Masters Of Horror: Takashi Miike - Imprint Review
“This island isn’t in the human world. Demons and whores are the only ones living here.”
Well here it is. Banned from network television in the States earlier this year Takashi Miike’s Imprint is the thirteenth and final entry into season one of Masters of Horror, and what a way to close the series. The film is based upon Shimako Iwai’s book, with a screenplay by Daisuke Tengan who was previously responsible for Miike’s Audition and several of his father’s (Shohei Imamura) pictures including The Eel, Kanzo Sensei and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge.
An American journalist named Christopher (Billy Drago) arrives in 19th century Japan to find his lost love Komomo (Michie), a prostitute who he once shared happiness with, but has since disappeared. When he arrives on a mysterious island he comes into contact with a disfigured courtesan (Yukie Kudoh) who informs him that she once knew Komomo. Seeking answers he asks for her to tell him as much as she can about the woman and so she does, thus beginning a tale of terror and tragedy that will long stay burned into the mind of those who hear it.
There’s something strange about watching Imprint. Say what you will about its graphic nature - that it’s too much for American TV and what not - but this is typical Miike doing what he does best. It’s as if he’s taken portions from several of his films and rolled them into one piece whilst keeping his no-holds barred attitude for an unsuspecting western audience. Those unversed with Miike’s body of work will find themselves downright shocked, possibly sickened, and understandably so. The film highlights Miike’s trademark skills and looking past it you can imagine why it was so problematic for Showtime. He opens up things slowly as usual and gradually draws us in to his macabre world of Rampo stylings, whereby he then builds up the necessary tension, before unveiling the picture’s magnum opus. And that’s what people really want to hear about, just what caused the film to be deemed too explicit for today’s audiences? If I point the reader in the direction of Audition and Ichi the Killer then you’ll find that in terms of violence we’re dealing with very similar themes, involving the director’s long fascination with pointy things and torture. I won’t spoil the scene for those who wish to see for themselves, suffice it to say that it’s incredibly difficult to watch; I certainly winced and squirmed because I find this kind of horror to be the most unnerving, for the same reason that I usually turn away from scenes involving eye poking, teeth pulling or needles being injected into various body parts. Miike’s horror always works on a deeply personal level; he taps into the very things that make us truly uncomfortable. There’s no outrageous gore here and over the top mutilations, but real horror in its purest form. To make things harder he drags out said scene for what feels like ten minutes, which might be considered far too gratuitous and self-serving, but there’s no doubting its sheer power.
Imprint feels quite close to his more recent pieces Yokai Daisenso and Box, both made shortly before he got to work on his Masters of Horror contribution. The themes that he explores here reflect largely on those previously mentioned, so it appears as if he’s trying to quench a certain desire in one more hit. In Imprint the picture focuses as much on humanity as it does in trying to disturb the viewer. Miike uses deformity in one instance to dig deeper into the human psyche, in addition to highlighting natural prejudice which can scar a person more than their face might show, but he also uses it as a clever trick to throw the viewer off for a later twist. He also places a lot of focus on subjects that aren’t easy to film; child abuse, rape, incest, misogyny - a list of taboo issues that go way beyond what nasty images he might have displayed earlier and which certainly contributed toward the film’s ultimate banning. However, Miike doesn’t exploit the material, he rather sensitively handles it. That might sound ridiculous, especially when we see baby foetus’ being dumped in rivers and mothers getting savagely beaten, but it’s all underpinned by a tragic tale of damnation; these moments serve their purpose regardless of how grotesque or distasteful they might appear and it’s not too difficult to spot similar symbolic gestures littered throughout.
In terms of narrative, again it’s what we’ve come to expect. Anyone who watches a Takashi Miike film knows that he can be far from simple, which is interesting in Imprint’s case because for all intents the story is indeed simple on the surface. Only as it soldiers on does it become more and more outlandish and yes, it even reaches a point of sheer ridiculousness, but there’s something about the absurdities of Miike’s films that makes them so special. The themes contained within come together in a cohesive manner and there’s a certain amount of believability in what we’re witnessing. Miike essentially creates several stories within a story; he throws us off the scent as much as he possibly can, bending truths and distorting reality as our protagonists descend into madness. It’s a painful trip, filled with many stark moments and if Miike lets himself down then it’s upon revealing the penultimate twist which lacks the impact it perhaps should bare, although it is suitably weird. Certainly Imprint is a manipulative piece of film making; it might even piss off a fair few punters who don’t want a maddening cerebral ride, but nevertheless it is indeed a strangely compelling piece of work.
