The prolific and controversial Japanese auteur Takashi Miike created Imprint as an episode of the “Masters of Horror” television series. Broadcast in two seasons (2005-7), the series is an anthology of shorts by well-known horror directors. Helmers included icons like John Carpenter, Dario Argento, and Tobe Hooper. They received creative license and relative freedom from conventional constraints on material and themes in exchange for agreeing to work with a low budget and on a tight schedule.

Yet Showtime refused to broadcast Miike’s episode after it bought the rights to the series. The network decided it was too disturbing for cable TV and cut it from Season 1 (2005-6). Showrunner and executive producer Mick Garris explained the brouhaha in an interview for a 2006 New York Times article:

We made it clear that we were going on American pay cable television, and even though there wasn’t as much control over content, there still were concerns. And then when we got the first cut, it was very, very strong stuff, and we made some suggestions on what might help before we showed it to Showtime. The Japanese made the changes they were comfortable with, and eventually we arrived at a film that he was happy with and we’re all happy with. But Showtime felt it was not something they were comfortable putting on the airwaves.”

Fortunately for J-Horror lovers, the series’ DVD release includes Imprint. The film also screened at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in 2006. Bravo UK aired it the same year. But what was so disturbing about the film that Showtime decided to cancel it?

As adapted for the screen by Daisuke Tengan from a novel by Shimako Iwai, the basic story is straightforward. An American journalist, Christopher (Billy Drago), returns to Japan during the Victorian era. He’s searching for Komomo (Michie Itô), a geisha whom he had met on a previous visit, when the two had fallen in love. Christopher promised to return for Komomo and take her to the United States.

The film opens with Christopher traveling via boat through waters infested by corpses. He arrives at an island populated only by geishas, pimps, and mama-sans. While the other male passengers choose a woman for the night, he looks for Komomo. He meets a syphilitic pimp (Mame Yamada) who denies knowing Komomo. The tout advises Christopher to spend the night inside for his own safety. Christopher chooses the only geisha who does not try to solicit a customer. Sitting back in the shadows, she reveals only her profile to him.

Things get more complicated with each minute after the woman (Youki Kudoh) joins Christopher in his room. She has a facial deformity that is emblematic of her history. It turns out that she knows — or did know — Komomo.

In a series of increasingly disturbing versions of her own history, the woman reveals what happened to Komomo. That history includes such transgressive topics as infanticide, incest, and torture. Miike includes a particularly brutal sequence that involves Shibari, the Japanese art of rope bondage. The film culminates with the shocking revelation of the reason for the woman’s deformity.

Although he “chews the scenery” on occasion, Drago plays with gusto his obsessively driven character, who becomes completely unhinged in the end. Kudoh balances Drago’s histrionics with an initially restrained performance that grows more dark and menacing with each scene. As Komomo, Itô is as gorgeous and charming as Kudoh’s character is twisted and duplicitous — but there’s a convincing reason for the latter.

The sumptuously detailed set design for this film provides the perfect backdrop for DP Toyomichi Kurita‘s cinematography, which makes excellent use of chiaroscuro. Despite some of the disturbing content — which is admittedly shocking at times — the overall effect is artistic. This is no mere shock-and-awe production. Highly recommended to all lovers of horror and Japanese cinema, Imprint is available on DVD via Netflix and also streams on Vudu.

You can find some of Bill’s other work on: Loud Green Bird

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