Judge Adam Arseneau now knows exactly where you should never, ever stick needles in the human body.
"Oh, God, I'm surrounded by madness."
Imprint is what happens when you hire Takashi Miike (Ichi The Killer, Fudoh, Audition) to come over from Japan and direct an hour-long episode of your horror-themed Showtime cable television series Masters Of Horror. Most people never saw this episode on television, because the network refused to air it. It seems that, not unlike Stephen Colbert's infamous performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Miike was under the impression that the people who hired him:
a) were familiar with his work, and
Well, Miike did his job. The network executives took one look at his composition of sadistic torture, aborted fetuses, incest, and madness, and freaked, pulling the episode from the schedule.
Of course, word soon spread about the mysterious episode of Masters of Horror too "horrifying" to be shown on television, and it was only a matter of time before the film made its way to DVD. Now that it's finally been released in North America, fans of the macabre can now judge for themselves whether Imprint deserves its ominous reputation.
Facts of the Case
In 19th century Japan, a white man named Christopher (Billy Drago, The Hills Have Eyes) arrives on an island of ill repute in search of a prostitute he abandoned years ago. Having devoted his life to searching for her so he can bring her back to America, he grows increasingly desperate to find her whereabouts.
On this mysterious island, he meets a deformed courtesan (Youki Kudoh, Memoirs of a Geisha) who has a story to tell him about his lost love. Desperate to know the truth, Christopher pushes on through the web of half-truths and lies, and the story soon degrades into an impossible tale of madness and depravity.
Imprint is Takashi Miike at his most gloriously unrestrained and mentally unhinged, clearly relishing the opportunity to perform directly for a North American audience. As a film it goes all-out, paying visual and conceptual homage to much of his past work: the sexual monstrosity of Gozu, the sadistic torture of Audition, and the needle fetish in Ichi the Killer, not to mention others too perverse to name, the end result of which is like seeing Memoirs of a Geisha tortured, then put through Hell and back.
Words fail when confronted with something as unsettling as Imprint. It is utterly terrible in a way that most audiences will not be prepared for a film to be terrible. This is not a horror movie like most have come to understand horror; it is a totally different take on the subject. An axe-murderer killing naked college students may be horrifying, but not in the same way that a third-trimester abortion is horrifying. I chose that metaphor with care and relevancy, so be warned: if you walk into a viewing of Imprint without being fully prepared for the unhinged world view and unrestrained taboos of Imprint, it will knock you directly onto your posterior. No subject is off-limits here.
What begins as a simple story of lost love and obsession rapidly manifests into something utterly surreal and perplexing, in that skin-crawling way that films by Takashi Miike do. Suddenly, heads are cracking open, needles are being painstakingly and meticulously inserted into all kinds of places where needles have no business going, and dead babies are everywhere. There is a torture scene that goes on impossibly long, agonizing in its intensity and unflinching brutality. Horrified, you grasp feverishly for the remote control, but your gaze is transfixed onto the screen like a deer in headlights. To summarize, Imprint is intense. Truth be told, I have already said far too much about the plot—the less I say, the more excruciatingly weird and upsetting an experience the film will be for you. And, really, why would I want to deprive anyone of that?
One struggles with Imprint after the credits roll, trying to decipher conflicting feelings and anxieties torn bare. In a mere 6- minutes, this short film manages to horrify, subdue, alarm, and make your bowels squirm uncontrollably in visceral fits, all to the film's credit. Any emotional reaction to a film is a good thing, but if asked whether Imprint is a good film, the question hangs in the air like a soap bubble. "Good" seems such a quaint notion when discussing Miike's films, as if the word is somehow transparent and almost completely unsuitable to use in connection with his work.
When you get down to brass tacks, Imprint is poorly written and horrendously acted, with corny dialogue and awkward CGI effects. Indeed, there is little to enjoy about the film in any traditional measure. But three days later, images from the film still race through your subconscious. If the power of a film to linger in one's imagination is any milestone to judge a work's merits, then Imprint is a heavyweight contender vying for the championship belt.
You have to really, really like the horrific to appreciate Imprint beyond a novelty act of exploitation. Over-the-top, silly slasher films make the subjects of dismembered bodies, torture, and the monstrous seem almost camp and enjoyable, but Imprint builds on something profoundly sinister and evil lurking below the surface of the human heart. There is nothing fun, enjoyable, or even particularly likable about this film, but it is challenging and profound if you are prepared to appreciate it. Like the deep recesses of a dark pool of water, the deeper you go into Imprint, the more twisted and disturbing the imagery, metaphors, and deconstructions on memory, love, life, and beauty become—kind of like a really perverted Rashomon. But like much of Miike's work, it is easy to dismiss such a film as a garish, tasteless exploitation into shocking imagery and depravity—which admittedly it is—and fail to recognize it as an endlessly fascinating foray into the dark recesses of the human heart…which it also is. Confused? Yeah, get used to it.
Shot with a primarily Japanese cast, Imprint is recorded in English, which presents an interesting set of problems. It is immediately clear that the vast majority of the cast is speaking dialogue phonetically, giving all the conversations in Imprint an otherworldly eeriness. Even the English-speaking character played by Billy Drago delivers his dialogue in an over-the-top sycophantic style—almost Walken-esque, if you follow—that fails to obey the same linguistic rules that we have come to understand the English language by. Drago was clearly cast for his striking weird looks, not his acting abilities, and having the rest of the cast stumble and slur their way through their dialogue is just one level of weirdness atop the already layered weirdness.
Both a Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks are included, and they sound reasonably similar, with nice reverberating instrument hits, an eerie soundtrack, and fairly clear dialogue. There isn't much action in the rear channels, unfortunately. The video is heavily saturated in reds and yellows, with a surreal atmosphere and color tone, but the transfer does suffer some noticeable compression artifacts and haloing.
On the extras front, Masters of Horrors went all out. We get three featurettes—an interview with Takashi Miike, a behind-the-scenes interview with cast and crew, and a special effects and make-up piece—as well as a full-length commentary track with Chris D. from American Cinematheque and Wyatt Dole from Newtexture.com. It would have been swell to see Miike take the microphone for this, but his English is pretty bad, and he doesn't really do the whole commentary track thing—a shame.
As for the featurettes, the best of the bunch is a 40-minute interview with a surprisingly open and engaging Miike, discussing how attractive such a project was for him, and how his fandom in North America has grown almost completely unintentionally on his part. North America has an idea about who "Takashi Miike" is as a director that was entirely unintentional on his part. Clearly, Miike finds this concept amusing, and when presented with an opportunity to live up to his reputation, he swung for the bleachers. I've seen interviews with Miike before and he is rarely as chatty and forthcoming as he is here. "Imprinting," a 45-minute featurette, covers the cast and crew interviews, including the author of the original story and discussions with the producers on bringing Miike over to create Imprint and some of the fallout. Finally, a 20-minute featurette on Miike's long-running special effects team discusses some of the challenges required to create the particularly gory effects in Imprint.
All in all, we're talking more than three hours of material on a single-disc presentation, which for a one-shot television episode is almost a gluttonous amount of supplementary materials. Not that I'm complaining, mind you!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is lots of hype about Imprint being "so scary" that it got banned from television. This is a understandable lie, but a lie nonetheless, and one I feel it is my duty to clear up. Imprint isn't scary, not even a little bit. There are no jumps, no frights, no surprises—just profoundly disturbing subject matter that will leave you dark and depressed and unsettled to the point of tears.
But not scared, no sir. Don't you feel better now?
Though Showtime ultimately balked at the Frankenstein-esque monster they helped create, credit must be given to the Masters of Horrors series to actually be crazy enough to hire Takashi Miike and allow him free reign to create something this profoundly unique and unsettling. Say what you want about Miike, but his work is nothing short of groundbreaking. There is nobody working in cinema today quite like him.
"Like" and "dislike" are utterly disposable adjectives when discussing Imprint; the film is what it is, terrible elements and all. An erratic, nonsensical plot, some of the silliest acting ever recorded to film and jilted dialogue hinder Imprint, but at the end of the day, nobody will even remember these elements. All you can see afterwards are the visuals in this film—some of the most troubling, uncomfortable, and unforgettable you are likely to ever see.
This Judge must recluse himself from these proceedings, because he's really @#$% scared of needles.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "I Am The Film Director of Love and Freedom: An Interview with Takashi Miike"
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