Moju vs lssunboshi

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Teruo Ishii
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 13 at Shibuya Cine La Sept
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Film critics don’t usually issue disclaimers, but one is in order, I think, before I launch into a review of Teruo Ishii’s “Moju vs Issunboshi.” Last year, I programmed a retrospective of Ishii’s films for a festival in Udine, Italy. I accompanied him to Udine and spent an enjoyable and instructive week in his company. The event was a success, with Ishii’s ero-guro masterpiece “Kyofu Kikei Ningen” (Island of the Malformed Men)” (1969), receiving a thunderous standing ovation from the crowd after its first overseas screening.

In short, I am not the most objective person to write a review of his 83rd feature film, the latest in a directing career that started in 1957. Ishii did his share of hack work during his nearly two decades with Toei, but his best films, from his early gang epics to his expeditions into the stranger regions of pleasure and pain, are stylishly shot, wryly funny and unmistakably Ishii. I found six neglected gems for the Udine festival, but many more are out there waiting to be rediscovered.

In Japan, however, Ishii has long struggled to get his films made and shown. This is regrettable, since he has done some of his strongest work since “Gensenkan Shujin (Master of the Gensenkan Inn)” (1993), his comeback film, after a 14-year absence from the big screen. His latest film, “Moju vs Issunboshi,” languished on the shelves for more than two years before it finally found a distributor in Slow Learner.

Shot on a zero budget with a digital video camera, “Moju vs Issunboshi” retells two stories by Edogawa Rampo, an enduringly popular Taisho Era writer whose investigations into the erotic and the macabre were partly inspired by Rampo’s namesake, Edgar Allen Poe. Undoubtedly, Ishii could have made a creepier film if he had had more money — the cheapness of his sets and effects verges on the risible (maybe “verges” is understating it).

Even so, he has filmed “Moju” with his trademark panache, making the best of a bad, or rather severely circumscribed, situation. Through small miracles of scene setting and editing, he creates the peculiar Taisho atmosphere, which mixes Western mystery conventions, including the all-wise sleuth, and traditional Japanese horror, with its links between morbid grotesqueness and ripe female flesh.

But as usual with Ishii, the appearance of feminine weakness — the succession of kimonoed beauties fainting demurely away — masks a deeper reality of men enthralled with women’s sexual power. There is an element of exploitation in his take (quivering white thighs are shot from the lowest possible angle), but a playful admiration as well. This is not an elderly director striving, belatedly, to be feminist and PC; this is classic Ishii, who has retained, even into his late 70s, a lively interest in erotic mysteries and the way men become idiots — or monsters — in trying to penetrate them.

The plunge into the abyss begins with a struggling novelist, Monzo Kobayashi (Lily Franky), watching the performance of a popular dancer, Ranko Mizuki (Mutsumi Fujita), in an Asakusa revue. Sitting next to him is a strange man whose face is hidden by a hat — and who never looks up at the stage. Afterward, walking through a park, Kobayashi spots a small, squat figure scuttling away into the night. In his flight he drops something — a woman’s arm. Kobayashi recognizes the dwarf as Issun Boshi — a familiar figure of the local demimonde. Smelling a story, he decides to investigate.

Meanwhile, Ranko has received a bouquet from a mysterious rich admirer and decides to accept his invitation to visit. At his door, she is greeted by a young maid with an uncanny stare, who ushers her into a bizarre secret chamber lined with casts of faces, breasts and legs painted in garish shades. Then the admirer (Hisayoshi Hirayama) arrives — a blind wraith wearing only a loincloth, but possessed of superhuman hearing and an unquenchable lust. Is he a man — or a beast?

Cut to Miyuki (Reika Hashimoto), a beautiful woman married to a man 25 years her senior, begging Kobayashi for help. Miyuki’s daughter-in-law, Michiko (Teruko Matsumoto), has gone missing, and she wants Kobayashi to ask his famous detective friend, Kogoro Akechi (Shinya Tsukamoto), to take the case. Kobayashi, who has feelings for Miyuki that go beyond friendship, agrees and Akechi also proves amenable. The detective, however, has another case on his plate — the strange disappearance of Ranko.

What, if any, connection exists between the two missing women? Between the dwarf and the “blind beast?”

Akechi, a know-all, see-all Sherlock Holmes type, sets out to answer these questions, while the “beast,” who looks like a butoh dancer from hell, engages in various acts of depravity with a gusto that, depending on taste, invites revulsion or giggle fits. The story of the dwarf, who has been cruelly abused and consequently developed a grudge against the human race, is more nuanced, though he also has his sexual quirks. Eventually, after much baring of skin and secrets, Akechi launches into a lengthy inquisition before witnesses that indicts the guilty and ties up the loose narrative threads.

Or rather most of them. The script, by Ishii, may link the dwarf and blind beast in his opening scenes, but for much of the film their stories run on parallel tracks. Their final intersection is less a matter of necessity than convenience.

A cult icon in his own right for the “Tetsuo” films and their hyperviolent successors, Tsukamoto has the right air of eccentric superiority needed to play the role of Akechi. Lily Franky, an illustrator with no previous acting experience, is an appealingly rumpled foil as Kobayashi. But the film really belongs to Ishii and his wonderfully twisted world. May he and it long be with us.

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