Rampo Noir consists of 4 short stories adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo, with each segment helmed by a different director. Starring arthouse regular Tadanobu Asano as almost different characters spanning across the shorts, this film, to put it mildly, should excite arthouse lovers since it stars one of their idols, but everyone else, unless you have spare capacity for the bizarre, would likely want to steer clear of this. For omnibus films, you'd come to expect varying standards and levels of enjoyment, and this film is no different.
The first short Mars Canal (Kasei No Unga) directed by Suguru Takeuchi is probably the weirdest of the lot, and the shortest, which consists of dizzying camera work and a non-linear narrative, if there is one anywhere to begin with. Asano stars in his birthday suit as he goes through an intense battle with a girl on a filthy floor, screaming, yelling, kicking, before he finds some peace by dropping himself into a pond of water. You heard me, and it is bewildering. I think if I were to film a toilet scene with a man pooping, that'll make a more interesting subject matter, and I'll throw in sound effects to boot too.
Mirror Hell (Kagami Jigoku) is probably the more palatable of the lot. Directed by Akio Jissoji), Asano plays detective Kogoro Akechi, who's called upon when a series of bizarre murders take place, all linking the victims with strange mirrors in their possession when they meet their demise. Their faces get considerably disfigured, though you don't get to see it verbatim save for a stylized sequence of what may look like acid chewing through flesh. It is here that the narrative moots the point, with reflections, about what is real and what is actually through the looking glass, and has very nice sets made up of full length mirrors that I always tend to look closely at to spot the camera crew. But the narrative will fizzle out in the end because it has to comply with arthouse sensibilities, and I felt it left everyone hanging midway without a proper resolution.
Caterpillar (Imomushi) by Hisayasu Sato plays with the caterpillar/butterfly motif. A war veteran, severely disfigured and without any limbs, is left at the mercies of his sadistic wife (Yukiko Okamoto) to take care of him, and is subject to her horniness and liking for S&M sexual torture. For starters you might think that the wife is nothing short of dutiful, responsible and full of love, having removed all traces of mirrors and reflective surfaces so that he won't feel depressed with how he looked (seriously, if you're in that kind of state, you don't need a mirror to know you're screwed), but there's nothing to protect him from the dangers from within - his own wife. There's probably no proper point to this other than an exercise on cruelty against the disabled, and a measure of how sick one can be in pushing the tolerance envelope.
The last short, Crawling Bugs (Mushi), tells of a man's obsession with a woman. Asano returns to star as a different character, this time a limo driver who is infatuated with his client, a beautiful actress (Tamaki Ogawa). This segment got convoluted no thanks to its repetitive and fragmented storyline, which treads once again on reality and perceived reality, what worked to its advantage here is the lush visuals filled with saturated pop colours. You might wonder if director Atsushi Kaneko was schizophrenic in its delivery of this messed up piece, which continues to baffle especially after your energy's sapped by the previous installments to care any more.
If there's a running, unifying theme here, then it'll be the idea of reality (as usual with an arthouse flick), and this shows in all the inter-titles used throughout the films, which is written in a mirror image. There's more visual style than solid substance here in driving the films, and I think a trip to the bookstore for the translated works of Rampo Noir might help in digesting some of these stories, and whether or not the filmmakers here had gone to extreme lengths in disfiguring the narrative of the source material. Recommended to those with a large bandwidth of attention.