I don't understand what happened in the ending, but I can't disagree with the decision to ban it from broadcast.
So, Masters of Horror. I love the sound of this series and I'd have watched it to death long ago if it weren't for the size of my "to-watch" list. (TV shows are so time-consuming!) Masters of Horror is a horror anthology by big-name directors. Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, Dario Argento... wow. If you're not stunned, you're not a horror fan. You'd normally be excited to get even one of those on a TV show. Admittedly it's been a while since the best films of Hooper and Carpenter (and, ahem, Argento), but I've heard good things about their work here.
It had two thirteen-episode seasons on Showtime, then was reborn on NBC as Fear Itself for what's effectively a third season. (NBC only aired eight of those episodes, but everyone else showed all thirteen.) It's the brainchild of Mick Garris, who's made some well-received Stephen King adaptations.
Anyway, they approached Takashi Miike, who agreed to do an episode. Hilariously he even thought he'd kept within the boundaries of acceptability. "I thought that I was right up to the limit of what American television would tolerate. As I was making the film I kept checking to make sure that I wasn't going over the line, but I evidently misestimated."
All that said, though, it's not an empty exercise in gross-out. It's based on a novel, by a lady called Shimako Iwai who has a cameo here as "Torturer Woman". Billy Drago plays an American journalist who's scouring 19th century Japan for a woman called Komomo (played by Michie). He promised to take her back to America with him so that they could start a new life together, but unfortunately he doesn't know which brothel she's been sold to and so he's having to scour them all. Eh? One might ask how and why he left his love in such circumstances in the first place. Drago usually plays villains, by the way. Anyway, his search leads him to a reticent whore called Yuki Kudo, who's either deformed or mutilated.
Kudo has stories to tell. They're not nice.
Imprint isn't powerful because of its gore. What it has is intense, mind you. There's one disgusting torture scene that goes on a good deal longer than you'll want it to and would be strong stuff even in a full-length Miike movie. However there must be about half a dozen "bloody hell, that's TWISTED" moments, of which the torture is merely one. It keeps trumping its own depravity. Draw up a list of taboos and I'd guess Miike and Iwai will have touched here on the majority of them. Human foetuses being thrown into a river is one memorable example... and yet it's all in the service of a strong character-based story. There are more revelations and layers of truth (or not) here than in most feature films. To me this feels like a proper Miike movie that happens to run 63 minutes, rather than just a television episode.
I didn't understand the ending, mind you. I don't mean the cell ghosts, which are straightforward enough, but the meaning of the apparent hallucination that precedes them. We're being left to find our own interpretation there, with no help from Miike and Iwai.
There's also a peculiarity with hair. This is 19th century Japan, yet characters have anime hair colours. Red, blue, etc. No idea what's going on there, unless Miike's trying to make his Japanese actors more identifiable to a Western audience. It's silly, anyway.
However the good news is that it's a full-bloodedly Japanese film, clearly filmed where it's set and evoking its historical era more vividly than many Japanese theatrical films manage. The only compromise is the English-language dialogue, which bothered me less than I'd expected. It's honest. They're not dubbed. The Japanese actors are speaking English, which means that it becomes perfectly okay for them not to be bad at the language. It adds to the authenticity. They're still managing to act while they struggle with their lines, which is more than I can usually say of foreigners saying Japanese dialogue in other Japanese films.
Miike also indulges his fetish for the grotesque. It's full of eyeball kicks. There's a dwarf with open syphilis sores, a blind singer and of course a deformed Yuki Kudo. However half the time, what you're seeing is freaky because it's historically authentic. Ohaguro will never stop creeping me out, no matter how often I see it in Japanese movies, while I'd never seen that rope method of giving birth before.
To quote Miike again... "It had a simplicity that I liked. Also, it had that kind of story I imagined the audience telling their friends after seeing the film. It's a story that could have been told before the horror genre existed. It's more like a kaidan, a traditional scary story."
You know, I think I'll be watching more Masters of Horror. Would I recommend this? Absolutely, but only if you can stomach Miike in horror mode. He's done less horror than you'd think, actually. He has a reputation for stomach-turning perversion and every kind of transgression imaginable, but he's more likely to put that into a yakuza film than out-and-out horror. His other films in the genre are Audition
, One Missed Call (the sequels were by other directors) and his segment in Three... Extremes, although there's also TV (Multiple Personality Detective Psycho - Kazuhiko Amamiya Returns
It's classic old-school Miike, with unique visuals and a savage willingness to go beyond the comfort zones of absolutely everyone. However at the same time, it never loses sight of the most important thing: its characters and story. It's not winking at the audience. It's not a comedy. I went into this with possibly unrealistic expectations, knowing I was watching the Banned Masters of Horror Episode, but Miike met them.