Written by: Daisuke Tengan(teleplay), Shimako Iwai (novel)
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Starring: Billy Drago, ShihŰ Harumi and Michiť
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďThis island isn't in the human world; demons and whores are the only ones living here. "
Of course Masters of Horror had an episode that was banned from being broadcast--no self-respecting horror anthology series could go without one. And if you were to draw Takashi Miikeís name in a pool that was betting on which director would shepherd an episode to such a fate, youíd have some pretty good odds of winning. As far as modern horror directors go, few can match just how transgressive and weird he can get. I canít deny his ability to bring weirdly violent and fucked up to the things to the screen, but, despite this, a lot of his films just leave me a little cold--in fact, Iíd say my favorite Miike film that Iíve seen is 13 Assassins, which isnít a horror movie, so maybe thereís something to do that.
Imprint is kind of more of the same in this respects--which is to say itís eventually engrossing because itís gross. At first, youíll be wondering if Showtime shelved it because not a whole lot happens--Billy Drago is a 19th century American wandering in Japan looking for his lost love, a quest that leads him to an island-bound brothel where he meets a deformed prostitute (Youki Kudoh). She claims to know the fate of the girl Drago is searching for, so she begins to relate the story to him, all the while delivering her own sordid life story that ends up connecting the two.
Sheís not straightaway with it, though, as what follows is a Rashomon-style narrative thatís continually twisting and turning, only itís all coming from one person. This is an interesting trick in the sense that it renders a decent chunk of the story false since Kudoh bullshits Drago a bit along the way, but it really works to round out the portrait of this damaged girl. When a girl ends up being a prostitute, you have to assume something went wrong along the way, but, in this case, I think you can make the argument that her life is probably better than it was when she was younger. By juxtaposing her idealized childhood with the true story, sheís turned into a tragic figure who is eventually revealed to do a lot of really horrific things.
Imprint dwells on these horrific things and doesnít flinch. Thereís an early conversation about heaven and hell that comes complete with a visual reference to the latter, and itís straight out of Jigoku, which foreshadows the twisted, visceral place that Miike eventually takes Imprint. I can honestly say that he had me squirming consistently during an instance of torture that amounts to death by a thousand cuts in terms of impact--itís not so much that the torments are elaborate, but itís almost like Miike knows my exact pressure points. As his characters poked and prodded this girl, I found myself consistently recoiling--my toes especially got a good workout. And this big, torturous centerpiece isnít even the grossest thing Imprint has to offer! Even the most hardened horror veteran will likely look at Imprint and at least get why Showtime didnít air it. This is not to say it was the right move--in fact, I would call it a cowardly move--but itís definitely the most disgusting and gag-inducing episode the series has to offer. It makes Jenifer look like a Very Special After School Special episode of Masters of Horror by comparison.
Iíd expected this to be all thatíd be noteworthy with Imprint; a lot of times, ďbannedĒ material is full of empty shocks, but Imprint also has some genuine dread and atmosphere. The island itself is a classic, brooding little set-piece thatís draped in a surreal dreaminess; in a story about heaven and hell, it serves as a spectral purgatory. As the story unfolds, you gather that these two individuals are being delivered their last rites without knowing it, with their sins being binged upon and purged for one last blowout. Miike derived inspiration from an ancient Japanese ghost story, and it shows--Imprint even feels like the spiritual successor to stuff like Onibaba and Kuroneko with its mixture of atmosphere and viscera. Even though it contains a multitude of physically horrific images, its most effective one is terrifically subtle and operates in the background. I wasnít even sure if I saw it at first, but once it registered, it was chill-inducing and served as a reminder that truly unsettling stuff skirts around the fringes and dances on your brain like that.
Miike also takes a hammer to your skull too, though, and I suspect thatíll be Imprintís lasting legacy. If so, it certainly earns it, and the film is masterfully put together by Miike and his crew; his steady, assured style brings focus to his horrific images, as heís deft enough to realize that camera hysterics are unnecessary when heís tossing taboo after taboo up on the screen. His effects crew provides him with stuff that deserves to be seen, and one gag feels like it could have been right at home in an 80s Cronenberg flick--it is beautifully practical and very weird, which mirrors the film as a whole. Imprint puts a fine exclamation point on the first season of Masters of Horror, whose good mostly outweighs the band, and Imprint itself lands firmly in the former column. In terms of just being totally gonzo and memorable on a purely visual level, itís probably at the very top. Buy it!
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