"Banned from cable!" boasts the DVD cover of Imprint, the latest Masters of Horror entry to debut on disc. Showtime initially proclaimed they were proud to present the directorial masters of horror in all their gory glory… but once they saw a thing or two that made them wince, they backed off a bit. Italian director Dario Argento was the first to feel the censor's sting when scenes of penile pain were pulled from Jenifer. That was nothing compared to Japanese auteur Takashi Miike whose entire episode was jettisoned from the air schedule.
Masters of Horror creator Mick Garris should be commended for not compromising and cutting Imprint; rather, it was decided to wait and present the whole gore-fest unmolested on DVD (and some European television). Given the choice, I would rather see the mini-movie as it was intended.
So… is Imprint all it's cracked up to be? My answer is yes and no, and I cannot explain it without major spoilers. So, proceed at your own risk.
This beautifully filmed, colorful period story follows an American (a riotously overacting Billy Drago) in Japan as he follows the trail of his long-lost love, Komomo (a serene Michie Itô), to an eerie, isolated island bordello. There he meets a mysterious, disfigured prostitute (an intriguing Youki Kudoh) who knows exactly what happened to Komomo — and she is all too eager to tell the grisly tale. Mixing her own twisted history in with Komomo's fate, we see in a series of Rashomon-like flashbacks of what may or may not have happened. Steel yourself for unflinching scenes of torture, incest, rape, abortion, alcoholism and pitiless spousal abuse.
Although Imprint is an intrinsically Japanese story, the characters all speak English — a sore point among some of the movie's critics — but that bothers me a lot less than a foreign film that's been dubbed. While the use of phonetic speaking does lead to some stilted performances and difficult-to-decipher accents (Anchor Bay, we really could have used some captions on this one!), it's less annoying than mouths that keep moving long after the dialogue is done.
While Imprint is deftly directed, I must admit that Miike (pronounced "Mee-ee-kay") is a filmmaker I respect and admire more than I actually like. Anyone who reads me regularly knows that Asian horror is my least-favorite foreign import; with a few exceptions, I'm seldom floored by any of it. Out of Miike's oeuvre, Ichi The Killer stands out the most vividly (that's not to say I enjoyed it, but I certainly have never forgotten it). I've caught Ichi The Killer on cable many times, and personally I find it much more disturbing than Imprint.
In the end, Imprint is no more disturbing than anything you'd see in The Three Extremes anthology film (in fact, it's kind of a cross between Miike's own Box, and Fruit Chan's Dumplings). The torture scenes are certainly cringe-inducing but there is a callous, distant quality to them that does not invite the viewer to feel the victim's pain. As for the casual dumping of aborted fetuses into a convenient river, there's little underlying meaning to them and therefore not much reason to empathize. [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!] When a hidden conjoined twin is revealed, it looks so much like Hamburger Helper's Helping Hand icon, it's more funny than scary. The phalanged freak is expertly crafted, but it lacks menace to say the least.
Oddly, it's the little things — like a drunken abuser kicking his pregnant wife — that resonate most strongly. The positioning of a torture victim to resemble a work of art is creepily compelling. The use of color and music to illustrate subliminal points is brilliantly interwoven.
There is indeed a lot to admire about Imprint, but it's such a mixed bag it's difficult to recommend. However, if you are already a fan of J-horror, or Miike, then it's a safe bet for you.
As for the value of the DVD there's no question: it can't be beat. Imprint is packed with more special features than you can shake a bamboo-shoot at.
Imprinting – Miike and Shimoko Iwai, the author of Bokkê, kyôtê (the source novel for this screenplay) give insightful interviews (captioned) on the horror of human nature, how the setting of a brothel was chosen (seems like the book was more sociopolitical than Imprint, but interestingly, it's Iwai who plays the lead torturer in the film!), and so on. Garris and Drago are interviewed on the set, and one or the other talks about the decision to have the actors speak English, working with Miike, and the nature of the story. We also hear from Nadia Vanesse, the dialogue coach who explains the keys to speaking a foreign language phonetically. There is a lot of behind the scenes stories, and fly-on-the-wall footage.
I Am The Film Director of Love & Freedom: An interview with Takashi Miike – The cool, composed helmer explains why the essence of Japanese horror is grudges and bitterness, reveals how he chooses his projects, and shares stories about working on Imprint. (By the way, the title of this featurette refers to the phrase Miike has stitched on the back of his jacket.)
Imperfect Beauty: The Make-up and Special Effects of Imprint – Funniest trivia tidbit: The fake fetuses were named after the assistant directors!
Audio Commentary with American Cinmatheque Programmer Chris D., and author of Outlaw Masters Of Japanese Film Wyatt Doyle – Without much explanation of their credentials, the pair launches into a refreshingly candid (read: critical, but respectful) commentary, at first speaking in too-hushed tones (as if they don't want to disturb you while you're watching), but they eventually loosen up. They clearly don't like the English language being used, and they drone on about that for quite some time (they make valid points, but… I get it). Overall, this is a must-hear commentary not only for fans of J-horror, but even non-fans (I learned a lot!).
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson