This Dissection and Speculative specimen contains extreme graphic subject matter, and Trigger Potential. Reader’s Discretion is advised.
After I saw Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror film Imprint, I wrote the following on Twitter:
I don’t say this lightly but … Takashi Miike, you suck. You suck so hard.
You know, #Audition was terrifying enough, even disgusting. You know the part. But #Imprint … I haven’t been so filled with horror, pathos, and what-the-fuck in a while. Damn, it was brilliant.
I mean, Takashi Miike, you had to know there was no way #Imprint could be shown in North America. You just had to … I mean … Dude. Come on, man.
You suck. Your work is brilliant, but you are such a troll. Not a horror director, my ass.
So why did I respond like this?
Right. So, years ago I took a Japanese Culture and Film course. And one of the requirements of this course that I took was that our entire class had to read Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari: also known as The Tale of Genji. It is here I learned a lot about Japan’s Heian Period, the concept of fox possessions, Buddhism and its place in that whole monarchy, a constantly rotating court of royalty and nobility, silken finery and subtle cruelties, many cherry blossom viewings, women generally getting screwed over, and a whole ton of romantic and erotic affairs. I understand, of course, that this isn’t precisely history: even though Murasaki herself, its creator, was a Lady-in-Waiting and poet in the Imperial court: credited with creating the first Japanese novel in Japanese: once considered to be a woman’s written language, or that of poetry compared to the masculine and more overused royal Chinese characters: or so I recall from the time.
What I do remember, more than any of this, is this one scene in The Tale. The protagonist, Genji, the “beautiful shining prince” who is also one of the Emperor’s illegitimate, yet high-ranking offspring, has many affairs. I didn’t understand him. I tried to relate to this man in this court in this society and time. But he had a son, named Yugiri who is more sombre and less outgoing than his father, though far more along in his studies at the court and through the classes than he is. Unfortunately, there is one chapter where Yugiri endangers not only his standing, but his relationship with his wife, all to harass another woman who wants nothing to do with him.
The fact is, I couldn’t stand it. It drove me absolutely up the wall that this character would do that. In fact, I got so angry I threw the book across my room. Later, I told my Professor about this, and he thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. No, more than that. He was pleased. He was pleased because I would never have even done that if I’d been bored, or I didn’t have any feeling invested whatsoever.
The truth of the matter was that I got invested in that ephemeral, but flawed and worldly place, and sometimes it made me uncomfortable. But it also made me think.
And it made me care.
I don’t have a material copy of Imprint to throw across the room, and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it. Imprint doesn’t take place in the medieval Heian Period, but in the Meiji Era: the nineteenth century where the Japanese Emperor was officially restored to the head of state after the dismantling of the Shogunate, and the nation’s adoption of many Euro-American sciences, technologies, and philosophies.
Yet the American journalist Christopher, played by Billy Drago travels seemingly away from these developments to a far island “of whores and demons” to find a woman he loves: a prostitute named Komomo that he left some time ago. Now, thanks to Joe Bob Briggs and The Last Drive-In, I’ve watched Takashi Miike’s Audition, and I saw that liminal place between different perceptions and perspectives of reality and time. I already knew that there would be one scene — at least one scene — that would really fuck with me. In other words, I knew even based on this small amount of information about Imprint, no good was going to come of this.
But holy damn.
There is something mythic, with an element of the kaidan — or ghost story that Takashi Miike has mentioned — to the setting right off the bat. Christopher is on a boat with a group of labourers when the boatman finds the bloated corpse of a pregnant woman floating in the water. This is a prelude as to what’s going to come. Fascinatingly enough, according to the screenplay written by Daisuke Tengan, who is also the screenwriter for Audition — the woman’s hand was apparently supposed to move towards the boat, or at least from Christopher’s perspective. This would have foreshadowed even more of what happens in the film with Christopher, and who he encounters.
The island is a place out of time, with some Victorian dress for the prostitutes there — women with red dresses and wigs, blackened teeth, milk pale skin — clamouring to offer their services behind the bars of their brothel: literally a tarnished, gilded cage. Christopher is still looking for Komomo, and is directed into one establishment for the night by a syphilitic solicitor with a rooster hat on his head, and a missing nose. It all starts to fit together into an image that, when you look back on it, makes a whole lot more sense. But by then, it’s too late, and you’ve seen the horror in it. You’ve been taken into it.
Takashi Miike makes you invested in a young, disfigured prostitute who is never given a name: sitting off to herself, and not bothering to even solicit her services. Half of her face is stretched tightly, a birth defect. But it doesn’t take away from her presence, or the layers of personality she exudes. Youki Kudoh plays her role well, seemingly demure but worldly, tired, and beautiful. You can already see there is a lot more to her, and whatever Christopher finds is going to be through her.
