Review: Rampo Noir (2005)

Forget wells and videos and all manner of watery metaphors, Rampo Noir returns to the source with a refreshingly new bent. Based on stories by Japanese gothic horror author Edogawa Rampo, this collection of short films is both experimental and confronting in a way that cheap frights will never, ever be, and it’s actually not an easy thing to watch.

The anthology opens with Mars Canal, directed by Takeuchi, and for the first few minutes, I probably wasn’t the only person wondering whether someone had forgotten to plug in the speakers. Just remember, the key word here is conceptual. None of the three films that follow are what you’d call straight, but this first one is probably the most out there in terms of coherent, traditional narrative. It’s actually a little like a performance piece, and as such, you might start to ask yourself what’s going on. Don’t. Or at least, don’t ask too hard. This is not a stable piece; it’s up to you to interpret it. It’s primal, beautiful, violent and disturbing, without ever being anything more than naked bodies, shadows, lakes and noise.

And it’s probably me, but I like things to tie in, even vaguely, so from Mars Canal, to the seemingly tame-in-comparison, Mirror Hell, directed by Akio Jissôji, I kind of want to draw parallels between lakes and reflections and mirrors and inner truths, but what I see forming instead, is a walk on the dark side of love. This time Asano features (dressed) as a detective trying to solve a series of baffling deaths, where formerly lovely women are found with their faces missing and something in their possession. That thing connects them to the even lovelier artisian, Toru, played with alluring intensity by Hiroki Narimiya (Azumi). Obsessed with achieving perfection and trapped by inherited expectations, Toru’s surface looks polished, but underneath something monstrous is trying to get out.

Which leads, tenuously no doubt, to the metamorphosis of Hisayasu Satou’s Caterpillar (and yes, that is Omori Nao, would you believe it). Artist Taro Hirai (Matsuda) is a seemingly idle observer of the love that Tokiko (Yukiko Okamoto) holds for her badly injured, war veteran husband (Omori). The horror here is not the state of the husband, or the revelations that begin to seep through the cracks of the three characters’ bizarre relationship, but the idea that what we are witnessing is still love. Taro in his capacity as unbiased witness helps anchor and stabilise that idea, that it is only other people’s rules that name something ‘abuse’ and not ‘love’. And when reduced down to those terms, Caterpillar is by far the most disturbing segment in the whole film.

At least, it is until the money shot at the end of Crawling Bugs, directed by Atsushi Kaneko, and this segment is where Asano shows why he is the hottest, most versatile, and possibly the most mesmerising and incomprehensible actor in Asia. In an interview during the Hong Kong International Film Festival 2006 where Rampo screened, the actor said of this and the other bizarre, edgy parts he has played in the past, that he just ‘does what the director says to do’. He would probably consider ‘incomprehensible’ an inaccurate adjective, but when you see this segment, you’ll be glad his acting approach isn’t method after all. Bugs is fairly straight-forward to start with, lush and theatrical looking, until the edges of reality blur and you start to realise that Masaki’s (Asano) obsession for actress Fuyou Kinoshita (Tamaki Ogawa) may not be quite as textbook as it appears. His stability is seriously questionable, but only from an outsider’s point of view. Inside, every decision made is a desperate act to have what he wants and needs, culminating in a cinematic visual you’ll be hard pressed to ever fully banish from mind.

And Rampo Noir will leave you on that note with all the fully fledged, unsteady queasiness of a good horror flick, with none of the formula and all of the chills. Nightmare ride without meaning, or something with deeper, darker connotations, this anthology has far more in common with Tsukamoto than it does with Nakata. The point is reinvention, breaking the stale boundaries of current modern horror, and the safe, certain confines of your expectations.

9 Jars of Formaldehyde out of 10.
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