Takashi Miike’s Imprint is being advertised on its DVD box cover as “Banned From Cable Broadcast.” Although other episodes (notably, Dario Argento’s Jenifer) were partly censored, of the 13 one-hour films commissioned by Showtime for the first season of its Masters of Horror cable series, Imprint was the only episode considered too strong by TV execs to be shown at all in the Land of the Free (though it was, in fact, broadcast by Bravo in the United Kingdom).
From the look of it, Imprint had a higher budget than any other Masters of Horror episode … or maybe production dollars go a little further in Japan. Shot in English and set during the Meiji period of Japanese history, Imprint sports the carefully composed and art-directed look that was associated with Japanese cinema during the golden age of the foreign film. Not all Miike films have this look. I would guess that in Imprint he was deliberately giving American audiences what he thought they would expect. Nor is Miike really a horror director, per se. Prolifically creative, Miike might be more accurately described as a Sadean surrealist who expresses his unique sensibility in Yakuza films (the majority of his output), horror films, musicals, comedies, and works of almost every genre. That said, Miike’s Audition (analyzed brilliantly here by Robin Wood – thank you, David Hudson) is one of the most authentically horrifying films I have ever seen.
In Imprint, gaunt Billy Drago plays an American journalist who travels to an “island of demons and whores” in search of his abandoned love – a deliberate evocation of the Madame Butterfly archetype. Youki Kudoh, in a role utterly different from her performance as the perky tourist in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, plays a prostitute whose face is disfigured in a manner reminiscent of The Man Who Laughs (recently referenced in De Palma’s The Black Dahlia). Drago’s journalist spends a drunken night with Kudoh’s prostitute, trying to find out what happened to his vanished love. The prostitute tells him a shocking story which, of course, we see in flashback. “Is that true?” the journalist asks. “No,” the prostitute replies, and proceeds to tell him a different, even more horrifying version of the same tale. We end up with several layered versions of the flashback (Rashomon anyone?), each taking us deeper into the heart of darkness.
One can see why Showtime was reluctant to broadcast this episode [SPOILERS AHEAD]. Drawing from a grisly tradition that is part Japanese horror/part EC Comics, Miike gives us graphic images of deformity, torture by needles (cf. Audition), incestuous rape, and 19th Century peasant-style abortions – not excluding images of the aborted fetuses floating downriver. It is these latter images that I suspect caused Showtime to pull the episode, fearing viewer complaints and network-crippling fines from the righties on the FCC.
Most of these horrors were not originated by Miike, but derive from the novel (Bokke, kyÃ´te) on which the episode was based. Shimako Iwai, the authoress of the novel, explains in a DVD supplement that her intent was to show the horror of a woman’s life in pre-20th Century Japan. She also explains how she’d always hoped “Miike-san” would direct the eventual film version.
So, once again, we have to ask, are we looking at a sadistic exploitation of women? An empathetic critique of that exploitation? (As it was apparently meant to be.) Or both?