a secret witness to their rough sex -- can only dream of. When the driver finally screws up his courage and, bouquet in hand, confesses his love, she cruelly rejects him and he snaps. Employer and employee finally unite -- in a bizarre fantasy land of his psychotic imagination.

Kaneko lays on the steamy S&M atmospherics, like a Wong Kar-wai with candle wax, but he also is too clever by half with his editing, making it hard for the inattentive to keep the two Asanos straight. All in all, though, Edogawa is well served by his four devoted interpreters, who succeed in making him cool again for a new generation of fans. A truly sick -- and talented -- mind never goes out of style.

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