Thursday 4 September 2008

Goin' In Blind #2 - The Mystery Of Rampo

"Goin' In Blind is a series of reviews of movies that I had never heard of in any context before I picked them up off the (physical or virtual) DVD rental shelf.

Edogawa Rampo wrote many mystery stories between the mid-20s and mid-50s and is widely considered to be Japan's answer to Edgar Allen Poe. Comparisons of that variety tend to be dangerous as they can easily short change the artistic relevance of the person being compared, but Rampo was himself a big fan of the elder Poe and chose his pen name to sound similar to how Japanese people pronounce it. The late 60s (after Rampo's death) saw several films based on his stories - Kinji Fukasaku's "Black Lizard", Teruo Ishii's "Horrors Of Malformed Men" and Yasuzo Masumura's "Blind Beast" are all examples that are readily available on DVD - and his influence continues to this day with Shinya Tsukamoto's 1999 film "Gemini" and Barbet Schroeder's 2008 "Inju: La Bete Dans L'Ombre" (showing at this year's Toronto International Filmfest) also coming from his pen. So when I stumbled across "The Mystery Of Rampo", it didn't take much convincing to give it a try with no other knowledge about the film.

Focusing far less on plot, story and character development, Rintaro Mayuzumi and Kazuyoshi Okuyama's 1994 film (which was simply titled "Rampo" outside of North America) seems to exist solely to give the viewer the feeling of what it must be like to exist within one of Edogawa Rampo's stories.

Near the beginning of the film, we see an animated telling of the story of a woman, her frail husband and a nagamochi chest (a personal treasure chest). The animation is used to excellent effect here in foreshadowing the dark turn the story will take. And when it makes that turn, the moment is captured absolutely perfectly. It turns out that the story we are watching is actually being read by a member of the censor board and as it finishes, we cut to him stamping it "Not Approved (detrimental to public morale)". As Rampo and his agent sit there, the censor also states that his older stories will not be reissued and that there will be restrictions on any new work. If this isn't bad enough, Rampo must now attend a wrap party of the filming of one of his more straightforward stories and mingle with show business people. The short speech he delivers to an uncaring crowd feels like it could be a horror story in itself.

There are further "plot" elements - particularly Rampo hearing of a woman whose situation is uncannily close to that of the unpublished banned story we heard earlier - but the film is all about mood. The different styles and techniques used throughout, the lighting effects and the editing all help towards giving the viewer this sense of what living through one of his stories might be like. It can be quite disorienting as we start to wonder if Rampo's stories are somehow affecting reality or if perhaps they are even controlling his own actions.

Things further complicate and fold over themselves as halfway through the film, we begin to follow Rampo's other self - his own character creation detective Kogoro Akechi. We see recurring characters from both the real and imagined stories, doubled events, films within films, layered images, mirrors, ghosts, dreams and the same people playing different characters all the way up to the point when things literally shatter in a frenetically edited climax. Both stories contain a main female character who states "If I could live in a dream of a person I love, how happy I would be" and that seems to capture the idea of an idealized existence (especially given the time period of the action - the beginning of the Showa Era and rise of ultra-nationalism in the mid-20s) that several of the characters seem to be chasing.

By the end of the film, if you haven't completely followed the specifics of what has happened and perhaps feel slightly shaken, then it would appear that the filmmakers have succeeded in getting across their intention - to feel the same as a character in an Edogawa Rampo story.

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