Friday 23 August 2013

Nippon Horrors:
Horrors of Malformed Men
(Teruo Ishii, 1969)

Although it has achieved a certain level of cult notoriety in the West following its release on American DVD, Teruo Ishii’s ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ remains largely unseen in its country of origin. Surprisingly, it is effectively banned in Japan to this day, with no officially sanctioned screenings or releases on the horizon.

From a foreigner’s point of view, the film’s continued suppression seems slightly mystifying, but most likely it all stems from the use of the taboo word kikei (translated as ‘malformed’) in the title. Direct reference to physical disability has always been a big no-no in polite Japanese society, and this word - perhaps roughly equating to something like ‘schizo’ or ‘spastic’ in English but with more of a sweary connotation - was considered extremely distasteful when used on a movie poster, particularly in conjunction with a storyline that touches on the idea of disabled people taking their revenge against the able-bodied world.

Presumably, such potentially offensive material made distributors reluctant to handle the film, and the ensuing negative publicity caused Eiran, the usually fairly relaxed Japanese censorship board, to single out ‘..Malformed Men’ for special attention, making it a hot potato somewhat along the lines of ‘The Devils’ or ‘Straw Dogs’. Quite how Toei (the studio who produced the film) reacted to this controversy, I’m unsure, but perhaps they simply chose to bury the damn thing forever, too resentful to bother opening old wounds again, in spite of the growing demand from cult movie aficionados for the film to be seen.

Anyway, regardless of the exact details, you’ll appreciate that I was pretty apprehensive about the idea of sitting down to watch a film that caused such consternation in a land that happily accepts the excesses of Norifumi Suzuki and Takashi Miike (not to mention those of Ishii himself, who came to ‘..Malformed Men’ off the back of such hits as ‘Inferno of Torture’ and ‘Orgies of Edo’). Believe it or not, I’m not usually someone who much enjoys excessively gruelling or icky cinema, and all signs pointed towards this one being a singularly grim experience. But nonetheless, reviews I’d read sounded intriguing, images I’d seen from the film looked fascinating, and it certainly seems to hold an exalted position within the pantheon of Japanese cinematic weirdness. And, well, y’know - no obscure movie fan ever gained anything by NOT watching a film, right? Taking a deep breath and preparing for whatever morbid insanity you’re about to witness is all part of the fun.

And to be honest, the first feeling that hit me once I settled into the flow of ‘..Malformed Men’ was one of happy relief. Whilst admittedly still stuffed with enough warped behaviour to keep a convention of mental health professionals busy for weeks, Ishii’s film is nonetheless a lot more fun than I had been anticipating – a colourful and vibrant work that often seems closer in spirit to the cracked surrealism of early 20th century pulp fiction than to the bleak travails of modern day Endurance Horror.

One of those movies that throws together so many different strands that trying to tie them all together in a few paragraphs is liable to leave one pretty breathless, ‘..Malformed Men’s pleasantly pulpy atmosphere is far from accidental when viewed in the light of a storyline that fuses a particularly disturbing variation on H.G. Wells’ ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ with a mish-mash of additional ideas taken from the writing of celebrated mystery writer Edogawa Rampo. And you guys all know what’s up with celebrated mystery writer Edogawa Rampo, right..?

Well, ok - time for another deep breath. A hugely popular figure in Japanese culture, Rampo – real name Tarō Hirai - began writing in the 1920s, taking his cue from Western weird tales and detective fiction, and in particular that certain, peculiar combination of the two perfected by Edgar Allan Poe (just try saying his pen-name out loud with a Japanese accent). Rather than simply rehashing the work of his inspirations though, Rampo refashioned the form in uniquely Japanese style, adding strong elements of the perverse and erotic imagery that fascinated him in his private life to create a new sub-genre of horror/mystery fiction, the ubiquitous ‘ero-guro-nansenso’ (yes, that’s ‘EROTIC GROTESQUE NONSENSE’ to the likes of us), that has gone on to exert an influence upon just about all subsequent horror-themed films and manga in Japan.

I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading Rampo’s work in translation, but I can easily believe that watching the opening half hour of ‘..Malformed Men’ gives a pretty good idea of what being thoroughly immersed in the world of ‘ero-guro-nansenso’ might be like, as a succession of bizarre and seemingly inexplicable incidents pile up at dizzying speed, pulling us into a macabre web of mystery, and establishing a pulpy atmosphere that Ishii cannily proceeds to cross-breed with a heavy dose of the kind of confrontational experimentalism that makes Japanese culture from the late ‘60s such a consistently wild ride, resulting in a cinematic experience that is, well… unique, to say the least.

