The newest Takashi Miike extravaganza arrived in the U.S. (on DVD) last week, and while many of his films are infamous for some bizarre content, Imprint is the first I know of that can credibly place the word “Banned” in a banner across its packaging. Imprint was originally commissioned by Mick Garris and IDT Entertainment as one episode among 13 in the independently produced Masters of Horror series that was meant to premiere on the U.S. cable channel Showtime and then live forever on DVD. Partway through the season, word got out that the schedule had been changed for the last few airings — Showtime had declined the opportunity to air Miike-san’s contribution to the series. In a series that featured contributions from genre stalwarts like John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Don Coscarelli — and the great Joe Dante piece, Homecoming, about a bunch of Iraq vets who come back in an election year as zombies determined to vote President Bush out of office — the one that succeeded in getting Showtime’s dander up was by the Japanese dude with the crazy sunglasses.
Miike is not just one of the sickest directors working, but also one of the most prolific. He has 70 IMDb credits to his name, dating back only to 1991, when he started cranking out straight-to-video programming that were seen under English titles like A Human Murder Weapon, Osaka Tough Guys, and Full Metal Yakuza. His international breakthrough was probably Fudoh: The New Generation, which featured as a highlight a scene in which an exotic dancer in a schoolgirl uniform performs an assassination by ejecting a poison dart from her cooter at a high-enough velocity to kill a man seated in the audience. He’s made at least one great film — Audition, which I read as caustic commentary on gender roles and sexism in Japanese society — and his recent children’s film, The Great Yokai War, is awfully charming, but most of the time he operates in a mostly unambitious mode as self-effacing B-movie provocateur. (The cheerfully sadistic Ichi the Killer, which boasts a title card written in semen from a masturbating hit man is a good example.) I enjoy the Miike films I’ve seen, but it’s hard to criticize them using the kind of criteria that you’d apply to narrative cinema by just about anyone else. Instead, I tend to judge his films on how apeshit they are — the more, the merrier.
Imprint is pretty apeshit. Using that criterion, even adjusting for Miike’s warped standards, it qualifies as a must see. By any other measure, it’s a mess. The Kansas-born Billy Drago gives a performance so bad that it can only be explained by the formidable communication gap that existed between him and a director who didn’t speak his language. He’s arrived in some Japanese shithole in search of a prostitute named Komomo whom he befriended and promised to come back and rescue lo, those many years ago. A disfigured whore (Youki Kudoh) tells him that he’s too late, that Komomo gave up waiting for his return and hung herself in dismay several months ago. What follows is a Rashomon-like retelling of the same tale again and again, albeit by the same narrator, who chooses to reveal more sordid and brutal details about Komomo’s death each time through as a way of tormenting him.
SPOILERS commence. Bail out here if you’d rather not know more.
Two-thirds of the way through, there’s a hard-to-take torture sequence that clearly references Audition. (The screenplay for Imprint, which adapts a story by Shimako Iwai, was written by Daisuke Tengan, who wrote not only Audition but also Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Dr. Akagi, and The Eel, which were directed by his father, Shohei Imamura.) Because the pain is depicted vividly and gruesomely, and because the woman being tortured is half-nude — giving the scene an uncomfortable erotic undercurrent — you might think Showtime recoiled from the idea of televising sexualized brutality. We’ll never know, because Imprint eventually builds its shock nest in an even more taboo place. It turns out Imprint is at least in part the story of an abortionist’s daughter, and one of her household chores was to take dead, near-full-term fetuses out of the cabin in a bucket and dump them in a nearby stream. Miike depicts this bit of business in a graphic but matter-of-fact way that must have made a Showtime executive’s skin crawl, imagining a random subscriber coming across that bloody tableaux while channel-surfing for Huff or The L Word in the middle of the night.
I don’t think it’s a purely cynical move on Miike’s part — although, as cynical moves go, it would be a really good one. He deploys a little black humor here that leavens the tension, suggesting he’s trying to play fair with his audience, and I have no idea if he realized how deeply troubling a major U.S. corporation would find footage of dead babies, umbilical cords attached, tumbling across the rocks in the shallow water. When I read the DVD’s “Features” list aloud, noting that the disc includes a “DVD-ROM screen saver,” my wife asked, “What is it? Just a picture of running water, and then every few minutes a fetus drifts by?” Which would have been awesome in its way — the J-horror equivalent of Flying Toasters — but no.
While I wouldn’t describe the film as particularly sensitive, it’s smart enough to recognize the link between backwoods abortion and abject poverty, and refuses to give a pass to its male lead, an ostensible romantic with a history of taking sexual advantage of the women around him. And the ultimate climax is both supremely silly and fails to make a lick of sense, so it’s difficult to take any of this seriously. And yet a day hasn’t gone by since I watched it that I haven’t thought about it — and that’s more than I can say of more reputable but utterly forgettable entertainments like the stillborn All the King’s Men and The Black Dahlia. (Just as an aside: I thought Jackass Number Two was terrific.) Does a film’s ability to disturb ever become a virtue in and by itself?