Some movies are about plots and characters and stories, and some movies are about images and sounds and feelings. Rampo Noir starts in the second category — it’s a deliriously beautiful movie — but gradually backs into the first. It does not, however, make the mistake of explaining so much about itself that it ends up in the same category as Silent Hill, where we got so much explanation that everything else became moot. And it also stars Tadanobu Asano, easily my favorite Japanese actor of the moment, making himself as inscrutable and fascinating to watch as only he can.
The name “Edogawa Rampo” means nothing to most Westerners, but in Japan it’s the name Edgar Allan Poe, Nipponified (try saying it out loud) and adopted by author Hirai Taro as his pseudonym. Rampo claimed Poe as a major literary influence, along with Maurice Leblanc and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and wrote dozens of stories and novels in that vein. Like almost every successful author, his works have been adapted to film — Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini (which this movie resembles in many ways), The Watcher in the Attic, The Boy Detectives, Blind Beast (and Teruo Ishii’s Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf) were all adapted from his work.
The most fun of the bunch — and one of the few that remains unreleased on DVD — is probably Black Lizard, with female impersonator Akihiro Maruyama as the seductress / jewel thief of the title, Isao Kimura (the youngest of the Seven Samurai) as the intrepid Detective Akechi on her tail (and author Yukio Mishima in a cameo appearance as a human statue). Sadly, little of Rampo’s work exists in English, but that appears to be changing — publishers like Kurodahan Press have committed to translating more of his work, probably primed by the kind of mass-market success pioneered by the likes of Vertical and their editions of such exotica as the Guin saga and Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha.
Noir loosely adapts four of Rampo’s stories for film, each by a different director, and while the movie may be a festival of the bizarre and the macabre, it’s not haphazard. Everything in it ultimately forms part of a whole, even if it’s a long wait to see how it all fits together. Its closest cousin is actually not any of the previous movies, but the anthology-experiment Kwaidan, which was also more about atmosphere and mood than story but still had enough story to hold the interest of viewers with less stamina. The one central theme is obsessions, which pervades each of the segments like the smell of decay.
“Mars Canal”, the first segment (director: Suguru Takeuchi), is little more than a warmup exercise, an experimental short dovetailed onto the front of the film. In it, a naked Asano is seen alternately in a vast swampland, alone, and in a filthy tile room where he is either raping or murdering (or both) a woman. My guess is that it is both a mood-setter and an endurance test: if you pass this part with flying colors, the rest of the movie should be no trouble at all. But there is a concluding title card, a quote about dreams and reality, which sits with us for the rest of the film and colors everything that comes afterwards.
“Mirror Hell” (director: Akio Jissôji) gives us Asano, this time as one of Rampo’s recurring characters — Kogoro Akechi, a private eye whose attention to the details everyone else ignores has helped unravel many a great mystery. Here, he is drawn to a series of vile killings — all women related to each other through a tea instructor (the first victim), all of whom have a propensity for hand mirrors, and all of whom were murdered by having their heads melted. Akechi intuits the mirrors to be the best clue he has, and follows them back to their creator, a charming young man who is almost certainly hiding a great deal more than he is talking about. The solution is both ingenious and preposterous, as only stories like this can be.
“Caterpillar” (director: Hisayasu Sato) features Asano as Akechi once again (if only fleetingly), as well as two other actors I now pay close attention to: Ryuhei Matsuda (of Gohatto and 9 Souls) and Nao Omori (of Ichi the Killer, but also of the far better Vibrator). In this segment, a crippled war veteran has returned home to his wife, who now likes him better in this condition and lavishes all manner of sadistic torments on him. Mirrors play into the story once again, although in a markedly different manner, and here the emphasis is not on mystery but decadence and disturbing behavior — a little of which goes a long way. It probably comes as little surprise to find out that, again, things are not what they have been made out to be, although the motives at work are probably not what you’d expect either. (Word of advice: don’t eat anything during this segment.)
“Crawling Bugs” (director: Atsushi Kaneko) has no Detective Akechi — instead, Asano stars as a hypochondriac chauffeur who grows obsessed with a popular singer and plans to seduce her. He swabs the back of his cab for strands of her hair, spies on her at night, and in his excitement scratches frantically at his neck until it bleeds — possibly as a substitute for sexual contact, since the touch of others terrifies him. When he finally does meet her face to face, his infatuation turns to revulsion, and instead of the satisfaction he thought he’d find he plunges to a whole new level of hell. The last third of this sequence plays out like a demented Hermann Nitsch aktion, a vile soup of blood, mutilation, paint, torn clothing, rotting bodies and severed arteries — or does it? (Don’t eat anything here, either.)
Some things in Japan have not changed in literally centuries, and Noir has been set-decorated and shot in such a way that it’s difficult to pin down within fifty years when the movie is supposed to be taking place (barring maybe the cellphone in “Crawling Bugs”). Each sequence has its own little visual tropes: Almost every shot in “Mirror Hell” is littered with mirrors, turning one actor into a dozen, and it comes off as downright eerie instead of pretentious. “Crawling Bugs” interleaves a “reality” that isn’t very realistic with deliberately stagy-looking fantasy moments, much like the ones used in many of Takeshi Kitano’s recent movies. There’s also a subtle and disturbing use of sound — especially in the first segment, which is almost entirely dead silent but slips in noise gradually. (I found out after the fact that experimental musicians Yoshihide Otomo and Ikeda Ryôji provided parts of the soundttrack.)
One of the reasons I enjoy seeing Tadanobu Asano in nearly anything is because he tends to choose projects like this one — or like Neji-shiki, or Vital, or Gojoe — rather than opt for easy, safe pop-star driven confections like Shinobi or Hard Luck Hero. (His own anthology production To-ri showed that he was interested in this sort of thing as a creator as well as a player, too.) Even when Rampo Noir doesn’t work completely, the parts of the experiment that succeed more than redeem the parts that fail, and not merely because of Asano’s presence.