I suppose if we’re to drag the film down a notch then it would be due to its performances. With Miike having to work with a cast of English speakers he’s placed into a situation where directing them proves to be a little difficult. The only prominent western actor is Billy Drago who headlines the film, and that is quite a surprise given that he’s a character actor who rarely fronts a film. Drago’s range as an actor stretches about as far as over the top eccentricities; he’s great when called upon to play crazy loons but here the material is above what he’s capable of, and undoubtedly matters aren’t helped when he’s being directed by a man who doesn’t speak the lingo; Drago needs to generate more sincerity and a genuine knack of melancholic sadness, but he fails to illicit any kind of sympathetic response from the viewer. Having said that Drago does look the part; his worn and puckered features make him appear like the well travelled man that he’s supposed to be. He looks tired, drained, pissed off and confused. His performance ranges from being suitably demure to downright insane. Upon learning of his girl’s death Drago throws himself into a rambling, lunatic rage that sadly fails to convince, and from there he pretty much carries on in the same frame of mind, going with a film that is all too crazy and surreal in itself. But Drago doesn’t carry the sole burden. Imprint, like the more recent Memoirs of a Geisha features a large range of Asian talent, with Miike employing the services of several Japanese actors who are well versed in English. However therein lays another problem as it frankly takes the film out of an authentic stable. Had Drago been conversing at all times with Japanese people then it wouldn’t create a problem, but when we see Japanese actors in their own scenes together it creates difficulties and ends up being as uncomfortable as the nasty content depicted. Youki Kudoh isn’t a shabby actress, in fact she does very well here to carry most of the film, as does Toshie Negishi and Michie, but they’re required to try too hard and as a result their performances are hindered by the fact.
But if we’re to get back on track Imprint is a lavish production that feels aesthetically authentic when placed in Meiji era Japan. Miike captures yet another seedy underbelly of society with a great amount of passion and detail and as such the film wins us over for sheer visual amazement. The early shots with susuki grass sets up a foreboding atmosphere before it moves on to open up the main story with its intimate yukaku setting, which soon overcomes an early and awkward use of compositing. Miike rarely uses his lens to widen the scope of the film; it feels very theatrical in a stage play kind of way, also adding anachronistic flourishes, and it appears as if the director was working with a limited production, but despite this he achieves a remarkable looking picture.
Imprint is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.77:1, which has been given anamorphic treatment. The quality here is pristine. Although it doesn’t say so it’s likely taken from a High Def source; it really is close to perfect. The only problem that affects it is another case of edge enhancement which is quite unsightly during certain shots, particularly outdoors when we see baron trees for example. Aside from that colour reproduction is superb; there is a lot of red in the film and it remains stable at all times, as do flesh tones, with night time scenes faring very well, with little to worry about in terms of black and contrast levels. Detail is equally impressive, so in all we have a very complimentary transfer for a deserving film.
Sound options are Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround 2.0. For the purpose of this review I went with the former and have to say that Imprint offers quite a splendid aural treat. Long time Miike collaborator Kouji Endo provides another effective score that’s made up of traditional components, such as shamisens, which reflect the period well. It’s suitably jarring where it needs to be; Endo doesn’t keep it running non stop, but when he calls upon his music box-like techniques, chimes and sounds of nature the soundstage comes alive and we get a nice amount of coverage. Likewise the sound design is aptly creepy and the no doubt soon to be famous torture scene is all the more gruelling for it. Dialogue, despite obvious limitations, remains clear throughout and has a neat amount of separation, with the front channels catering for it well.
Sadly there are no optional subtitles for the hard of hearing, but the box lists Closed Captions for what it’s worth. I will knock off a point due to this oversight.
The following extra features should be watched after the film, although they do stress beforehand that there are spoilers contained within.
