Starring Teruo Yoshida, Teruko Yumi, Yukie Kagawa, Mitsuko Aoi
Directed by Teruo Ishii
Distributed by Arrow Video
A pervasive sense of weirdness has long been one staple of Japanese horror cinema which, combined with their penchant for prurient erotica, can make for one incredibly strange trip. Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) is one such feature. Based on two ero-guro (erotic grotesque) novels – “Strange Tale of Panorama Island” and “The Demon of the Lonely Isle” – by infamous writer Edogawa Rampo, the Toei production blends elements of mystery, mistaken identity, surrealism, horror, incest, torture, and romance to concoct a potent picture that still provides a handful of hefty jolts fifty years later. Stunningly directed by Teruo Ishii, a leader in Japan’s cult and exploitation scene, Horrors is like Alejandro Jodorowsky traveled to an isolated Japanese island to make a noir film with mutants. But this nightmarish trip doesn’t come with only a surface-level story, as the engrossing enigma of who our lead is and his true purposes are slowly brought to a violent boil.
The year is 1925 and Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) is a man trapped in a sanitarium, with no clear memory of how he got there. He knows only that he is a medical student and he is not insane. At night he dreams of an island just off the coast, populated with “ugly” people. That same night a bald man attacks him in his cell, intending to kill him, but Hirosuke fights back and winds up killing the man. Hirosuke escapes and meets a young girl who is whistling a familiar tune, a melody that triggers memories of his forgotten past. Before he can question her further an unseen assassin kills her. Bystanders blame Hirosuke for her death. He flees, boarding a commuter train heading Anywhere But Here.
On the train, Hirosuke reads the paper and notices an obituary in which the deceased looks an awful lot like him; as in, dead ringer. Sensing an opportunity Hirosuke brazenly chooses to assume this man’s identity – making him Genzaburo Komoda – by faking a resurrection in the cemetery and then infiltrating the man’s home and family. Forever? Hirosuke hasn’t thought that far ahead. Strangely, though, once part of this “new” family pieces of Hirosuke’s memory begin to come back… suggesting the fictional reality he has crafted for himself may not be so far removed from reality as he thinks.
Ishii opens his film with Hirosuke, free from his cell and allowed to walk the halls, standing motionless in an all-female group cell while the women sensually dance and gyrate around him. One pretends to stab him in the guts, laughing joyously. Glimpses of eccentricity continue until the moment viewers have impatiently waited for (only because you know insanity is going to be unleashed): Hirosuke arriving on the island. It is then Ishii opens his kaleidoscopic bag of trippy tricks, dipping into cinematic acid with bizarre human-beast hybrids, gold-and-silver painted women, sparkling nude dancers, and dear old web-fingered dad. It’s sensory overload in full effect. Ishii runs the gamut of taboo, going past traditional sexuality to capture scenarios which fully embrace the ethos of ero-guro. You will feel slightly turned on and wholly repulsed, often at once.
Spoiling the third act would be to ruin a great many reveals, most of which should come unexpectedly to an audience distracted by all the bright, shiny, naked things. This isn’t a psychedelic nightmare with some convoluted plot, either. The story beats are easily digestible and written well enough so as not to get lost amongst the resplendent visuals. Characters are given strong motivation and purpose, driving decisions that viewers can understand and empathize. Hirosuke is a man without a memory, hurtling toward his destiny without realizing it; once he does, there is a distinct change in his character viewers can feel. That pathos comes out more than once as Ishii piles on the trauma and guilt that have brought us to this place. There is plenty to unpack. Horrors of Malformed Men occupies a lofty place in the annals of weird, cult Japanese cinema, delivering on its titular promise and then some thanks to a strong script and impassioned performances.
The 2.35:1 Toeiscope 1080p image is gloriously detailed and rich with saturation. Japanese films from this era aren’t known to have been stored in the best conditions, and given this film was “lost” for decades the image here is amazingly clean, free from dirt/damage, and highly refined. Film grain resolves organically. Depth is evident. The color palette is varied and robust. Fine detail is fantastic, especially in close-up shots.
A Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track capably delivers dialogue alongside composer Masao Yagi’s eclectic score, which is filled with big band moments, ethereal organ music, and atypical instrumentation. There is some hiss present on dialogue throughout; it’s obvious but not enough of a problem to be one.
- Brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original negative
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation
- Uncompressed mono 1.0 PCM audio
- Newly translated optional English subtitles
- Two audio commentaries by Japanese cinema experts Tom Mes and Mark Schilling
- Malformed Movies: a new video interview with Toei exploitation movie screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda
- Malformed Memories: Filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) on the career of director Teruo Ishii
- Ishii in Italia: Ishii and Mark Schilling visit the Far East Film Festival
- Image Gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Jasper Sharp, Tom Mes and Grady Hendrix
Brimming with oddities and visually magnetic, Ishii’s twisted take on Dr. Moreau’s famous island not only succeeds as an example of Japanese cult cinema but it has a rousing mystery at its core to boot. Arrow’s release delivers with a beautiful new scan and some fine supplements for fans.