September 22, 1995 in Seven

‘Rampo’ A Mix Of Japan, Hollywood

Dan Webster Staff Writer
 

According to Japanese director Kazuyoshi Okuyama, there are three kinds of films that make money in today’s Japan: animated movies, anything starring popular stars and historical epics.

Hmmm, that sounds just like Hollywood (think “The Lion King,” think “Clueless,” think “Braveheart”).

While Okuyama’s first film “The Mystery of Rampo” is none of the above, it is at the same time all of the above. But don’t be confused. The how and why of that apparent contradiction is part of the movie’s very mystery.

Written and directed by Japanese movie producer Okuyama, “The Mystery of Rampo” was suggested by a story written by Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965), who took his pen name from Edgar Allan Poe.

Born Hirai Taro, Rampo reigned for several decades as Japan’s leading writer of mysteries. Steeped in the Western-style detective genre, Rampo toiled during a volatile period of Japanese history. As such, his work was subject to the vagaries of censorship, especially during World War II.

The feeling of artistic claustrophobia that must have tortured the real Rampo during this period is reflected in Okuyama’s movie. In fact, the film’s main plot involves Rampo being told by the authorities that he no longer will be allowed to publish.

The problem: The questionable moral content in his work.

As harsh as this news is Rampo is rocked even more by news of a local murder. A woman has been accused of murdering her husband; it appears she suffocated him by locking him in an air-tight trunk.

Rampo is surprised because the alleged crime is identical to the plot of a story he wrote - a story that was censored before it could be published.

Thus the mystery writer becomes detective, attempting to ferret out the truth. He quickly becomes aware that the only way to do so is to write his way out of the dark corners of his own imagination. Call it “Rampo Enters the Twilight Zone.”

Director Okuyama constructs his story on at least three levels. In what may be the film’s most effective, and eerie, sequence, he tells Rampo’s original story in animation.

Then Okuyama reverts to real life, following the efforts of amateur detective Rampo. And then Okuyama delves into Rampo’s imagination, as the writer envisions the mystery being investigated by his own creation - the suave detective Akechi.

What Rampo, and we, discover is a complex maze of murder, lust, sado-masochism, black magic and ghostly presences - enough of an erotic mix, in other words, to surprise, if not shock, anyone used to the less-fevered flavor of mainstream Japanese cinema.

Yet there is something missing - namely any real sense of meaning. The film’s various parts, each in its own way, are impressive. But they don’t add up to much more than a hodgepodge of emotional mind-sets - fascism, animal desire, the inability to commit, etc. - without doing justice to any particular one, much less the film overall.

Okuyama gets a decent array of performances by his stars, from Naoto Takenaka as Rampo, Masahiro Motoki as Akechi and Michiko Hada in the double role of accused murderess Shizuko and the mystery woman of Rampo’s tale. And in his debut outing as a director (he’s one of Japan’s leading film producers), he constructs an intriguing collection of images that is seldom boring to watch.

In addition, while the film feels different from the typical Japanese blockbuster, bear in mind that part of it is animated. Hada is one of Japan’s mega-stars and the setting is an important historical period.

So while, in the end, “The Mystery of Rampo” feels mostly like a self-indulgent exercise in exhibitionism, it is no surprise that it went on to break box-office records all across Japan.

Call it Tokyo goes Hollywood.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Mystery of Rampo” **-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Kazuyoshi Okuyama, starring Naoto Takenaka, Michiko Hada and Masahiro Motoki Running time: 1:37 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to an R for sexual content). In Japanese with English subtitles.

This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Mystery of Rampo” **-1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Kazuyoshi Okuyama, starring Naoto Takenaka, Michiko Hada and Masahiro Motoki Running time: 1:37 Rating: Not rated (but equivalent to an R for sexual content). In Japanese with English subtitles.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email