Cinema Obscura:Rampo Noir

Rampo Noir posterTadanobu Asano stands naked in the middle of a bleached desert. As he moves forwards the eerie silence of the scene is broken by moments of vicious discord. It’s hard to make out what is happening at first, two naked bodies (moving too fast to be identified as male or female at first) battle around a room as static noise shreds your silence accustomed ear. These glimpses of madness and cruelty which make up the first film in Rampo Noir (Mar’s Canal) serve as the perfect introduction for the films which are to come.

Rampo Noir represents the latest in a long line of films adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo (the first movie based on a Rampo story was made in the mid 1920s). This quartet of adaptations gave four directors (two up and comers and two veterans) the resources to create truly lavish productions and while the money invested is utterly evident the films are in no way tied to notions of pleasing the lowest common denominator. In actuality the tone of the film is almost art house in tone with the second feature ‘The Hell of Mirrors’ being the closest to a traditional horror.

The Hell of Mirrors

The Hell of Mirrors is easily the most accomplished and confident of the films in the anthology which is no surprise considering it was helmed by occasional Ultraman Director and general Japanese cinema veteran Akio Jissoj. Sticking to a fairly regular story and narrative structure The Hell of Mirrors is essentially a battle of wills between a Narcissistic mirror maker and the cool calculating Detective Kogoro Akech. Detective Akech is something of a common character throughout the Rampo writings and in The Hell of Mirrors he is played with near shell shocked grace by Tadanobu Asano. Assigned to find the cause of a number of connected deaths Akech never appears particularly interested in the case until mythical and mystical aspects are unearthed. His detached demeanour moving to childlike enthusiasm and almost empathy with a character who should by all rights be his nemesis.

The Hell of Mirrors is a fantastic looking film but is essentially empty in terms of plotline. There is a story but it lacks a significant beginning and then seems to roll along at its own place until the finish. It is a series of set pieces held together by the lightest narrative strands. It also displays a truly odd moment of self destruction in the usage of a particularly strong bondage scene which serves no purpose other than to make a film which is almost mystically beautiful feel a little seedy. It’s not that the scene is repulsive or particularly extreme; it just lacks any cohesion with the rest of the movie and as such seems to be placed in to either fulfil a contractual obligation for extremity or satisfy one of the director’s quirks.

Caterpillar

In fact such a bondage scene would feel far more at home in the third film of the anthology, Hisayasu Sato’s Caterpillar.

Telling the tale of a wounded war veteran Caterpillar maintains a sickly, dangerous and claustrophobic sense of dark erotica which many would have only seen previously in the final minutes of Miike’s Audition. The crux of the story is that a young war hero has returned home little more than a shell of a man. Badly burned and missing all of his limbs and despite an awesome cameo in a Metallica video his life is suddenly without meaning. His attempts to exist are jeopardised by his wife who has cultivated a desire to hack parts off her little ‘Caterpillar’.

Centred around a cast of three (with Asano chipping in a bizarre prologue and even weirder epilogue) the film really is a marvel in that it remains utterly engrossing despite the repugnant characters. There’s something visceral about the torture inflicted upon the Caterpillar and something oddly compelling about his wife’s drift from maternal madness to frenzied passion. So powerful is this central duo that the third character often feels like an utter intruder which is perhaps the intent of the film. Played with utter disdain and filled with posturing macabre fantasies the third character seems like more of a plot tool than anything else.

Still as a horror Caterpillar is the best thing in the Anthology and remains suitably creepy hours after watching. Which is why the next films comes as such a surprise

Insect

A kitsch, richly funny, beautifully designed and in no way horrific tale of obsession rounds off the anthology. The first film from manga artist Atsushi Kaneko is perhaps the most visually arresting of the anthology. While it doesn’t have the sheer beauty of The Hell of Mirrors, Insect’s oversaturated hues and set design are suitably dynamic. In the film Asano (he appears in all four films in various roles) stars as an obsessive fan of a famous pop starlet who is constantly contending with a peculiar neurosis involving bugs.

Insect threatens to undo the previous work in the anthology by book ending Rampo Noir with a film that is at best confused and at worst incompetent. It has all the styling of a great film but it appears at times that the director is working with little understanding of purpose other than aesthetic. As a result the product ends up feeling more like an art project gone wrong than an actual movie.

More than anything else Rampo Noir represents what experienced directors can do when given sufficient resources and a modicum of creative control. It also shows that the same conditions given to newer directors can be damaging to the final product. The Hell of Mirrors and Caterpillar are spectacular pieces of work largely because the veteran directors know exactly what they wish to achieve and as such use their budgets to convey a professional representation of their ideas.

The newer directors both seem to fall into a trap of concept over production, a raft of ideas extrapolated upon at the expense of a cohesive final film. Rampo Noir is a film well worth watching for four very different takes on work which has obviously become deeply routed in the Japanese consciousness.

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