Saturday, December 11, 2010

REVIEW: Rampo Noir

乱歩地獄 (Rampo Jigoku)

Released: 2005

Akio Jissoji
Atsushi Kaneko
Hisayasu Sato
Suguru Takeuchi

Tadanobu Asano
Ryuhei Matsuda

Running time: 134 min.

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

Edogawa Rampo was one of the central writers behind the rise of mystery fiction in Japan. Born in 1894 as Hirai Taro, he created his better-known pen name as a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe, a notable influence and favorite author of his. He would often use as a main character the detective Kogoro Akechi, who regularly faced a Moriarty-like villain known as the Man with Twenty Faces. Many of Rampo’s stories have been made into film adaptations, one of which being 2005’s "Rampo Noir," an omnibus film with four segments from different directors.

Aside from Rampo’s writing, the only thing that the four stories have in common is actor Tadanobu Asano. Otherwise, each segment is remarkably unique in terms of style, narrative content and tone. The first and most experimental story is "Mars’ Canal" by Suguru Takeuchi, which for the majority of its slim, six-ish minute-long running time is presented as a silent film – no dialogue, music or sound whatsoever, save for a disturbing build-up of ambient, distorted noise. Asano is featured as a lost, naked man who stumbles across a barren plain to a round pool of water, all the while plagued by memories of a violent struggle with a woman. The viewer is presented with a more conventional story in Akio Jissoji’s "Mirror Hell." Here, Asano assumes the role of Detective Akechi as he becomes involved in the mysterious deaths of women who all attended a tea ceremony together. His investigation leads him to a young, eccentric mirror maker who possesses an unusual fascination with his creations. Asano returns as Akechi in the third story, Hisayasu Sato’s "Caterpillar," but only appears briefly in its opening and closing segments. It focuses on a war veteran who, reduced to a burned, legless, armless stump, resides in an eerie cell in what could be a hospital, an asylum or a prison. His wife tends to his needs while enforcing a relationship of sadism and control over him. She also interacts with a mysterious young man who is fixated with art and may in fact be the Man with Twenty Faces, hatching another scheme. The final story, "Crawling Bugs" by Atsushi Kaneko, is both the most comical and bizarre one of the film. In it, Asano plays a chauffeur who is in love with the attractive stage actress he often drives home. He suffers from rashes on his neck and an intense germophobia, and as his paranoid tendencies become more overwhelming, so does his infatuation with the woman.

All four stories in "Rampo Noir" are wonderfully creative in their own ways, each one possessing a strikingly different sensibility. "Mars’ Canal" may be the most admirable one of the bunch, if only for how it fearlessly plants itself in avant-garde territory. Furthermore, its beautiful, haunting imagery and teasingly cryptic story elements engage the viewer’s imagination in a confounding yet surprisingly pleasant way – all at the very beginning, to boot. "Mirror Hell" acts as a nice stand-alone mystery tale in the vein of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, though Asano’s passive Akechi is a far cry from the more famous, OCD-afflicted detective. Unusual camera angles, image-distorting effects and the fascinating use of light, shadows and reflections all nicely compliment the young craftsman’s strange fixation with mirrors and their role in the murders. "Caterpillar" should sound familiar to some, as Koji Wakamatsu was apparently inspired by Rampo’s original story (which was banned by censors for its critique of Japan’s involvement in the Second Sino-Japanese War) for his recent film of the same name. Though technically a mystery, it is more of an unsettling character study centered on the wife and her disabled husband, conducted with many close-ups and icy blue filters. "Crawling Bugs" is certainly the oddest beast of the bunch, possessing both a jet-black sense of humor and a sumptuous, baroque sensibility. The latter is represented via costumes and set design reminiscent of the 1920s, the repeated use of tango music and back-projected sequences and, most amusingly, several visits to Asano’s fantasy world, a bright soundstage decorated with blinking lights, green artificial bushes and a backdrop of a bright blue sky. At times morbidly weird, the segment certainly ends the film on an intriguing note.

As, befitting its design, it shifts gears so often and is fairly unconventional in all four of its segments, "Rampo Noir" likely won’t be able to please every viewer from beginning to end. But the four directors involved successfully managed to bring interesting ideas to their episodes, creating what I found to be a consistently fun and fascinating experience. Those who are willing to give it a chance (particularly horror, mystery and Asano fans) will surely find things to enjoy throughout the varied grab bag of ingredients contained within the overall film. As an added bonus, it is likely to inspire readers to dig up some of Rampo’s macabre works and give them a try (as I will certainly be doing).

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog

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