Teruo Ishii was one of Japan’s most elaborately daring auteurs; much like Seijun Suzuki he challenged the studio system when he wanted to and made his reputation through his unflinching desire to simply entertain audiences via his own unique cinematic expression. On occasion he could be entirely cynical, while at other times all out ridiculous. Whatever the mood of his films though his technical approach toward storytelling undoubtedly helped to secure his reputation as being one of Japan’s finest cult directors. His overall output predominantly throughout the sixties and seventies, in which he rapidly churned out some genre-bending classics, was highly influential and more importantly beneficial for Toei but it was in 1969 that he’d earned himself a spot of infamy shortly after completing his more commonly known “Joys of Torture” series.
Horrors of Malformed Men takes place during the autumn of the thirteenth year of the Taisho era. It’s 1925 and a young medical student by the name of Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finds himself imprisoned in a mental institution. For quite some time visions of a mysterious island have been haunting him and lately he’s been fearful that a bald-headed cell mate is out to kill him, and he’s right. During a violent struggle Hirosuke overcomes and kills the attacker, but he seeks to know why he wanted him dead. Eventually he escapes and soon he hooks up with a young orphan circus girl called Hatsuyo. A common bond quickly forms between them and they agree to set out and uncover their mysterious pasts, but Hatsuyo is soon murdered by an unknown assailant and Hirosuke is left holding the knife. Framed a murder he didn’t commit he sets off in disguise toward Panorama Island, adopting the identity of the recently deceased Genzaburo Komoda, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hirosuke, right down to his Gammadion scarring. Now pretending to be Komoda resurrected he infiltrates the family household in a bid to find the answers to his questions and soon unravels a dastardly plot involving a mad scientist named Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata), whose self-appointed destiny is to create a perfect utopia inhabited by genetically deformed babies and old people, so that they can rule the world and get all the pretty girls (no, really).
Ishii adored the work of Edogawa Rampo: Japan’s most famous mystery author, often citing influences in several of his works. In fact he was often spoilt for choice, which is why whenever he did focus specifically on carrying Rampo’s tales over to celluloid he never strictly followed a single narrative, choosing instead to interweave several plot devices in order to create his own semi-twisted vision. Having said that he wasn’t the only director daring enough to take on such macabre stories. Indeed there has been no shortage of productions based on the legacy of Edogawa Rampo, but perhaps more interestingly, however, is that two of the most striking efforts, thus giving Ishii greater precedence both appeared in 1969: the centrepiece of this review, which notably collects Rampo’s The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, Watcher in the Attic (later tackled in 1976 by Noboru Tanaka) and Twins/Gemini (from which Shinya Tsukamoto made one of few commercial films in ‘99) and Yasuzo Masumura’s seminal Blind Beast. The biggest difference between them is that one ended up getting banned indefinitely from any kind of release in Japan.
Granted then, Horrors of Malformed Men is all the more notorious for its reputation rather than the quality it presents up there onscreen, though that’s not to say it isn’t one hell of a crazy-arsed production. Banned by Toei itself in the early seventies, partly due to its rather politically incorrect original title of Kyofu Kikei Ningen which literally translated means “Fear the Deformed People”, and more hinted toward because of it’s post-war take on genetically engineered mutations - similarly Toshio Masuda’s 1974 Prophecies of Nostradamus would also get a good banning back home because it featured mutants of the atomic kind - it’s since gone on to become something of a legend amongst cult film enthusiasts. It seems apparent that much of the blame is placed on post-war sentiments, but this is no Gojira - a film which expertly masked its anti-nuclear commentary by masquerading as a huge monster flick. Despite the fact it contains unsettling imagery concerning genetic mutation Horrors of Malformed Men isn’t a cynical look at the horrors of war, which frankly had already been done to death by that point, but more of a statement on social ignorance, which I find is oddly overlooked, perhaps in favour of its readily grotesque imagery. Now whether or not it was Ishii’s direct intention is another matter entirely, and it could certainly be deemed a stretch given his rampant desire for excessively surreal visuals, but Horrors of Malformed Men can be viewed as a relevant critique; after all it’s Jogoro himself who utters that it’s the “normal” people who treat the disabled and deformed with such distain, which doesn’t get by so easily without raising one or two questions regarding ethics and social acceptance. But there’s as much H.G. Wells here as well, although Ishii doesn’t acknowledge any such influence from the 1896 publication The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Despite such notable links Horrors of Malformed Men does have enough going for it to keep it fresh. Being that it’s an Edogawa Rampo tale at heart it conjures up a rather enjoyable detective mystery thriller, even though it’s propelled by a familiar framing device involving – err – a framing. Classic Ishii, having more stuff on hand than he usually needs, allows the narrative to unfold via Hirosuke’s (long time collaborator Teruo Yoshida) noir-like internal monologues as he unravels a plot of intrigue, murder and incest, while the director gleefully plays with all the colours of the rainbow in representing the film’s consistently ominous tone which fleets from dank caves to crazy carnivals, and come the 55-minute mark goes completely off the scale thanks to the director’s trademark comedy routines and bizarre sense of logic. In addition his rapturous Ankoku Butoh troupe led by founding member Tatsumi Hijikata injects the film with the kind of surreal madness becoming of such a tale of misery and social misgiving, and hell, I haven’t even gone into the cross dressing psychos, human chairs, siamese twins and grass loving papier mache people! But Ishii’s hectic contributions toward creating a visual feast threaten to slow down the intricate plotting, which is played in an appropriately ambiguous manner, until the final act when things rush ahead and we get close to twenty minutes of exposition in good ol’ Rampo stylee as the author’s favourite detective Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Ohki returning to the role after Umetsugu Inoue’s 1962 The Black Lizard) makes an odd cameo and tells everyone what happened, before it culminates with a fairly syrupy exchange of dialogue and crazy exploding limbs. But let’s try not to dwell too much on that; after all it has plenty of weirdoes, boobies, weirdoes with boobies, live crab eating, murder, incest and all kinds of depraved no-nos - which is the reason you all want to see it right? Am I right?
