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Rampo Noir

Tadanobu Asano in Rampo Noir
Year: 2005  
  Director: Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko
Producer: Dai Miyazaki  
  Cast: Tadanobu Asano, Kaji Moriyama, Hiroki Narimiya, Mikako Ichikawa, Tomoya Nakamura, Minori Terada, Ryuhei Matsuda, Yukiko Okamoto, Hanae Kan, Nao Omori, Tamaki Ogawa, Hiromasa Taguchi
  The Skinny: Four different directors adapt the work of Edogawa Rampo - with varying results - in this engaging, sometimes repulsive foray into the world of horror, mystery, and dark eroticism.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      Edogawa Rampo (real name: Taro Hirai) is widely considered to be the father of the Japanese detective story. In crafting his own horrific tales, he is said to have been inspired by the famous mystery stories written by Sherlock Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and also those by the originator of the detective genre itself, Edgar Allan Poe (the penname "Edogawa" is a play on Poe's name). Now, some forty years after his death, four Japanese filmmakers have teamed up to adapt his work for the silver screen in Rampo Noir, a bizarre, often disturbing omnibus film from directors Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, Atsushi Kaneko. All four of these chilling tales star Asano Tadanobu (The Taste of Tea, Ichi the Killer) who plays a number of different characters throughout this increasingly strange motion picture.
     The introductory film, titled "Mars Canal", is little more than a brief, impressionistic tale about…well, that's a bit hard to say. Directed by Suguru Takeuchi, this section of the film features Asano as an unnamed character wandering around butt naked in a vast, foreboding environment. Eventually, everything spins out of control into what amounts to a fairly violent update of the old Greek myth of Narcissus. There's no real narrative to speak of here, and don't bother adjusting your volume controls either - there's no sound. All "Mars Canal" really has going for it is its imagery, which is arresting and yet creepy enough to make you uneasy as events play out. But as far as story goes, there's little to recommend. When all is said and done, "Mars Canal" is more or less a tone-setting prologue rather than a full-fledged narrative.
     More interesting is the film's second story, "Mirror Hell". It's a more conventionally told tale to be sure, but it's no less shocking. Akio Jissoji directs this tale, which features Kogoro Akechi (also played by Asano), who is by far Edogawa Rampo's most famous character. Akechi comes across as a brainy Sherlock Holmes-type who inserts himself into an investigation involving the bizarre deaths of two women. And "bizarre" is probably putting it lightly - both women had their faces melted clean off! Assisted by a young Watson-type, Akechi sees a connection in the cases - an old-fashioned mirror was present in the room where each death occurred. Akechi connects the mirrors to Toru Itsuki (Hiroki Narimiya), the very definition of the bishonen aesthetic. A mirror maker himself, Toru seems to have unlocked the secret of the "Shadow Mirror," a black magic spell of sorts that's always been thought of as a myth, but seems to have some real consequences. The film makes a few missteps (most obviously, Toru's S&M seduction of his sister-in-law (Harumi Ogawa) is unintentionally funny and goes on a bit longer than it should) but the compelling cat and mouse game between Toru and the Master Detective Akechi - not to mention the more linear storyline - makes this one of the best sections of the film. In fact, Asano's performance in "Mirror Hell" makes one wish a whole series of adventures starring Asano as Akechi could some day be in the offering.
     Asano returns as Akechi in the next story, "Caterpillar", one of the most bizarre films in the anthology. This time around, he is accompanied by a female Watson-type, but Akechi's appearance in the narrative is little more than a glorified cameo. This third entry is actually about Lieutenant Sunaga (Nao Omori), a legendary war hero who returns home in a horrible state: no arms, no legs, facially disfigured, mute, and drooling. Clearly, he's seen better days. His young, sexually-charged wife Tokiko (Yukiko Okamoto) spends most of her days caring for her "pet caterpillar," but often takes out her frustrations on him, doling out plenty of abuse on her helpless hubby. She whips him, cuts him, and tortures him, before finally succumbing to her own erotic impulses. If you enjoy seeing a nubile young woman engage in kinky sex with an armless, legless Toxic Avenger clone, then this one's definitely for you.
     Hanging around this deranged duo is Taro Hirai (Ryuhei Matsuda of NANA), a voyeur who takes an expressed interest in their sadomasochistic tendencies. He is in fact the "Man with Twenty Faces," the villainous rival of Kogoro Akechi both here and in Rampo's stories, but this little detail is put to little use in the film. Taro's role is instead to expose the twisted truth about Lieutenant Sunaga's mutilation, which culminates in a sickly romantic gesture that some viewers may or may not anticipate. Of all the films, "Caterpillar" most resembles cheesy exploitation cinema or even a crappy Category III horror/sex flick from Hong Kong, albeit with a more polished sheen. Based on this fact alone, it's likely that some viewers will revel in this segment's trashiness, while others will be rolling their eyes in disbelief as they eagerly await the next story in the anthology.
     The final segment of the film is Atsushi Kaneko's "Crawling Bugs", a sick, sick, SICK little story with an even more disturbing twist. This time around, Asano plays a pathologically shy chauffeur with a bad skin condition. He hates to be around people and when his anxiety increases, his skin starts to itch uncontrollably. We soon learn that the driver has developed a huge crush on a beautiful actress (Tamaki Ogawa), but when he finally works up the courage to profess his love for her, things go horribly, horribly wrong. He kills her, and brings her body home, believing that just by being close to her, he can cure both his skin condition and his overwhelming anxiety. And then things get even weirder as the line between reality and imagination is blurred considerably. Although "Crawling Bugs" is already more than a little off-putting in terms of subject matter, the final twist reveals an added dimension to the story that gives meaning to the film's dizzying surrealism. But even having said that, the film's horribly gory final visual is one image I wish I could wipe from my memory. It puts a definitive exclamation point at the end of the film, but boy, is it disturbing.
     So is Rampo Noir worth watching? Well, for Asian horror fans looking take a break from the various Ring/Ju-on/One Missed Call clones on the market, the non-formulaic Rampo Noir is a welcome horror alternative. It's not scary per se, but it is horrifying in every sense of the word. In that light, Rampo Noir is a daring exploration of the horror genre, but let's be clear, it's also a journey that not all of us may be willing to take. This is one film that's definitely not for the squeamish. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
   Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen