Horrors of Malformed Men isn’t really an adaptation of any one, or even two, or even three stories by Japanese mystery/horror icon Edogawa Rampo. It’s like a movie version of one of those jazz jam sessions where the band somehow manages to segue between “Melancholy Baby”, “My Favorite Things” and “Sweet Sue, Just You”. Or, in this case, “The Human Chair”, “The Stalker in The Attic”, the story that also inspired Shinya Tsukamoto’s Gemini, and probably three or four others I lost track of somewhere. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s not meant to: it’s an assault on sense, sensibilities and the senses, all at the same time.
Recanting the plot of a movie like this is pure chicanery. There is a plot, but if you wrote it down and submitted it in a writing class you’d get a long, sad talk from your professor about it. The story, such as it is, is not just lifted wholesale from various Rampo stories but used to evoke the same eerie, decadent, surreal atmosphere that came through in all of his writing. The recent anthology film Rampo Noir did a wonderful job of communicating that same erotic/grotesque or ero-guro sentiment. Men is even more feverish and unhinged, and has the added street cred of political incorrectness in its own country, relegating it to only the occasional midnight-movie screening and rampant bootlegging.
It begins with a medical student, Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), confined to an asylum under circumstances he cannot recall, growing progressively obsessed with two tantalizing memories, an ocean-battered cliff and a childhood lullabye. He escapes and learns that he shares both a face and a birthmark with the recently-deceased heir to a wealthy family. A perfect way to cover his tracks, he thinks. This leads to a scene where he digs the dead man out of his coffin, dresses in his clothes, and pretends to be the dead man come back to life. Yes, it is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds—but in a movie like this, it is hardly the most ridiculous thing that happens.
Hitomi’s father went missing a long time ago, and from the clues he’s been able to piece together, Dad’s shacked up on an island off the coast of Japan, where he’s created a bizarre colony of the malformed and the unholy alliances of men and animals. His wife was born deformed as well—in a way that is, amazingly, a spoiler unto itself—and only Hitomi might have the cure. And then there is a whole wealth of tangled subplots intertwining above and below all this, so many so that by the time Rampo’s perennial detective character Kogoro Akechi appears and starts explaining everything (and explaining, and explaining), it’s not even confusing anymore, just another element in the movie’s heady atmosphere.
A big part of the atmosphere is the casting and the performances. Hitomi’s father is played by butoh master Tatsumi Hijikata—with his messy mop of black hair, his bullfrog delivery of his lines and his twitching body language, he’s like J.A. Seazer possessed by the soul of an evil capoeira instructor. The other members of his troupe feature prominently as well: when Hitomi’s in the asylum, for instance, they can be seen as the (mostly naked) inmates, slathered in body paint and writhing about the hero like they’re in a Nikkatsu staging of Marat/Sade. They also figure in, not surprisingly, as the array of freaks in the island colony, their luridness touching still-raw nerves about the exploitation of the deformed in a post-Hiroshima Japan. That sensitivity hasn’t dimmed over time, either; Alice in Chains’s self-titled album was issued over there with different cover art, and Men itself was never released on video.
A movie this lurid could have only come from a director with a track record for stylized luridness, and that man was Teruo Ishii. Widely celebrated both here and abroad for his confrontational mixes of popular entertainments and taboo-breaking sleaze, he went from programmer gangster pictures to sentai superhero stories to everything in between. The niche he seemed to thrive most in was unbridled exploitation, like the jaw-dropping Joys of Torture series, or the horror/crime excesses of Blind Woman’s Curse. Sadly, his last few productions for his death, like Japanese Hell and Blind Beast Vs. Dwarf, were shot on embarrassingly small budgets and simply look dated and cheap.
Curious how Men predates those movies by decades and yet somehow still looks fresh and fierce. I’d like to credit at least some of that to Rampo since his stories provided a framework, however sketchy, for Ishii’s phantasmagoria. But the visuals hold up by themselves, even without the fig leaf of a plot to hold them together. So go see it because it is outlandishly strange and entertaining at the same time, not because it makes one whit of sense.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind