Prior to the advent of the internet (if you pampered millennials can actually imagine such a thing), Phil Hardy’s Aurum Horror Encyclopedia was the hard-pressed Horror hack’s bible. Before the dawn of VHS, in fact (“Dawn of what, now?” – A Pampered Millennial) we would drool over its reviews of films we thought we’d never live to see… The House That Screamed, The House With Laughing Windows, Don’t Torture A Duckling, et al. A lot of those titles are now in general circulation, of course, but Hardy’s tome also alerted us to the existence of and tantalisingly synopsised a whole subset of forbiddingly entitled Japanese efforts such as Koji Wakamatsu’s Violated Angels (1967), Teruo Ishii’s The Joys Of Torture (1968) and Shiro Toyoda’s Portrait Of Hell (1969)
Arrow have been making some impressive inroads into Japanese territory recently, notably (for our purposes) with their Bloodthirsty Trilogy box. Now here’s Ishii’s 1969 effort Horrors Of Malformed Men (“Kyofu Kikei Ningen”) which, startling as it is to Occidental eyes, is typical of the edgy sex / crime / horror fodder that the Toei studio were churning out during the ’60s and early ’70s.
Freely adapted from the popular weird tales of Edogawa Rampo (think about it), the film starts with amnesiac Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finding himself in a mental institution, the general vibe of which is Marat / Sade-a-go-go, with wall-to-rubber-wall sex-crazed, semi-naked mad chicks. Security seems pretty lax in this joint and during one of his regular nocturnal rambles around its grounds, Hirosuke strikes up a friendship with pretty young circus performer Hatsuyo (Teruko Yumi)… gotta have a circus right next door to the nuthouse, right? After singing a lullaby that sparks a vague childhood memory in his head, she agrees to try to recall its origin but when he meets her next day (after donning a joke shop beard, for some reason) she’s bumped off and Hirosuke is framed for her murder. She says enough before dying to convince him that he can locate his home town “somewhere along the coast of the Sea of Japan”… narrowing things right down, there! Improbably, he does make it back home and even more improbably, passes himself off for his dead doppelganger Genzaburou (also played by Yoshida). It helps that they’ve both got a swastika tattooed on one of their feet… very PC. Most improbably of all, Hirosuke is accepted by the dead guy’s family, the difficulties attendant on carrying off this masquerade briefly slowing the loopy action for a bit…
… no worries, things are back from flat to barking batshit crazy in a nano-second after our man has sailed over to Panorama island in search of his long-lost dad, Jôgorô Komoda. This guy’s played by one Tatsumi Hijikata, a kind of Japanese equivalent to the recently deceased Lindsay Kemp. No surprise then that when we’re introduced to him he’s doing a spot of, er, interesting interpretive dancing on a wave-lashed stony outcrop of the island.
When not busting radical moves at the seaside, Jôgorô likes to experiment on his kidnapped victims, transforming them into freaks… so we get goat girls, another chick with a hand sewn to her head, non-identical Siamese twins… other dudes seem to have some feathers stuck to them or to have simply been given a quick splash of silver paint.
Despite professing indirect inspiration from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Horrors Of Malformed Men is clearly based largely upon H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island Of Dr Moreau, though Jôgorô gets things arse-ways about by reducing humans to the level of beasts rather than speeding up the evolution of animals, as was Moreau’s modus operandi. The resulting human oddities and horrors foreshadow those of the Emperor Tiberius’ own island getaway in Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) and I wonder if Tom Six had certain scenes from HOMM in mind when he dreamed up The Human Centipede (2009). Japan’s censors sensed other allusions when they banned Horrors Of Malformed Men… although no more sexy or graphic than other contemporary Toei releases it could, they figured, be construed as an allegory for certain unfortunate events that happened in Japan during 1945.
What’s Jôgorô’s motivation for these crazy surgical antics? Well, he wants to flood the world with an army of mutants as revenge for the way he was rejected by polite society on account of his webbed fingers (sense of perspective needed here, Jôgorô!) His beautiful wife turned against him and took a lover. He’s just telling Hirosuke how he resolved this little marital spat (by chaining them up in a cave, feeding him to crabs then obliging her to eat the crabs… I couldn’t seem to find this one anywhere in the Relate training manual) when Edogawa Rampo’s regular Sherlock Holmes figure, Kogoro Akechi (Minoru Oki) turns up and proceeds, in know-it-all fashion, to explain everything that’s been going on (I must admit, I was still more than a tad baffled when he was finished).
Kogoro persuades Jôgorô not to pull the lever that will blow up the whole island (an inadvisable design feature previously popular in Universal Frankenstein movies) but Hirosuke, having recently discovered that he’s been shagging his sister, opts to blow up with her during a firework display, a spectacle that just about tops all the other weird shit we’ve been sitting through for approximately the last two hours… it’s like the climax of Zabriskie Point, albeit even more dementedly druggy. As the star cross’d lovers heads fly through the air, you ask yourself why, if he was such a shit hot surgeon, Jôgorô didn’t just separate his webbed fingers. Well, that would have been a lot simpler but a lot less fun for us, the viewers.
Apart from the stuff you’d expect (if, indeed, you’ll ever trust your expectations again after watching Horrors Of Malformed Men) the generous bonus materials include two audio commentaries, by Japanese cinema buffs Tom Mes and Mark Schilling (perhaps things will become a little clearer after I’ve heard those), Schilling’s rather touching video account of Ishii’s visit the Far East Film Festival in Udine (followed by a tourist trip to Venice… I don’t believe he was attending that city’s film festival), a new video interview with veteran Toei screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda and the featurette Malformed Memories, in which filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo The Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) talk of their admiration for the Cinema of Teruo Ishii. These interviews did manage to resolve one outstanding issue for me, that of cultural relativity … do these films just look (very) weird (indeed) to our round eyes while being consumed as commonplace by domestic Japanese audiences? No… turns out that they alternate between picking their jaws up off the floor and laughing their asses off, too!
Ishii’s “Pink” classic Orgies Of Edo, another 1969 effort, is next up from Arrow so hang onto your hats.