Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001)

Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001) is Teruo Ishii's final film. Monzô Kobayashi (Lily Franky) writes detective stories and one evening, he attends the performance of cabaret singer and star, Ranko Mizuki (Mutsumi Fujita). The audience is quite taken with her performance, but Monzô notices one patron who cannot look at her at all. Later that evening, Monzô takes a stroll in the park and among the prostitutes and peddlers, he sees a diminutive man hurry from the park. Monzô decides to give chase to the man and follow him. Surreptitiously, Monzô sees the diminutive man enter into a temple and he decides to uncover the small man’s identity. The following day Monzô has an encounter with an acquaintance from his small village, Ms. Yurie Yamano (Reika Hashimoto) who asks him to introduce her to famous detective, Kogorô Akechi (Shinya Tsukamoto). Yurie’s step-daughter has gone missing and she would like Akechi’s help. Monzô approaches his friend Akechi and pleads with him to help Yurie. Akechi reluctantly agrees, because he is more interested in the disappearance of cabaret singer, Ranko Mizuki for whose final performance Monzô was in attendance. I have quite a fondness for the cinema of Teruo Ishii. I’m a huge fan of his later work, specifically, for example, Neji-shiki (1998) and Jigoku (1999) and I also enjoy his earlier cinema, such as Kyôfu kikei ningen: Edogawa Rampo zenshû (1969) and Kaidan nobori ryu (1970). Of his cinema that I have seen, his stories are grounded in “reality” (or at least, one of his characters is grounded in “reality.” I have put reality in quotation marks, because at the time of this writing, the word is too fluid as a concept for me to adequately define.). Môjû tai Issunbôshi (2001) is based upon the stories of Japanese author, Edogawa Rampo, whose mysteries and horror tales have made him a legend in his home country. Having never read the man’s work and having only seen film adaptations of them, his work appears to put him in the same league as other brilliant and pioneering pulp writers, such as Gaston Leroux and Bram Stoker, for example. Ishii’s adaptation of Rampo through Môjû tai Issunbôshi is a traditionally-styled mystery with traditional results (e.g. investigators gather clues, make their case, and solve their cases). Ishii’s visual style, as in his previous works that I have seen, is completely untraditional and unique. His characters and scenarios, as in Môjû tai Issunbôshi, are credible and believable and approach the world in like fashion. However, Ishii punctuates his films loudly with trips “through the looking glass”: the mise en scène becomes overtly theatrical and wild. These scenes are not everyday occurrences, to put it mildly. In any case, a description of a scene would do better justice than a description of his style, but a viewing of the scenes would trump both verbal descriptions. The English title of Môjû tai Issunbôshi is Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf who are the two antagonists of the two mysteries within the film. In the film’s opening sequence, hands are seen feeling an art sculpture while Mutsumi Fujita, as Ranko Mizuki, screams at the person touching the sculpture. She is the model for the sculpture and believes that anyone fondling the sculpture is like fondling her. The person touching the sculpture is a blind man, and the only way for him to appreciate and understand the sculpture is to feel it. When he learns that the flesh-and-blood model is standing in front of him, he becomes animated. When Ranko is kidnapped, the film reveals that the blind man is her kidnapper. In his home, the “Blind Beast” has a lair where he houses Ranko. His lair is comprised of constructed body parts made seemingly from poor plaster casings. Arms, legs, torsos, and faces protrude from the walls. At nearly every bit of space, one could reach out and touch and feel one of the objects. The blind man sees Ranko as living art and with his perverted sensibilities, he wants to capture her essence and make her his. Ishii’s style compliments this wildly and literally theatrical scene. He shoots actress Fujita in a completely sensational fashion. She’s very attractive, and Ishii cannot resist more than one audacious composition while she scrambles around the lair solely in her panties. Ranko and her captive’s relationship becomes closer as the film progresses, and Ishii pushes both his visual content and style. There are a few sequences which are jaw-dropping-ly amazing occurring in the “Blind Beast’s” lair, and it would be a disservice to describe them here. They are moments where instant rewind is necessary, because believing they were seen has to be confirmed. The lair sequences are just an example, as Môjû tai Issunbôshi has many of them. Despite the fact that Môjû tai Issunbôshi has a very creative visual style and a traditional narrative, there is sensitivity. However, this sensitivity comes at the cost of contradiction. Môjû tai Issunbôshi (and the other Ishii cinema that I’ve seen) can be comfortably labeled as sensational or exploitation cinema. If the viewer believes there is nothing behind the sensational veneer, then he/she will find nothing. However, really interesting cinema, like Môjû tai Issunbôshi, will challenge that belief. For example, the two antagonists, the “Blind Beast” and the “Killer Dwarf” can be understood in two ways: one can look at these two characters’ rendition and see them as freakish, grotesque, and other. Ishii does not deter this mode of viewing: they are perverts, kidnappers, and deviants with their criminal behavior. However, Ishii also affords the opportunity to see his antagonists as physically-disabled people who have been, as a result of their disabilities, treated poorly by others. Ishii shows two scenes, one a flashback and one in the present, involving the diminutive man and the blind man, respectively. They are both scenes of degradation and ridicule at the expense of the antagonists, and each scene ends with revenge. Each scene of course is visually-creative, sensational, and ridiculous, but the emotions within each scene are genuine. A viewer can continue to laugh at these characters or see them in another perspective...take your pick. I can find no fault with any of the performances within Môjû tai Issunbôshi. In addition to the titular characters, writer Lily Franky deserves mention as Monzô; drop-dead gorgeous Reika Hashimoto is very good as Yukie; and filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto, as the detective Akechi, is always fun to watch. Môjû tai Issunbôshi shows a veteran filmmaker still being progressive (the film was shot on DV) yet still retaining his visual obsessions which have made his work so unique and interesting. As I have said numerous times here at Quiet Cool, those seeking the offbeat and different will certainly find Môjû tai Issunbôshi of interest. It’s a perfect introduction to Teruo Ishii or a wonderful capping to an amazing career.

1 comment:

Dr.LargePackage said...

Interesting review Hans. I wanted to share some wisdom with you, even if it is not immediately applicable or relevant to your review: If you see Clark Kent on the street, and you know he's superman, you don't call him Clark Kent. My memory is large and in charge.