Imprint was originally slated to be the 13th episode of season one of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. The idea was to get some of the most influential horror directors of the past few decades and give them each the opportunity to make whatever kind of film they wanted with only 3 requirements: it must be a horror film, it must be shot within a 10 day schedule, and it must be 60 minutes long. Of course, with the cross-over success of Asian horror in recent years the series producers decided they had to have at least one Asian director involved in the project. They eventually decided on Takashi Miike based mostly on the cult success of his 1999 film, Audition. Miike isn’t one to ever turn any movie project down, especially not one as important as this so he jumped at the opportunity even though he doesn’t consider himself a horror director per se.
In the movie Billy Drago plays Christopher, an American journalist who’s returned to Japan to reunite with his former love, Kimomo (Michie Ito). Unfortunately, when he gets there he finds out she’s fallen into prostitution. He goes from brothel to brothel searching for her until his travels lead him to an island of utter depravity where women with no hope for the future work as sex slaves for low-class clientele. He’s told that Kimomo isn’t there, but left with no way off the island until morning he decides to spend the night, inexplicably choosing the accompaniment of a prostitute with a hideously scarred face (Youki Kodoh). The woman explains to him that Kimomo once lived there as a prostitute but hung herself when her lover didn’t return like he promised. Christopher refuses to believe that version of events and what follows is her re-telling her story several times as she refines the details. Each version of the story gets darker and more disturbing, yet also closer to the grotesque truth. Imprint is a pretty simple story that turns increasingly complicated (and weird) as it goes on and in typical Miike fashion, the audience is given the final say on what to believe is real.
While watching Imprint you get the impression that instead of rebelling against what he perceives as the American audience’s misconception of him, Miike instead put a lot of thought and effort into trying to live up to it. Thus, this film is a corker and a half. Showtime ended up deciding not to air it and while that seemed like a pathetic move at the time, it’s obvious that in the current political climate airing something like Imprint on TV would have brought on way more letter-writing campaigns and turmoil than any channel should have to endure, even a subscription cable one. Just how gory is this film you ask? Well, there’s certainly some gore and an ample amount of really gross imagery that will have most people watching with one eye closed for minutes on end, but beyond that Imprint reads like a laundry list of things that get most middle-Americans riled up. Murder, incest, rape, domestic violence, prostitution, abortion, torture, bondage, and a pedophile priest thrown in for good measure; it’s all represented here in Miike’s characteristically blunt manner.
One aggravating aspect of Imprint that probably can’t be overstated is the fact that it was filmed in English. Miike hardly knows any English so to think he’d be capable of directing actors speaking it phonetically and end up getting good performances out of them was a really lame idea on someone’s part. It’s unfortunate because the whole reason for this decision was nixed when Showtime decided not to air it. Now we’re left with a movie full of awkward performances from people who obviously tried their best, but couldn’t quite convey any sort of emotion in a language they don’t understand. The obvious exception to this is Youki Kodoh, who is fluent in English. She has the most lines in the film and is actually quite good at delivering them with a sort of twisted conviction. Ironically, the worst actor of the bunch is probably Billy Drago. His over-acting gets progressively worse as the film goes on, and since he starts at “pretty bad” you can imagine where things go from there. He’s someone perfectly suited for a role like this in a normal horror TV show, just not a movie with this sort of production value.
This is certainly not one of Miike’s best films. Leaving things open to interpretation is fine but this story leaves so many questions unanswered it could almost be considered completely disjointed. That being said, there’s definitely a lot of Miike flair in this that his fans will appreciate. Almost everything about Imprint is beautifully done, from the set design to the costumes and overly-exaggerated Oiran hair-dos. Even the stuff that’s supposed to be disgusting is oddly eye-catching and wonderfully shot. And much like his 2003 film, Gozu, Miike keeps steadily ramping up the weirdness throughout. By the time you think you’re kind of immune to it he does something so strange you don’t know what to think anymore. Imprint is more of an experience than a movie, and if you’ve got a strong stomach and a willingness to accept the bizarre it’s definitely an experience worth having.