Saturday, March 8, 2008

REVIEW: The Horrors of Malformed Men - Teruo Ishii (1969)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

When you hear that a film has been banned for more than 40 years what do you think? And when you hear that film’s title is “The Horrors of Malformed Men” what nastiness starts to pop into your head? Well, last year when the buzz surrounding the first ever DVD release of Teruo Ishii’s 1969 Edogawa Rampo adaptation started up I got excited. This was from the same director as “The Joys of Torture”! What more could he have cooked up? With only a bare bones plot synopsis and the images from the opening and closing credit sequences of Ishii’s 1998 “Screwed (Neji-Shiki)” to feed my imagination I dreamt up all kinds of slippery and vicious nightmares. Well, let me tell you, the P.R. people over at Synapse films did a fantastic job, not getting their hands on a piece of truly shocking filmmaking, but of getting Japanese film geeks like me worked up into a lather. Regardless of how shock-less “The Horrors of Malformed Men” is kudos still have to be given to the folks at Synapse for releasing a truly fascinating footnote in the history of Japanese cinema though.

“Malformed Men” tells the tale of Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), a medical student who has been locked up in a mental institution. He’s obsessed with a mysterious stretch of rocky coastline, but isn’t sure if it’s real or imagined. Add to that he keeps hearing a lullaby from an adjacent cell and sees visions of a beautiful woman transformed into a hideously disfigured man. Are these delusions, hallucinations… or memories? Hirosuke escapes the asylum to find out. Along the way he meets a circus girl who hums the same lullaby that haunts Hirosuke! When he’s framed for her murder, though, Hirosuke must flee and while evading the police he stumbles across an obituary for a Genzaburo Mokota, the head of a wealthy family who looks exactly like Hirosuke. Hirosuke must literally resurrect the late Genzaburo to answer the questions that have nearly driven him mad. Could Genzaburo’s father, Jougorou, a man trying to create a utopia on his own island hold the key to Hirosuke’s true past?

Now, you can see that the plot jumps around a bit, but it makes sense when you know that the full title of the film was: “Edogawa Rampo taizen: Kyofu kikei ningen”, the first half translating to “The Works of Edogawa Rampo”. Fearing that he wouldn’t get another chance to make a film of Rampo’s work Ishii threw various plots and subplots into the mix which accounts for the film having an over-packed feel. But why was it banned? It’s the second half of the title: “Kyofu kikei ningen” that really got the film in hot water. There isn’t a proper English translation, but a rough equivalent would be something offensive like “Crazy Cripples” or “Those Stupid Mongoloids”. I doubt a film would get released with a title like that today. It would probably be shelved. And there’s your reason for this film being banned for 40 years: a very un-PC title choice.

It’s a shame though because Jougorou Mokota is played by none other than Tatsumi Hijikata, a legend of Japanese avant garde dance. Along with choreographer Kazuo Ohno, Hijikata helped found the butoh dance movement. Many of you have probably seen footage of Japanese dancers stripped down to a loin cloth and painted white, their bodies contorted and writhing in haunting depictions of pain and loss. From the late 50’s onward Hijikata created this art form using the movements of the crippled, the elderly and the mentally disabled as inspiration. I’m not sure if Ishii was brilliant or insane when he chose to cast Hijikata in a film like “The Horrors of Malformed Men” which in the end is another late 60’s horror exploitation film designed more to titillate than to frighten. If you could draw a comparison and imagine if someone like Roger Corman casting modern dance legend Martha Graham in his 1964 film “The Masque of the Red Death” then you might start to see why “The Horrors of Malformed Men” holds such a unique place in Japanese cinema; it’s where B-grade boobs and blood filmmaking met with the confounding world of experimental theatre. For that alone it’s worth searching out.

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