Unsettling right from its opening seconds, ‘..Malformed Men’s credits sequence sees composer Hajime Kaburagi offering up a unholy mess of doomed choral bombast and crashing industrial noise, accompanying close-up nature footage of assorted poisonous spiders, broken up by bright blocks of primary colour. Following this, the first shot of the movie proper gives us a screen full of darkness and a deranged female shriek, before our gaze moves down across an unhinged woman’s face and a mighty pair of bare breasts, coming to rest on the blade of a nasty-looking dagger raised in her hands. As the camera pulls back, we find a lone male, trapped in a poorly lit prison cell, surrounded by a crowd of apparently insane women in torn red kimonos who cavort around him in uncoordinated and generally menacing fashion, drooling, cackling and writhing in erotic oblivion as they caress the bars of the cell and torment their male prisoner, the camera  leering at their distressed bodies in a decidedly distasteful manner. If there’s a more comprehensively ‘ero-guro’ way to begin a movie than this, I’d like to see it.

After a few minutes of this sort of thing, a doctor enters, calming the women down with a few blows from his bull-whip, and we learn that we are actually inside an extremely poorly organised lunatic asylum, where Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), a former medical student and current inmate, has awakened to find himself mistakenly locked in the women’s cell. The doctor returns him to his appointed cell, but this does little to improve his state of mind. You see, Hitomi has completely lost his memory, and has no recollection of how he arrived at his current predicament. The only clues he can dredge up from the recesses of his mind are images of a rocky coastline, upon which a horrifying, androgynous figure dances, and the melody of a particularly haunting children’s nursery rhyme. Furthermore, a sinister bald man in the opposite cell seems intent on trying to assassinate him, which scarcely helps matters.

When the bald man attacks him during the night, Hitomi ends up killing his assailant in self-defence, and in the ensuing confusion manages to flee the asylum. Whilst making his getaway, he encounters a young female circus performer who seems to be humming the lullaby he remembers from his dream. Accosting the girl, Hitomi learns that she is an orphan, adopted by the circus with no memories of her childhood, but that she thinks the melody originates in a village somewhere along Japan’s Western coast. The pair meet again later, at the circus, but as the girl begins to tell Hitomi more about where she learned the song, she is struck down by a flying dagger. Seeing the bloody knife in Hitomi’s hands, the crowd assume him to be the murderer, and he’s on the run again.

And so things go on. Before long, Hitomi discovers that a man with an identical face to his own and an identical scar of his foot, an heir to the wealthy Kimodo family, has recently died. The dead man’s father, a somewhat feared and eccentric character rumoured to possess deformed, webbed hands, has apparently not been seen since he set sail for his private island, a rocky outcrop dimly visible from the mainland, announcing his intention to turn it into some sort of “pleasure island”. A spot of grave-robbing, a faked suicide and a surprise ‘resurrection’ later, and Hitomi has taken on the identity of the dead man and finds himself being alternately seduced by both his doppelganger’s wife Chioko, and his mistress Shizuko (Yukie Kagawa, whom we last saw making her mark on the pinky violence genre in Girl Boss Blues: Queen Bee’s Counter-Attack).

At this point, the film briefly threatens to become rather conventional, as the tale of Hitomi trying not to slip up as he impersonates his dead doppelganger rambles on to no great effect. But after Chioko is mysteriously poisoned, and Shizuko subjected to threatening notes and poisonous snake attacks, our hero(?) once again finds himself determined to unravel the mystery of precisely what in the hell in going on… and all clues point toward that mysterious island, where his “father”, the enigmatic Jagoro Kimodo (Tatsumi Hijikata), holds court.

If there is one image in ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ that viewers will never forget, it is that of Jagoro himself – stick-thin, long-haired, Rasputin-eyed – performing his near-inhuman dance of torment amid the crashing waves and jagged rocks of his island shore. The word ‘extraordinary’ scarcely does justice to this character’s physical presence, and, though I was surprised to find such a notable high-brow personage appearing in a disreputable exploitation film, it still made perfect sense when I hit up Wikipedia and discovered that Hijikata (who also appeared the following year in Ishii’s excellent ‘Blind Woman’s Curse’) was actually a Big Figure in the world of post-war Japanese art - the founder of the Butoh school of dance and performance art, no less.