No one on the island seems to know Komomo, though Christopher has followed her trail to this place, but this disfigured girl — who seems to see or sense the dead — does know her. The girl plays this for laughs at Christopher’s expense, though in the screenplay I read she is dead serious about seeing the spectres around her: that both he and she can see. It makes me frustrated in another way, as Imprint is a film adapted from a short novel or novella written by the writer Shimako Iwai titled Bokke e, kyōtē, which is a regional Okayama expression or series of words meaning “really scary.”
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an English translation of the novella, but from what I’m given to understand the story is written in a way where the prostitute — who also doesn’t seem to have a name — is telling a patron a story, or a series of stories, but the reader never gets to see the patron, or read what they have to say. The whole interaction is, according to William Leung in his indepth Misogyny as radical commentary — Rashomon retold in Takashi Miike’s Masters of Horror: Imprint, in “a monologue format.” Interestingly enough, that would mean Bokke e, kyōtē is written solely from a female perspective, a narrator who is the only force that makes sure her male patron even exists in the story as the reader only knows about him through her one-sided conversation, and Shimako Iwai is the writer that makes this possible.
It is equally unfortunate that this Okayama dialect couldn’t be utilized in the film: making Imprint a foreign language film with English subtitles would have done dividends for it, and added that authenticity to the setting. But Showtime is an American network, and apparently Takashi Miike did the best he could by having the actors speak a form of accented English to approximate the dialect. Also, it might have been problematic to determine what language Christopher, or Billy Drago, would have spoken if everyone was speaking a form of Japanese. Someone might have had to speak English, anyway. Even so, It’s interesting to look at how this discussion of the novella, whatever its original language, translates through the screenplay, and into the narrative of the film. Writers and critics like Leung examine the presence of Christopher as an embodiment of an Occidental masculine gaze, or a narrow need to seek out “truth”: to know, and comfort one’s self in that knowledge regardless of anyone else’s status around you. I’ve read reviews where Billy Drogo’s acting is criticized for being flat, and unconvincing but while this might not have been purposeful, I think that his performance in addition to his appearance as a dissolute Westerner adds to his character: showing the audience, making it clear to us, that he has something to hide: that the man doth protest too much when he says his only goal is to find the woman he loves.
I think it’s also telling that Christopher and Komomo, as played by Michie Itô, are the only named characters in this film, while everyone else — most of them women — don’t have any names at all. I would argue, and perhaps others have already done so given that this film was released in 2006 and many have already made their … mark on it, that Komomo is only mentioned by name in that she is the only thing that’s important to Christopher. Everyone else, as described by the prostitute — the woman he’s staying with for that night — are the Madam, the woman’s Mother, Father, the Buddhist Priest that taught her about Heaven and Hell, and — eventually — Sis. The other prostitutes don’t even have names, and the brothel solicitor is just a diseased cock.
The fact is, this island — by thematic design — and from the way the woman describes it as a place of “whores and demons,” exists away from a defined, empirical reality. This is not a place where people have names, or lives, or futures. This is where people come to fuck, and die. At the same time, as a critic or scholar like Leung would mention, this place is very much a part of the mainstream culture and society that rules it. Women and girls are given away from places of famine and cultural shame to brothels to work with what the prevailing society thinks is their only defining trait: their bodies.
It’s interesting. In Western philosophy and aspects of Gnosticism you have the figure of Sophia — of Wisdom in the form of a woman — that a philosopher, generally a man, always pursues. But Leung in his work defines Youki Kudoh’s prostitute character as “the truth.” And as “truth?” She is somewhat deformed, but also sultry, coquettish, sly, but also silent at first until she unfurls herself, and reveals what she truly is. The writer Iwai created her novella, the inspiration for Imprint, with the idea of her character having a secret, and moving on from there.
So let me get back to making this more personal, even though it is fairly clear at this point in the game that Imprint isn’t particularly Christopher’s story, or from his perspective, but it has always been dependent from the storytelling narration — and subsequent layers of lying and unraveling description — of Youki Kudoh’s character: of the woman.
As I said before, the Woman is identified as “truth” by Leung, and even Christopher — presumably due to his journalistic instincts — singles her out to spend the night with him, and possibly get him the answers that he thinks he wants.
And, eventually, she tells him what happened to Komomo. It is a painstaking process, in which first he finds out she was here, then she died, and is then told she committed suicide through hanging. And this is the part where … my visceral reaction comes into play.
We find out why Komomo died. Komomo, who was a favourite girl at the brothel, was accused of stealing the Madam’s jade ring. She is taken to the linen closet by the Madam and her fellow girls where they torture her. Brutally. Takashi Miike doesn’t fade out from the scene, or hint on things. It makes sense. In the interview “I am the Film Director of Love and Freedom: Takashi Miike,” he admits that he took one non-descriptive line about the situation from the script, and constructed this entire scene.