Of course I am.
A monumental release in that it’s the first official one in the world on home video formats, Horrors of Malformed Men gets the treatment it deserves from the very respectful Synapse Films. Like Snake Woman’s Curse this also comes with a reversible cover, featuring lovely new artwork by Wes Benscoter, with the original Japanese poster art on the reverse. No offence to Wes, but I already have mine turned around. Also included are linear notes by Jasper Sharp, Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama.
Again Synapse has gone to town with their presentation of yet another Toei classic. Horrors of Malformed Men is presented in its native 2.35:1 Toei-Scope ratio, with the addition of anamorphic enhancement. The guys have worked from the original Toei negatives which have been marvellously well kept; any apparent defects on screen are inherent to the way in which the film stock was used. Detail and colours - from skin tones and environment to contrast and blacks - is great, although due to some of the film’s low-lighting conditions certain portions come across a little hazy. Likewise there are specks and dirt here and there, but you certainly can’t put anything on yet another remarkable transfer, which as stated has been mastered in Hi-Def and has no hint of compression artefacts or edge enhancement. Synapse deserve to be up there with the likes of Criterion and MoC for their love and enthusiasm toward their jobs.
As for audio we’re looking at another fine Japanese mono track. I often find I can’t go into particular details about these, for obvious reasons, but I’m happy to say it’s clear and doesn’t contain any deterrents, other than simple by-products such as the occasional hiss.
Optional English subtitles are included and again they’re excellent quality, with zero grammatical errors or timing issues.
First up Japan Times critic Mark Schilling takes us through a very informative commentary, which is helped immeasurably due his having been acquainted with Ishii for several years. As such he offers plenty of fun anecdotes and facts that we might not already know, such as John Woo being a huge fan of his work, and recalls the time when he first met him when researching a book. Schilling goes into length about several genres that Ishii became involved with for Toei, while detailing biographical information along the way regarding both director and author Edogawa Rampo. He points out several key areas in Ishii’s work and of course he delves into Horrors of Malformed Men and gives us the complete low-down on that, including various actor and Butoh information, but for the most part the track is one long retrospective of various works. To keep him on his toes throughout, when he’s not quickly referring to notes, a mystery man asks him questions; I’m not 100% certain but I think it might be Don May Jnr from Synapse. It sounds like he and Schilling are speaking from inside a man-sized box. The quality is quite low and has a slight echo, so it was probably done via telephone, but I’d like to think they were encased in a box instead.
Malformed Memories (22.53) contains two recently filmed interviews with directors Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo, Gemini) and Minoru Kawasaki (Calamari Wrestler). Both men recount their first experiences watching Teruo Ishii’s work, with Tsukamoto fondly recalling Sonny Chiba’s Executioner 2, and Kawasaki reminiscing over the Super Giant sci-fi films. They talk about Ishii’s knack of directing conventional studio films and absurdist horrors and exploitation flicks in equal measure, obviously admiring the man a great deal. Then of course they get into the likes of Horrors of Malformed Men and the way in which it tackled various taboo issues. There is also some brief discussion on the stories by Edogawa Rampo and Tsukamoto speaks up about working with Ishii on his final film Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf.
Ishii in Italia (13.48) is basically a holiday video, recorded by film journalist Mamiko Kawamoto as she accompanied Ishii and Mark Schilling to the 2003 Far East Film Festival in Italy. Here they had prepared a six-film retrospective on Ishii’s work at the Teatro Nuovo cinema, with the films specially selected by Schilling, much to the director’s bemusement. It shows two introductions out of the six films, with Ishii talking about The Man from Abashiri Prison and Horrors of Malformed Men, in addition to the director describing his admiration for Rampo. The rest of the film follows Ishii around while he goes on a tour of the city, occasionally bringing out his eccentric side. Separate to this is a short introduction which talks about Horrors of Malformed Men in greater length.
Then we get to the smaller stuff. The theatrical trailer is very interesting. It’s not spoiler intense and it manages to work up a great sense of mystery, while also showing scenes not in the final cut. It also includes newly mastered subtitles. The poster gallery contains 34 prints of various posters from Teruo Ishii’s many films, spanning Sci-fi, Yakuza and exploitation genres. Finally we have another nicely written biography for the director by Chris. D and a bio for author Edogawa Rampo.
Horrors of Malformed Men is a film which is preceded by its reputation, so it’s always one for the curious cult follower to tick off their list of bizarro titles. That Synapse has made one of the ultimate taboo breakers available for the first time on home distribution is huge cause for celebration and I can only positively look forward to future releases.