This is a solid introduction to how Miike became involved with the Masters of Horror series. Creator Mick Garris starts things off by telling us how he wanted a good director who could represent Asia, which soon leads us into the production process. From here Miike talks about his given reputation, how he’s seen in the west and how he ultimately decided to approach Imprint. Several interviews with various actors inter-cut and so Miike, like everyone else, flits in and out, each time talking about a different aspect of his career and overcoming hurdles during film making. And so we hear about his casting decisions, directing with a translator, philosophies on set – a lot of ground is covered. Actors interviewed Billy Drago, Michie, Youki Kudoh, Shimako Iwai (author, also sadist in film who chats about her novels stemming from personal life), Toshie Negishi, Noriko Eguchi, Miho Harita, Yuno and Houka Kinoshita who each chat about their various experiences, in particular acting with an entirely new language at their disposal, where channelling emotions can be very difficult, in addition to working with Miike. That’s where dialogue coach Nadia Vanesse comes in as she explains teaching the cast phonetic English which is quite fascinating. We’re also taken behind the scenes where we see the torture segments being filmed, the DP at work, the traditional purification ceremony, production design including wardrobe and sets. Miike is like a big kid on set and it shines through in spades; he talks about working with his actors where he comes across as being very humble, particularly when he fondly speaks of one of his regular actors Mame Yamada. There’s a lot more to take in throughout this detailed look at the making of.
I am the Film Director of Love and Freedom (41:23)
For Miike fans this is an indispensable look at the man as he reveals a lot about his method of making films. This offers plenty of insights, starting with his thoughts on ambition and delving into his history as an Assistant Director where he enjoyed a lot of freedom in making straight to video films. He explains what he feels is the essence of Japanese horror, how he chooses projects and how he believes people see him overseas. There’s also a look at how he goes about interpreting scripts, overcoming vague references, his relationship with actors and how he likes to direct off set actions with methods that aren’t adopted by most directors. His comments on making violent films are very interesting, supporting it with a philosophy that you need to put love into it in order to reach pain. He discusses sound and music and how he enjoys creating his own effects; visualising on set, physical directing and also self views. Clearly though the most important thing to him is maintaining a happy set and he talks about how he tries to do that every day and allow the crew to enjoy themselves. It doesn’t matter if his films are good or bad, only the experience matters. He really does come across as a great guy, who has a firm handle on what he does and is under no false pretences about what he can and can’t achieve.
Imperfect Beauty (22:01)
Special make-up and Effects expert Yuichi Matsui, who has worked with Miike on over twenty films, beginning with Full Metal Yakuza, takes us through the process of designing props for film. He lets us in on his history a little and his love for film while he shows us various creations, of which one main piece gets a lot of attention. Aside from his enthusiastic input we get contributions from Miike, who discusses his preference for animatronics, Youki Kudoh and Michie who had to undergo some fairly torturous make-up routines, though they’re equally as fascinated and enthusiastic about the whole process. There is also some behind the scenes takes of cast and crew at work, all of whom seem to be having a blast on set.
Journalist, Chris. D is joined by Wyatt Doyle from NewTexture.com who give their frank and honest opinions on Imprint They discuss the elements that work and those which don’t, such as the English dialogue being problematic, unnatural acting and an overall dream-like state which makes it a tricky film to work out. Chris D even elaborates on the more disturbing scenes, which he feels are far too gratuitous and lack the funny element that Ichi had. And I tend to agree with him in that this is pure brutality. The pair pretty much echo my exact sentiments that I’ve mentioned in my review throughout, although they get into more detail about certain characters and lack of back story also, while finding a lot less to praise in terms of its vicious content. Overall it’s an interesting and fun listen that reveals a few little factual pieces, but mostly relies on their individual opinions of the film itself.
The disc is rounded off with trailers for other titles in the Masters of Horror series, along with a Still Gallery of 57 images which includes behind the scenes and press cuttings, a decent length and fairly detailed biography on Takashi Miike, with selected filmography and DVD-ROM material consisting of the film’s screenplay and a screensaver.
At the end of the day Miike achieves what he sets out to do, and that is to shock the viewer with visceral and twisted imagery. Though its storyline tends to get a little convoluted and the acting is at times shocking for all the wrong reasons, Imprint certainly leaves an impression. In terms of horror it might not be a surprise coming from the director but it’s still very unsettling. For western viewers who are not well versed in his work, this might just prove to be the most depraved piece of film making that they’ve seen in a long time; it certainly is a nasty and effective film and - although he probably wouldn’t like me saying so - Miike’s earned his place as being a true master of horror.