Imagine what would happen if you threw Poe inspired Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo (the story here is apparently influenced by his work), Todd Browning’s Freaks, a melodrama about lost love and revenge and The Island of Doctor Moreau into one huge cooking pot? What would the result be if you then tried to translate all those elements into one film? I think, ladies and gentleman, the answer to that question is this- Horrors of Malformed Men.
This demented story begins fittingly in a lunatic asylum. We meet our hapless hero Hirosuke Hitomi – a medical student who has been committed for unknown reasons- as he is surrounded by a bevy of topless crazed women. He then, after being ushered into his cell by a warder, is attacked by a mysterious bald man. None too happy about this the confused Hirosuke fights back, kills the assailant, then escapes and goes on the run. Conveniently he meets a circus girl outside the institution who is singing a lullaby to herself which immediately strikes a familiar cord with him. Hirosuke believes it might be a link to his past- which at this point he appears to have no memory of. Just as he thinks he is getting somewhere the girl is killed in a public place. The murder has been staged so that Hirosuke looks like the perpetrator; so he continues to run with only one clue, the lullaby originated from an island on the coast. However on Hirosuke’s arrival at the island he discovers the recent death of a local man who bears a striking resemblance to himself. The deadman’s name is Genzaburô Komoda. Desperate to get to the truth he does the obvious thing, under the circumstances, and assumes the life of the late Genzaburô – the family just assume Genzaburô has resurrected from the dead. Finding himself amongst a family with a deep dark secret will Hirosuke Hitomi discover the key to who he really is? This may seem like extensive plot spoilers but worry not, this is just the set up for the real story to begin!
Director, cast and crew.
I covered a bit of director Ishii’s career in my review of Blind Woman’s Curse (here) so rather than scraping over old ground I will just mention this film was made the year before. Ishii was making some very interesting films around this period, including the Joys of Torture Series for Toei. Butoh pioneer, dancer, Tatsumi Hijikata is spellbinding in his role as Komoda Snr. We first see him in the opening scene where he contorts his body across the cliffs on a remote island location. What is most striking about this scene is the uncanny likeness- in the way he moves, his hair and costume- to Ringu’s Sadako character; but then considering butoh bears a huge inspiration on some of the contemporary J-horror features it is not surprising. Tatsumi plays his role with utter conviction as an extremely misguided, sadistic, and insane father. His performance here tops his, also brilliant, portrayal as a supernatural hunchback in Ishii’s Blind Woman’s Curse. Teruo Yoshida as Hirosuke Hitomi / Genzaburô Komoda makes a robust lead providing a strong foundation to the insanity which unfolds; never once flinching, even when the walls seem to be closing in on him. Yoshida has also appeared in some other Ishii films such as the shocking Joy of Torture (1968), (where he takes on two roles), Orgies of Edo (1969) and Inferno of Torture (1969). There are some wild characters involved in Horrors of Malformed Men and all of the associated actors play their roles to perfection; it goes without saying this must have been an interesting production to have been involved in as the script gives them all a lot to work with.
Boasting the tagline on the DVD release: Banned for Decades! The most notorious Japanese film EVER made! The marketers here are making a bold statement; especially when you consider just how out there some Japanese cinema gets when it comes to portraying sex and violence on screen. So the question is just how shocking is it? Where does it fit in the grand scheme of things? Honestly? Well, I didn’t think it was that shocking- and the chances are if you have had a reasonable amount of exposure to Asian films you won’t consider it to be either. Where the film does drive close to the knuckle is through the depiction of mutated/deformed people, when you take into account this was made just 24 years after World War 2, and the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which left a legacy of mutilated people). There is also one incidence of an unexplained swastika marking on someone’s body that would suggest Nazi connotations- however I could just be reading too much into that, as the significance of this is never elaborated.
Visually the film is breathtaking. Ishii, a director known for revelling in the erotic, violent and bizarre, is on top form in this quirky tale. While the scripting weaves an incredibly intricate and unconventional narrative, the look and feel of the film follows suit. There are some spectacular scenes on offer. The cinematography is just mind-blowing; the colours gaudy and luscious, which makes the whole thing just pop. Ishii also adds in a psychedelic flavour with some innovative editing techniques- also applying light filters in a couple of scenes to build on this factor. In terms of production, I have never seen anything as fantastically peculiar in Western cinema. In fact the only thing I can think of- in terms of the West-that loosely compares in terms of the portrayal of lunatics, is the Jodorowsky inspired Mansion of Madness (1973) by Juan López Moctezuma.
The Highs & Lows.
Well, where to start! The story can be seen clearly as a game of two halves. We begin with Hirosuke Hitomi trying to get to the mystery of where he has come from, and why he was in a mental hospital. He certainly seems to be quite level headed which lends the plot a curious foundation. As he moves closer to the truth and assumes the identity of a dead man, including said deadman’s conjugal rights with his wife and the maid, you start to wonder where the hell the story is going (especially when you consider the marketing tagline). Although I wouldn’t say at any point, the story becomes dreary as the ‘will he get found out?’ plotline starts to grip you. Somewhere around the midway point things take a turn into pure Teruo Ishii territory when Daddy appears along with his set of weird assorted cohorts. This is when the film dissolves into a heady celebration of eroticised violence, crazy concepts, and wickedly insane visuals. Ishii throws so many curious ideas into the fire they literally explode onto the screen like fireworks. There is a risk you may get lost in the melee, not everything makes sense, but my advice is just lie back and let it float over you- it’s much better that way I promise.
Infusing his story with a distinct line of ero-guro, and tints of pinky violence, Ishii makes sure the grotesque element is packed to the hilt. Stick in some fabulous freaks, conjoined twins, Japanese rope bondage, whipping, a few pairs of boobies, cannibalism, incest and a spectacular boat scene- with a naked lady painted gold- we have something fascinating and unique. Add to that the surreal carnival type stage show which follows, some gore, a huge dollop of the delightfully perverse, an insane ending and Horrors of Malformed Men is guaranteed to have your jaw dropping whether you dig this type of film or not. If nothing else it is highly memorable.
A deliciously offbeat, fantastical and quirky addition to Ishii’s rich catalogue of films; Horrors of Malformed Men is one title cult film fans need in their collection. Irrelevant, beautiful, tinged with the obscene, I loved this film and everything about it. It doesn’t always make sense, granted, but I found this to be all for the greater good. As for it being as shocking as the tagline suggests? Well as I have already stated there are other films which would be more deserving of that title. What is shocking is the fact that a large bulk of director Teruo Ishii’s work remains unreleased outside of Asia. Director Teruo Ishii was a true visionary and Horrors of Malformed Men stands as a perfect example of everything wonderful about his bizarre cinematic output.