Around here at the
meta-office, we have a stock phrase we like to pull
out every now and then when things take a sudden,
unusually dramatic turn for the worse. That phrase?
"IT ALL GOES TO HELL!" It's not a criticism
necessarily, since we often use it to describe a character's
dramatic reversal of fortune within the context of
a film's plot. In many cases, that sort of thing can
be glorious to watch, especially when we see the character
rise above it all and take back what he's lost. But
for this review, I'm using the phrase to describe
how something can go oh-so very, very wrong. As such,
"IT ALL GOES TO HELL!" isn't so much a reference
to what actually happens in Takashi Miike's Imprint,
although that, too, would make a fitting description
of its content. Some hellish things do occur during
its sixty-three minute running time. No, in the case
of this particular film, "IT ALL GOES TO HELL!"
more or less encapsulates the experience of the audience.
Imprint starts out promising, but soon afterwards,
it's a downward spiral.
But in what way should Imprint
be thought of as "promising"? Consider its
short history: the episode in question was previously
slated to appear on Showtime sometime in January of
2006, but the cable channel deemed it too controversial
for airplay and ended up pulling the film from its
lineup. Of course, both diehard and casual Miike fans
couldn't help but react, whether it be through bitter
outrage or downright puzzlement. Showtime knew what
Miike was capable of doing so why give him carte blanche
at all if you're looking for a horror flick that's
"safe" for primetime consumption? That seemed
to be the primary criticism of Showtime's decision,
and as a result of the film's so called "banning,"
a certain buzz began to build around Imprint.
Now, it's finally made its way onto the home video
market. Miike fanatics have been clamoring to see
what all the hubbub is about, and who can blame them?
If the man behind such shocking, yet satisfying cult
classics as Audition and Ichi the Killer
could craft a film so disturbing that a premium cable
channel wouldn't even show it, then it's got to be
a horror classic in the making, right?
Not quite. But before delving
into my critique, some measure of summary is in order.
Based on the novel by Shimako Iwai, Miike's twisted
tale is set in the mid-1800s and centers on Christopher
(Billy Drago), an American journalist who has returned
to Japan to find Komomo (Michie Ito), the woman he
left behind and desperately longs to be reunited with.
During his search, he enters a twisted version of
19th century Japan that looks like Memoirs of a
Geisha hopped up on acid - full of garish freaks,
prostitutes, and things that go bump in the night.
In this strange netherworld, he meets a mysterious,
disfigured prostitute (Yuki Koudoh) who claims to
have known his beloved Komomo. Desperate to know more,
he begs her to tell him what happened to his lost
love. But as they say, be careful what you wish for.
What ensues next is basically
a poor man's version of Rashomon in which the
woman tells a story not only about Komomo but about
her own dark past. It is a tale which is soon revealed
to evade and disguise a larger truth, which may or
may not be true at all or perhaps may exist solely
in the head of one of our protagonists. Confused yet?
In such a brief synopsis
form, Imprint doesn't seem quite so shocking,
but I made a point of leaving a few gory details out - and it's those omissions that will probably be
of interest to Miike's ardent admirers. Throughout
the film, there are typical shock value moments, both
implied and depicted: grueling torture, on-screen
abortions, the disposal of bloody fetuses, patricide,
pedophilia, and incest of at least two kinds. This
laundry list of dysfunction and gore isn't surprising
considering Miike's filmography, so don't think that
I'm taking a moralistic position on the film. It's
more of a question of what all these things actually
add up to, and in the case of Imprint, the
answer is "not much." With the help of good
acting and a strong story, every single one of those
elements could have been utilized to create a rather
satisfying film, a quality that Miike's similarly
disturbing Audition and Ichi the Killer
were able to achive. But Imprint is only "horrific"
in the sense of being downright repugnant. How else
would you describe the scene of an innocent, brutally
tortured woman who urinates on herself after being
hung upside down?
Keeping that disgusting image
in mind, I'm hard-pressed to figure out just who this
movie is meant for. Who is the ideal audience? Are
you the kind of person who enjoys watching simulated
brutality against women? Well, if this new breed of
torture porn is something you take great satisfaction
in watching, there's an excruciatingly brutal sequence
early on meant just for you.
Do you like bad acting? Guess
what? Billy Drago provides plenty of that, making
one wonder if Miike even bothered to give him any
sort direction during the filmmaking process. Sure,
Drago's unconventional looks make him seem right at
home in a horror movie, but his off-kilter line readings
tend to elicit fits of giggles rather than a single
iota of compassion for his character's plight. Without
any true emotional core to the movie, it's impossible
to take the story seriously, and thus it comes across
as merely the mechanical enactments of various disgusting
"horrors" rather than a full-fledged, truly
involving horror tale.
And what do we make of a
film set in Japan where everyone speaks English? For
all you Memoirs of a Geisha fans, Imprint
provides plenty of "English-only" Japanese
folks to populate its cast. Unless Showtime or the
producers dictated it, there's really no compelling
reason for this movie to be in English. Combine Drago's
weak acting with this unnerving, anachronistic, and
oddly ubiquitous fluency in English on the part of
the Japanese characters, and whatever "reality"
the film could have even hoped to possess - and I
mean "reality" in the sense of buying fully
into the world of the film - is totally lost.
makes little sense, though it does seem to be vaguely
about guilt, just desserts, and the notion of a personal
hell. And it's completely fine with me that there's
no definitive explanation for what really went on
in the film. The real problem is that it just doesn't
add up to anything substantial. In that respect, Imprint
is reminiscent of an earlier Miike film entitled One
Missed Call, which was so derivative of other
recent Asian horror films that folks were struggling
to figure out if these similarities were somehow Miike's
intentional bid to send up the genre. Imprint
will likely cause those same people to ponder exactly
what Miike had in mind here. Social commentary? Entertainment?
Parody? It's easy to see how Miike apologists will
be straining to read Imprint as a jab at Memoirs
of a Geisha, The Last Samurai, and/or Rashomon.
But if anything, those films seem like minor reference
points, not something that should be taken as central
to either the film itself or one's appreciation of
Don't get me wrong, Imprint
is disturbing, but it's by no means as shocking as
some of Miike's other, far nastier endeavors. Sure,
Miike resorts to all the shock tactics we expect from
him, but he does so without fostering any sort of
real investment in the story or its characters. Thus,
the final product comes across as little more than
a trashy, hollow, and utterly pointless self-parody,
rather than giving the fans what they wanted: Takashi
Miike at his best. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)