By R. Emmet Sweeney
Of all the bloody stumps and bared bosoms of the “Masters of Horror” series on Showtime, those depicted in “Imprint” were a bit too bloody and bare even for indulgent cable execs (the discarded fetuses were rumored to have been the tipping point). Banned from airing during the series’ run in the U.S. (it aired on Bravo in the UK), Takashi Miike’s snuff film “Rashomon” finally hits our shores thanks to this week’s loaded DVD release. As with all of Miike’s voluminous output (he has three other ’06 films on his resume), it’s a mixed bag with scenes of genuine terror, outrageous camp, and stomach-turning violence.
“Imprint” was adapted from the Japanese horror novel “Bokee Kyotee” by Shimako Iwai a straightforward tale of past misdeeds haunting the present. American vagabond Christopher (Billy Drago) travels to a remote island/brothel to find the woman he loved and lost, Kimomo (Michie Ito). In her place he finds a nameless prostitute (Youki Kudoh) with a facial deformity who informs him how Kimomo died. She changes her story multiple times, with each alteration depicted in flashback. Soon both of their histories are excavated, and it’s a nasty, vicious, and viscous business.
The time period is strangely ahistorical, with Edo period architecture clashing with electric paper lamps. It feels like a whorehouse for the modern tourist, where one can get the kicks of old-time misogyny with the comforts of the industrial revolution. It is a bit of a dream world an unreality the actors bring into their work. Drago (“The Untouchables”) has one of the great under-utilized faces in Hollywood. Cavernous, skeletal, and strikingly blank, his stare is its own slasher flick. Utilizing this strength, Drago’s performance is akin to pantomime, marking each emotion with wide loping gestures over his guttural drawl. It’s highly theatrical, and clashes with Kudoh’s more naturalistic approach (until her head is peeled back, of course).
Amazingly, Kudoh is the only actor in the film who could speak English (other than Drago). Everyone else learned their lines phonetically from a linguist. This lends a disembodied quality to their performance, and it’s either a brilliant reflection of their loss of humanity, or just an extremely cheap way to hire actors. Probably more of the latter, but selected moments pay off: especially with the repeated scenes of the Buddhist monk speaking to Kudoh’s character as a child in flashback. He unrolls a parchment depicting the tortures of hell, and says, “Pretty scary, huh”, stuttering over the “s” in scary. It’s funny but laced with menace and during the second flashback the undertones in the scene become even more ambiguously evil.
Miike can’t abide ambiguity long, so there’s a torture set piece to put us cerebral folk in our place. It is epic cruelty, inflicted upon Kimomo by a jealous older prostitute (curiously, played by the book’s female author Iwai). It’s pulp exploitation that would fulfill any adolescent male’s fear and loathing of femininity (in an interview on the disc, he said only lonely rural kids in Japan watched his films before he became a cult star overseas), but one can’t deny that it’s bravura filmmaking meticulous in its structure and its violence.
The DVD is packed with extras that are actually worth watching, including an hour-long interview with Miike (hilariously titled “I Am the Film Director of Love and Freedom”), where he talks about being pigeonholed as a horror director in the West, and his refusal to refuse any project offered to him. Also included is a making of doc, a feature on the makeup, and audio commentary by American Cinematheque programmer Chris D. and writer Wyatt Doyle.