It's a Japanese film that's effectively banned in Japan. No one's passed a law against it (unlike Guinea Pig), but it freaked out people so badly on release that they fled cinemas in disgust and it still hasn't been released on video or DVD over there.
It got an R1 release in America in 2007, though.
Firstly, it's not that bad. It's not a gore-fest and it won't reintroduce you to your lunch. What it has instead is a disorientating journey to something that's a bit like The Island of Dr Moreau, but weirder and way more psychologically disturbed. It probably also tapped into Japan's post-nuclear trauma, which would have still been a recent memory. A simpler explanation though is that it could be seen as, ahem, insensitive to the handicapped. Note the title.
Significantly it's directed by Teruo Ishii (Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf, the 1999 Jigoku
, Shogun's Joys of Torture and many more). I didn't like his Jigoku
much and I don't much rate him as a director, but he does appear to have the ability to go too far even by Japanese standards. Here he's tackling lurid material by Edogawa Ranpo, a Japanese mystery author whose pen name is basically "Edgar Allen Poe" said in a Japanese accent. Poe would have enjoyed this. Let me describe the story...
We begin in an asylum full of topless women. Of course this is exploitative, but more importantly it's disturbing. The knife-wielding girl, the striped shadows, the writhing and howling of souls in torment... you want to get out of there, fast. Most unsettling are the normal ones, talking as if they're sane and explaining that they don't belong there. This is probably true, at least for some of them. It won't help them, though. They're still going to get forcibly injected with drugs by the orderlies.
Teruo Yoshida is one of these nutters, who believes that he was framed for the murder of a girl. We see a flashback in which he hears her haunting song and recognises it. We see her death. We see the bloody knife in her hand. We don't trust this guy an inch. Furthermore, sometimes Yoshida has the magical ability to go where he wants in the asylum and even walk right out of it without anyone trying to stop him or realising that he's gone. My guess is that this is simply Teruo Ishii being a poor director and bad at storytelling, but it might be a disorientation tactic for the audience. We're living in Yoshida's head and we're alive to the possibility that it's not a very nice place to be. The world doesn't make sense. Reality seems to be hiccupping, or at least letting Yoshida slide through a few gaps while we're not looking. None of this is reassuring us.
What happens next is even more uncomfortable. Yoshida finds a dead man with suspicious similarities to himself, takes the corpse's clothes and pretends to be him. He takes over the deceased's wife, mistress, inheritance, house and servants. He's also bad at being a con man, which again puts you on edge for the disaster that's surely about to happen at any moment. He never tries to explain away any possible change in his voice, for instance. Is he a sound-a-like for his predecessor? Maybe he is and maybe he isn't, but Yoshida never gives that a moment's thought.
He also inherits a mad father on an island. Eventually, he'll go there. This takes the film into grand guignol.
I've been a bit rude about Ishii, but that said, this particular film is impressive. It's not much fun, mind you. You don't really have much of a clue what's going on in the first half and you're not enjoying it either, because following Yoshida's adventures is in no way a pleasant experience. It's not about gore or anything like that. It's simply about Yoshida possibly being a madman and/or killer in a slightly confusing narrative that seems almost certain to end in some ill-defined kind of catastrophe. (This is correct, but if you managed to predict what was going to happen, you're mentally ill and I don't want to be inside your head.) It's not always realised convincingly, but I liked that. It's theatrical. It's not interested in realism. It's also drawing on butoh, a dance form founded by Tatsumi Hijikata (who's playing Yoshida's insane father in this movie). Well, I say "dance form". The Kyoto Journal calls it dance, theatre, "kitchen" and "seditious act". Hijikata's first butoh performance was in 1959, was based on a novel and explored homosexuality, paedophilia and a live chicken.
There's also lots of nudity. Ishii puts plenty of naked girls on screen, but usually in a fevered, unsettling way that stops the film from seeming hairy-palmed. (Usually. Not always.) Tits really aren't the focus of, for instance, a scene with silver topless firework girls and dancing monks.
The most jarring bit in the film, oddly enough, is when it becomes normal. We're nearing the finale when suddenly Edogawa Rampo remembers that he's a mystery writer and pulls a Poirot out of his arse to explain the plot. That doesn't belong here. It's too neat and tidy. Is this Agatha Christie? No. Were we expecting law and order to be re-established? No. Does the film need it? You must be joking. Fortunately though, the film manages to find one last extreme of taste and hence flatten this speed bump. Ridiculousness and insanity reclaim their rightful place.
In short: wrong in the head. You've got to admire any film so demented that it can freak out even the Japanese. It has goat centaurs and Tatsumi Hijikata playing a Christ/Rasputin figure with a nose stripe. The last act is going way over the top and is what everyone's going to remember, but the earlier, less florid material with Yoshida is also a huge part of what gives this film its power. In some ways, it's almost a relief to get to that island. Dreamlike and, in its way, haunting.