Thanks to a correspondent who receives the UK satellite station BRAVO, I've finally been able to see Takeshi Miike's "Imprint," the banned thirteenth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR. "Finally" may be a strong word to use in reference to a film originally scheduled to premiere on January 27 -- not even three full months ago -- but I feel like I've been waiting years to see it. Such is the headiness of forbidden fruit.
Fortunately for the impatient and globally-connected, "Imprint" was shown on BRAVO (UK) a couple of weeks ago, on April 7... with commercial interruption (what brave sponsors!), but at least it was shown. It should trouble us that we Americans supposedly live in "the land of the free," but if we want to see Dario Argento's MOR episode "Jenifer" uncut, we're out of luck altogether; and if we want to see "Imprint" at all, we need to swap DVD-Rs with someone living in a country that is actually notorious for censoring theatrical and home video releases -- even if we've already paid Showtime for the privilege.
As you may remember, when "Imprint" -- the only MOH episode produced outside Vancouver, British Columbia -- was screened for Showtime, they made the decision not to air it. No official explanation was given, but MOH executive producer Mick Garris later told The Horror Channel that "Showtime felt it was something they didn't feel comfortable putting out on the airwaves." Consequently, "Imprint"'s position as the series' twelfth episode was inherited by "Haeckel's Tale," a Clive Barker story directed by John McNaughton, which was rushed into production to fill the vacated time slot. Originally to be directed by Roger Corman (who backed out for health reasons), "Haeckel's Tale" turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the first dozen. For all its baleful warnings and talk of forbidden sights, the episode's "transgressive" imagery ultimately delivered nothing more taboo-breaking than a naked woman grinding her rounded hips atop a Romeroesque zombie in a misty graveyard. It was pathetic and laughable.
Which, after all, is what Americans really want horror to be. Statistics show that we won't support a horror film if it's promoted as being in the least comic, but what we really want from the genre, my experience as an observer shows, are scares we can either surf or ride like bulls. We love that feeling of victory as the shock waves swell beneath us, we love riding them out. But such cheap thrills were not the goal of Takeshi Miike (AUDITION, VISITOR Q), the most poetical of the new J-horror extremists. When speculating about the reasons behind Showtime's rejection of "Imprint," online pundits have often pointed to the episode's abortion-related imagery as a likely cause, but I always doubted this was so -- and now that I've seen the episode, I know that Right To Life sentiments weren't necessarily part of the problem. This episode has no shortage of ideas and imagery just as discomforting as having an unborn fetus pulled from your nether regions.
I believe Showtime's refusal of the episode has much more to do with the vast gulf between the American and Japanese concepts of horror. In America, everyone is raised on horror films; we want monsters, gore, laughs and titillation. In Japan, as in Europe, horror films have always been an adult genre. In Japan, perhaps most adult of all. Just look at a movie like HELL [Jigoku, 1960] and you know they're at least 40 years ahead of us in these matters, maybe 50. There, the genre has always been about the investigation, probing and rupturing of taboos; it's about transgression -- social, sexual, spiritual. The most frightening thing any Japanese horror film aspires to deliver is a new, irrational way of thinking or looking at the world. "Imprint" was not created to entertain, but to disturb, repulse and frighten. To those ends, it works admirably well.
Set in a heavily stylized 19th century, it stars Billy Drago (Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES) as a self-confessed "strange man" from America who returns after a lengthy absence to an unnamed island off the coast of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie), a geisha who once won his heart -- because she reminded him so of his dead sister. The American follows his lead to a carnival-like sin capital where he is warned of lurking dangers, and for his own safety, he agrees to spend the night with another geisha (Youki Kudoh, pictured above), a friend of Komomo's whose face is partially disfigured. The American surprises the geisha by not being repulsed by her twisted features, indeed by finding her "very attractive." Tired and lovesick, the American wants rest more than sex and asks the geisha to tell him a story about herself as he drifts to sleep. She tells him about her childhood, as the unwanted daughter of a midwife who discarded unwanted fetuses in the river outside their rustic home, and proceeds to tell him the story of her friendship with Komomo. The story ends with Komomo's death. Upset and angry, the American feels that the geisha isn't telling him the full truth and demands to know more -- prompting a different and more upsetting story. But this version strikes the American as so horrible that still worse secrets about these events must be harbored by the storyteller. "Why is it that everyone always wants to know the truth?" the geisha ponders. "Sometimes the lie is better. It's prettier."
I don't want to spoil the experience of this episode by revealing too much before most of you have the opportunity to see it, so I'll stop my synopsis there. In fact, I will warn those who haven't seen the episode to avoid at all costs a promotional clip from the episode which is available for viewing online (I won't give the URL, but its Googlable) because it reveals a plot revelation no one should anticipate before they reach that point in the story.
My own interpretation of "Imprint" is that it's about the human reflex that Roman Polanski charted so well in that moment from REPULSION when Ian Hendry, repulsed by the sight of the dead man in the bathtub, suddenly leans in closer for an unflinching look. It's about our desire to know the worst without being touched by it. It's about the horror of our flesh-and-blood existence, steeped not only in repugnant imagery, but much that is beautiful within its repugnant imagery, if we have the courage to lean in closer for a more unflinching look. The American's desire to know the worst he can know is inextricably tied to any viewer's own quest for the capital Truth, and Miike suggests that absolute truth is absolute horror. Our polite refusal to experience horror, even intellectually, especially intellectually, banishes us from the Truth. He shows us some monstrous things about who we are, where we come from, and where we sit in relation to stories such as this. As such, "Imprint" would have been the perfect way to conclude MASTERS OF HORROR's first season, because it responds to the very idea of the show by throwing down a gauntlet no Western director is likely to approach -- not for another 50 years, anyway.
It's a curious East/West schism that Japanese horror somehow becomes more delicate, more epicurean, when it is most gruellingly sadistic, whereas Western horror almost always forfeits its sophistication when crossing these lines, too blunt to be effectively cruel. We're going through a big "torture" phase now in American horror cinema (SAW, SAW II, HOSTEL), and the sociologists among you can fill in the reason for that. But there is a bluntness about the violence in these films that resists intellectualization; not thinking too much about the violence, even enjoying it to a degree, is part of the Big Picture. No matter how gross or gruesome these scenes become, the films always shy away from identifying too much with the victim. (The sociologists among you can rhubarb about that one too amongst yourselves.) There is a protracted torture scene in "Imprint" that is exceedingly difficult to watch, because we never once side emotionally with the pain being so exquisitely inflicted by the torturer, but remain resolutely identified with the victim. However, Miike keeps the process as gratifying to the eye as it is otherwise repulsive -- with color, motion, composition and the occasional goose of surprise. His 19th century Japan is highly stylized, with exquisite décor, much Felliniesque detail (the American's guide is a dwarf with a cancer-eaten nose and a severed cock's head bobbing atop his headdress), and the geishas sport blue and flaming red hair, allowing this ancient past to be shot through with irrational flashes of modernity. During one of the tortures, we see Komomo suspended from the ground like an inverted objet d'art, and as hard as it was to endure this scene, on reflection, I had to admit it was preferable to seeing someone anonymously chainsawed in an American slasher film. Why? Because, as repellent as these tortures might be, seeing a thinking, feeling body reduced to an objet d'art is somehow preferable to seeing a piece of meat reduced to meat. Miike forces us to weigh the civility of violence, inspired violence meted out with black-toothed glee against brute violence... fine distinctions I'm not often called upon by the cinema to acknowledge or consider. These are upsetting things to weigh in one's heart and stomach, and therefore defiantly uncommercial. As my friend Charlie remarked when we discussed this: "Can you imagine Miike trying to make movies like this in the States? They'd probably arrest him. And then torture him!"
On the basis of a single viewing, I'm not certain how successful "Imprint" is -- either as a film, or as a chapter in the Takeshi Miike canon. It is unquestionably as creepy as hell. This man can deliver visual horror like it's never been done. I also found myself chuckling a good deal late in the episode, but I can't be certain yet whether this was a correct or unintended response. Certainly some of my laughs were prompted by shock and surprise. Drago's performance is way over-the-top, in the best Jack Palance/Christopher Walken tradition, but it will take additional viewings before I know if this was a creative error, a thespic weakness, or exactly the spice needed by the stew. On the other hand, it was immediately evident that "Imprint" is the most ravishingly photographed (Toyomichi Kurita), designed (Hisashi Sasaki, Takashi Sasaki), and scored (Kôji Endô) of all the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.
It's my understanding that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be issuing "Imprint" on DVD sometime this fall. I can't speak for the general horror audience, but no courageous student of the genre should miss it.