The banner atop this Anchor Bay DVD release trumpets the fact that it was "Banned from Cable Broadcast," the only entry in the first season of Showtime's Masters of Horror to be unceremoniously slashed from the cable series' schedule – and after viewing Takashi Miike's Imprint, I can definitely see why the cable network got cold feet. As most of Miike's admirers would expect, the hour-long adaptation of a grisly horror tale by Shimaho Iwaio steadfastly refuses to back away – even when it ventures into story areas guaranteed to make network types squeamish.
Set in 19th century Japan, Imprint focuses on an American journalist (a far too intense Billy Drago) who is looking for a woman sold by her foster parents into an island brothel. The island is itself a misty and ominous setting; as one character explains early in the story, "This island is not in the human world. Demons and whores are the only ones who live here." Christopher, the journalist, is unable to find his long-lost love Komomo (Michie) in the brothel, so he spends the night with a deformed, unnamed prostitute (Youki Kudoh). Turns out that his companion for the night knew Christopher's lover, and she first tells him Komomo hung herself out of despair that she would never be rescued from a life of brothel servitude. "Being a Daughter of Joy is a living hell," Christopher's companion says, and it doesn't take long for us to agree with her. She tells the journalist the story of her life and Komomo's death three times, peeling back to more of the truth each time.
The resultant "final" retelling – which involves incest, 19th century abortions, floating fetuses, a prolonged torture scene and the most absurdly chilling conjoined sib puppet since Frank Henenlotter's Belial – proves plenty over-the-top. And, as with Powers Boothe's F.B.I. agent in Frailty, the telling of the story proves his undoing. (Like Boothe's appearance in that horror flick, the first reaction to seeing Drago in an ostensibly non-villain role is to go, "He can't be the good guy!") Much of the line readings from the predominately Japanese cast are fairly stiff, though Kudoh's storyteller does a memorable job growing progressively more disturbing looking as the night passes.
Miike and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita pile on the sumptuously gloomy atmosphere in spades: their brothel of caged prostitutes is awash in red hues – an ideal setting for "demons and whores" or a combination thereof – and when we later are shown a blood-painted tapestry depicting the afterlife in hell, we don't need any dialog to make the comparison. Miike's handling of the young girl Komomo's interrogation under the guidance of the brothel's madam is especially unflinching. While many of MoH’s first season entries trafficked in both explicit and implicit torture sequences, none of 'em depicted it as relentlessly or effectively as Imprint. As a movie man, Miike is like Robert Rodriquez in his ability to handle a range of genres (even kidflicks) – and in his willingness to go as far as possible when the material calls for it.
Head and shoulders above most of the Masters of Horror's first season offerings, think I – even if most of the story's effects looked as rubbery as any in the series' other entries. I notice that Showtime hasn't invited Miike back for a second season entry. No surprise there.