Rampo Noir [Rampo Jigoku]

“Why couldn’t the lens capture on the spot the cerebral life, the chemical reactions of the brain, the silver bath of the association of images, the over- or underexposure of the principal idea and the marvels of the surge of the subconscious, revealing all?”

“Pourquoi l’objectif ne saisirait-il pas sur le vif la vie cérébrale, les réactions chimiques du cerveau, le bain d’argent de l’association des images, la sur- ou sous-exposition d’une idée-force et les merveilles de l’afflux du subconscient, ce révélateur ? ».
Blaise Cendrars. Une nuit dans le forêt, p 45. (1929).

Reading this passage from Une nuit dans le forêt, Blaise Cendrars’ (1886-1961) semi-autobiographical novel recounting his experiences as a filmmaker in Rome, I was struck by its prescience. Cendrars was the first poet to recognize the creative possibilities of the new medium of motion pictures. The notion of capturing on celluloid the very essence of the life of the subconscious, while perhaps the extravagance of a poetic imagination, comes very close to describing what these four very different filmmakers (two making their debut here) have attempted to accomplish in Rampo Noir, a collection of four short films based on the work of Japanese novelist Edogawa Rampo (Taro Hirai). Japanese filmmakers – most notably Tsukamoto and Masumura – had already adapted Rampo’s work for the silver screen. Among the better known, we cite: Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (2001) Ishii Teruo, starring Tsukamoto Shinya; Gemini (1999) Shinya Tsukamoto; Mystery of Rampo (1994) Okuyama Kazuyoshi; Stroller in the Attic (1976) Tanaka Noboru; Blind Beast (1969) Masumura; Horror of a Deformed Man (1969) Ishii Teruo; and Black Lizard (1968) Fukasaku Kinji.

Mars Canal, the first and most experimental of the shorts in this collection, is calculated to throw off the viewer’s equilibrium from the very start. Jittery camerawork, an Asano Tadanobu exerting himself physically to the utmost and an (almost) non-existant soundtrack ensure that the audience will not remain passive observers throughout this adventure. For some, the segment will seem blessedly short-lived.

The next work in the collection, entitled Mirror Hell (Kagami Jigoku), is by Akio Jissoji, no stranger to the world of Rampo. While appearing at first to be a continuation of the first tale, it turns out to be nothing of the kind. This may be as good an opportunity as any to question the producers’ decision to link these unrelated films together, where even the chapters on the DVD do not correspond to the beginning and end of the individual pictures. But this is a small quibble for a production in which evident care has been lavished on every detail, from start to finish. The universe inhabited by Rampo may reflect a time gone by (a belligerent Japan just opening up to Western culture), but it still exerts a strong attraction for filmmakers like Jissoji, who has already made three films based on the writer’s mysteries. Jissoji has said that he prefers going to art museums to watching movies, and this preoccupation is manifest in each and every one of the exquisitely constructed ‘display cases’ that constitute the sets of this, perhaps the most narrative-based of the four films. The director takes evident delight in framing his actors in elaborately composed mirrored décors, each unique and memorable, and lovingly photographed in monochromatic color: the tea ceremony room, the funeral service at the mortuary, the autopsy room, the hotel in Kamakura, the Kamakura police station — but perhaps most fascinating of all the riches on display are the scenes in which the handsome Toru Itsuki (Hiroki Narimiya) is at work in his studio, creating the dreaded ‘shadow mirror’. There is no denying the stylistic virtuosity of Jissoji , who spent his youth watching the films of Fellini and Antonioni, as well as the French filmmakers of the 1930s through the Nouvelle Vague. Mirror Hell is a genuine feast for the senses, which may or may not enable the viewer to forgive the most transparent of detective stories (in which Tadanobu tries valiantly to fill out his shell of a role), a gratingly annoying operatic soundtrack, and gratuitous scenes of bondage and S&M.

Many of the themes of Rampo’s oeuvre have already been developed in the first two episodes — eroticism, voyeurism and lack of genuine communication – but they reach their paroxysm in the third installment entitled Caterpillar.  This grim tale tells the story of a battered war hero (Nao Omori)who has returned home to his passionate wife (Yukiko Okamoto) – only to be subjected to the cruel sexual and sadistic whims of her unbalanced mind. Of the four films in this collection, perhaps none have matched so perfectly story and director as in this episode. Hisayasu Sato freely experiments with camera movement, lighting, intentional use of blur and high contrast, and color (an inky-blue sequence is reminiscent of Tsukamoto’s singular A Snake of June) but miraculously, the individual images all hold together as one. Of particular note is a scene where the wife shatters a mirror held by her deceased uncle’s assistant (Matsuda Ryuhei), the shards of glass reflected in angular splinters of light about the darkened room. Although there is an abundance of suffering in Caterpillar, what interests the director most are not torments of the flesh, but the psychic trauma endured by generations of Japanese unable to communicate with one another. One of the side-effects of this inability to express oneself manifests itself as voyeurism, which has reached epidemic proportions in Japanese society.

The fourth and final installment, Crawling Bugs, distinguishes itself from the preceding three by its rich use of color, a lively Afro-Cuban jazz soundtrack, and superb costumes and sets recalling the 1920s.  Tadanobu Asano here takes on the role of a pathologically reclusive germ-obsessed chauffeur, who develops an infatuation with a movie starlet (Tamaki Ogawa). I especially enjoyed the darkly humorous scenes at the dermatologist’s office, underscored by the sounds of a common household appliance. Sole distraction – the overuse of a particular sound effect, which my nephew called ‘frying eggs’. Both morbid and droll, Kaneko Atsushi’s debut film proves the manga artist of Bambi and Her Pink Gun to be a filmmaker to watch for. This set comes highly recommended and, while distinctly different, will inevitably draw comparisons to last year’s outstanding horror omnibus Three…Extremes. The HK R3 NTSC DVD distributed by Universe Laser & Video is flawless.

Japan | 2005 | Directors: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Sato Hisayasu, Kaneko Atsushi | Starring Asano Tadanobu (The Man/Detective Akechi/Masaki), Narimiya Hiroki (Toru), Matsuda Ryuhei (Hirai), Okamoto Yukiko (Sunaga Tokiko), Omori Nao (Sunaga), Ogawa Tamaki (Kinoshita)

Ganeon Entertainment, Micott & Basara, Kadokawa Herald Pictures, Toei TV
Writers: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Yumeno Shiro, Kaneko Atsushi
Producer: Miyazaki Dai
Directors of photography: Takeuchi Suguru, Hachimaki Tsuneari, Ashizawa Akiko, Yamamoto Hideo
Production designer: Kitamura Michiko
Music: Puppypet
Editors: Abe Naoko, Shinozaki Hiroshi, Saitou Ryota, Yousuke Yafune, Kunihiko Ukai, Kaneko Naoki.
Budget: $1.5 million
Running time: 134 minutes