Of course he did.
No. You see it happen. You see it all happen. You see the girls burn her armpits with incense sticks. You watch as one particularly sadistic girl with a red-gold wig — actually played by Shimako Iwai herself — with a relish almost bordering on eroticism, even love — drive acupuncture needles into each of Komomo’s fingers, under the nails to the point of seeing blood bloom like in the introduction of the Masters of Horror series. Then, they hold her mouth open and drive those same needles into her gums, Iwai’s character taking special delight in placing the needle just inches away from Komomo’s eye. Afterwards, they hang her upside down and question her. The thing is, in the script, she had urinated all over herself during the needles sliding into her, Takashi Miike has it so that she pisses on herself as she’s suspended by that rope. And, the entire time, you hear her screaming, begging, grunting like an animal, writhing around, her eyes rolling back into their sockets from the agony, as she is utterly dehumanized.
That scene fucked me. It wrecked me. This was the mental equivalent of me throwing The Tale of Genji across the room. It filled me with rage, at seeing this poor girl — who did absolutely nothing, who was even kind, and just told stories to keep her sanity, who waited for Christopher to find her — tortured by these merciless other women, while the solicitor laughs at her with his rotten cock bobbing up, and down on his head. It was disgusting, and I wanted all of these evil bitches to pay for what they did to her, while at the same time feeling major empathy, and a sense of protectiveness for this fictional woman.
Takashi Miike’s Audition was hard on me. I’m not talking about when Asami Yamazaki tortures Yasuhisa Yoshikawa, although that also sucked, but I mean the vision Yoshikawa has of a mutilated man drinking Asami’s vomit out of a dog bowl.
I just … I couldn’t.
This scene of dehumanization, and the body losing control just hit me, and while Audition made me feel ill, this part of Imprint made me angry. And yes, looking back, this — these are the transgressive places — is where I said that Takashi Miike sucks. And he sucks hard.
At the same time, the scene is brilliant.
Think about it, if you want. Here are these women, these — as Youki Kudoh’s Woman puts it — “daughters of joy,” trafficked sex workers having internalized a society that rejected and used them, and indoctrinated them into provided male pleasure, using their instruments of that indentured profession in their culture to inflict non-consensual pain on a body that is like their own, but it isn’t one of them: not for the purposes of this exercise. Incense sticks are supposed to create a smell that will relax you. Acupuncture needles are made to provide health benefits for the body, or sadomasochistic releases. Even the rope, that suspension, can be tied to kink practices like Shibari and erotic bondage in general. Komomo’s mouth is held open, used for another’s pleasure, and long phallic objects are inserted into soft, pliant places.
Even her cries of pain can be sold as sounds of pleasure to an audience indoctrinated into responding to such. I will never forget the sadist either. Shimako Iwai is not only a writer, a tarento — a television celebrity or personality — but also a pornographic director, and someone particularly vocal about sex, and sexual pleasure. And here she is, playing a sadist using all of those tools against this character, and you realize she doesn’t give a jot about that jade ring. In fact, none of the girls do. Not even the Madam does. It is all about Komomo, according to the Woman, having been “too good,” “too favoured,” and this theft is just an excuse to release all of that suppressed feminine resentment on someone else. It’s horrific because these women have also been victims, but like demons in hell, they have reached the point — in a manner similar to the women in The Handmaid’s Tale as they tear apart a chosen criminal — where they will tear apart their own for doing exactly what they rest of them have been doing, even excelling at it, even loving the men, or the man doing it. And they themselves love inflicting this cruelty on her, things that had been done to them by men and society in many different ways.
I wanted to hate those women, and that anger remains, but the true horror here in Imprint I feel isn’t supernatural or limited to one innocent individual’s suffering, it’s that this twisted patriarchal order and internalized misogyny, exists and created this entire thing. Leung definitely delves into this idea when he mentions how Christopher ignores that whole reality just to focus on Komomo. Hell — and I don’t use the term lightly, as the Woman herself goes into her ideology of Hell as the film goes on — he even sees them suffering, behind those bars, ravenous and desperate, and when he sees the dead pregnant woman float by. In the screenplay, he doesn’t even acknowledge the corpse while the labourers pour sake into the water, except to notice it grabbing at the boat. In the film, he at least has the decency to take off his hat as the labourers offer prayers.
This place, in Imprint, is literally Hell. But as the Woman’s Sister says at the end of the film, hell is a place but it’s not a space you can run away from. You carry it with you.
Takashi Miike in the documentary “Imprinting: The Making of Imprint” explains that he told Michie Itô, as he directed her during her torture scene as Komomo that “It’s like you are in a pretty field of flowers, and an old man is bashing your head in with a stick.”
That sentence sums up that world, that scene, and what comes after, pretty well.