One of the main themes explored by Hijikata’s dance performances is said to have been “the transmutation of the human body into other forms, such as those of animals”, and, as it turns out, that is a project that his character in ‘..Malformed Men’ has been undertaking in a somewhat more direct fashion, as Ishii proceeds to build Jagoro up into a truly terrifying villain – a sort of unholy amalgam of Dr. Moreau, Fu Manchu and Charles Manson, bent on wreaking cathartic destruction upon both the norms of the human body and those of the world in general, which he sees as having ‘wronged’ him and his deformed ‘people’.

As Hitomi and Shizuko arrive upon the island, greeted by Jagoro as heirs to his insane legacy, the film explodes into a kind of kaleidoscopic oblivion worthy of Alexandro Jodorowsky at his most unglued, as Ishii’s taste for cinematic grotesquery and the choreography and design of Hijikata and his fellow Butoh practitioners combine to summon up a harrowing circus of impossible, Heironymous Bosch-esque delights, in a series of  short sequences upon which the film’s reputation as a world class freak-out presumably rests.(1)

“Let me show you my ideal world”, says Jagoro. As if on cue, an army of slender, long haired figures, naked but for chains and red capes, crest the hilltop, headbanging on all fours like some otherworldly Slayer crowd, as whip-wielding hunchbacks goad them on. On the waters of a river beside a sylvan forest grove, a silver skinned woman sits legs spread on the prow of a boat, juggling flaming torches beside an artificial tree of bird cages. Covered in blood and sand, another naked girl writhes, apparently surgically attached to the rear end of a goat. Huge fires rage as more naked, chalk-covered women writhe in eerie silence… and that’s all before we hit the island’s mylar-sheeting bedecked psychedelic nightclub, to say nothing of the Bava-esque gel lit operating theatre…

Needless to say, once the narrative regains some ragged semblance of normality, there is a wealth of dark and dreadful family secrets to be revealed through the remainder of the film, acts of awful vengeance and twisted reconciliation to be enacted… but, out of respect for the spirit of mystery, I will leave you in the dark about these for the time being.

By this point this is going to sound like a fairly redundant observation, but ‘Horrors of Malformed Men’ is a pretty strange business. In its top-heavy piling of mystery upon mystery, it reminded me a little of Kim Ki-Young’s extraordinary A Woman After a Killer Butterfly. But unlike that carefully controlled venture into labyrinthine gothic melodrama, Ishii’s film has a crazed and rather uneven feel to it. Whilst some sequences are bold and unforgettable, others are shoddy and unconvincing, betraying either an extremely stretched budget/production schedule or a variable level of engagement from the director (in reality a little of both, most likely), often attempting to save the day with ‘shock’ visuals that come across as cheap and prurient, undercutting the film’s stronger, more affecting, moments.

In its attempt to cram as many Rampo stories as possible into a single storyline, the narrative also becomes frustratingly digressive and episodic, failing to capitalise on many of its best ideas and refusing to let any of the characters (save maybe Jagoro) develop any personality beyond a cardboard cut-out level, meaning that, despite grasping at a grand emotional sweep for its suitably bizarre conclusion, it never really manages to transcend its origins as a gory comic book potboiler.

But since when did the weirdo horror warriors amongst us care about that sort of thing, right? Some films invite praise for their perfect conception and realisation, but everyone involved in this one hopefully realised they were competing in a different arena entirely. On a purely visceral level, ‘..Malformed Men’ is as imaginative, repulsive and rich in cognitive dissonance as the contemporary films of Koji Wakamatsu, and as feverishly unpleasant as the later works of directors like Kazuo Komizu.(2) A singular experience, whichever way you look at it, and as perfect an expression of the dictats of the ero-guro-nonsenso philosophy as one could possibly wish for.

(1) For what it’s worth, I think the inevitable influence of Erle C. Kenton’s ‘Island of Lost Souls’ can be felt heavily here too, from minor details such as the cave the visitors walk through en route to the rest of the island, to the disturbingly crude make-up effects used to realise the ‘malformed men’ and the incongruous jungle noises and animal calls that often dominate the soundtrack. I think it says a lot for the 1932 film that, in spite of ‘..Malformed Men’s myriad excesses, it is arguably still the more upsetting of the two.

(2) See Komizu’s ‘Entrails of a Virgin’ (1986) for a particularly mean-spirited cinematic kick to the face.


Elliot James said...

I saw this a few years ago. It's a sensational fantasy film.

Soukesian said...

Great review! I had they same reservations about this as you, and will check it out on your recommendation. For another great 60's Edogaw Rampo adaptation, check out BLACK LIZARD, a deranged piece of pop-art kink available in full on youtube last time I looked.

Ben said...

Thanks Soukesian. Yeah, 'Black Lizard' has been on my "to watch" list since who knows when... looking forward to getting around to it one day.