It's easy to see why Samuel Goldwyn didn't have much confidence in America's receptiveness to The Mystery of Rampo. Japanese film, like so many of their art forms, is an internalized medium, expressing no conventionally emotional highs and lows (Akira Kurosawa notwithstanding) and relying on a heightened sensitivity to aesthetic surfaces. Much like their oft-discussed, little-understood Kabuki theater, the Japanese suggest much with artifice but rarely use it to amplify dramatic conflict.
Still, by the standards of much Japanese cinema, The Mystery of Rampo is positively raucous in its recounting of a few weeks in the life of mystery writer Rampo Edogawa. Edogawa, who died in 1965, is revered to this day by international audiences for his novels and short stories that feature sinister women and dashing men decked out in garments of perverse sexuality and the supernatural. Although many of his tales were constructed as traditional detective yarns, he expanded the genre considerably with a mystical sense of fate. Edogawa's idol was Edgar Allan Poe, reflected in the pen name he chose (the Japanese pronunciation of "Rampo Edogawa" is edogah-aran-poh).
The film opens in the 1930s at a reception for the latest film based on one of Edogawa's mysteries. The author (played with morose intensity by Naoto Takenaka) lurks around the proceedings, even makes a half-hearted thank-you address that no one listens to, but can't be consoled. As Japan prepares to leap into World War II, the government has cracked down on any art it considers to be potentially subversive, and Edogawa's most recent book has been banned.
The author, dejected and lonely from a life dedicated to the solitary business of making literature, struggles to continue a short story he is writing about a woman who kills her husband by locking him inside her trousseau chest. One day his editor (Teruyuki Kagawa) shows him a newspaper story about a local woman named Shizuko (Michiko Hada) who's under investigation for the murder of her husband, a tyrant who runs an antique shop and has been found suffocated in a trousseau chest.
Edogawa strikes up a tense friendship with Shizuko composed of equal parts crush and morbid fascination. He visits her constantly at the antique shop formerly owned by her husband, which has become an object of scorn to the townspeople, convinced of Shizuko's guilt. One of the film's most haunting images is the shy young widow toiling behind the store windows, which have been covered with obscene insults and threats slashed in red ink.
The author develops an obsession with both Shizuko and the murderess of his imagination. He suddenly finds that he cannot stop writing, and the film develops a parallel storyline--his dashing alter ego, detective Kogoro Akechi (Masahiro Motoki), comes to the cliff-side estate of the insane, cross-dressing Marquis Ogawara (Japanese stage legend Mikijiro Hira) to rescue his new wife, a woman who may or may not be responsible for her previous husband's death.
As played by supermodel Hada in her dramatic debut, Shizuko/The Marquess is the magnetic force at the film's heart. Although a good part of her performance demands she maintain a geisha-like reserve, keeping her head down and her hands together, her eyes carry the performance brilliantly. She's not a woman but an enigma, a spiritual force, and her almond-shaped eyes make you believe she is both a killer (Edogawa's vision of the wily Marquess) and a nurturer (the real-life widow who is terrified at the accusations being hurled at her). Her interactions with the Marquis, who enjoys dolling himself up in makeup and dresses and then humiliating his wife for sexual satisfaction, carry a perverse electrical charge that David Lynch hasn't managed in years.
The Mystery of Rampo attempts the same daunting task that Steven Soderbergh undertook with mixed results four years ago in Kafka--weaving together the details of an eccentric author's real life with the themes that recur in his work. Soderbergh relied more on cinematic mood than any genuine insight into the mind of Franz Kafka.
Perhaps writer-director Kazuyoshi Okuyama had an easier time with his source material, because Edogawa Rampo was not an intellectual man in the traditional sense. He believed imagination, not reason, was humankind's greatest ally and its most daunting adversary. His characters were forever being dragged into baroque, vaguely occult fantasies that would prove fatal. Okuyama endows his film with a corresponding hurricane of fantastic special effects that usually erupt when Edogawa is navigating the space between the real world and his own imagination. Animation and computer-generated graphics embroider the movie with sudden eruptions of flame, ghostly mirages, and scary, storm-tossed netherworlds ruled by sadistic madmen.
Some people will complain that The Mystery of Rampo doesn't make much sense, even though it employs a double-sided variation of that old warhorse, the detective story. Here Okuyama transcends Edogawa's work to find the real, wounded heart that beat beneath it. Historians tell us that Edogawa was fiercely unsure of his own talent, insecure about his gnomish looks, and tended to pull away from people even though he desperately craved companionship. In this light, the film's chaos achieves focus. Edogawa is a man constantly trying to flee from himself, and the characters he created are expressions of his own personal torment.
In real life, Rampo Edogawa was a man who lived in two different worlds that constantly chafed against each other. Kazuyoshi Okuyama's The Mystery of Rampo is a sublime tribute to the often painful origins of creativity, and a compelling, visually sumptuous fantasia in its own right. You don't have to know a thing about Edogawa to enjoy this film, which is really what great cinema is all about--sights and sounds that transcend rational explanation.
The Mystery of Rampo. Samuel Goldwyn. Naoto Takenaka, Michiko Hada, Mikijiro Hira. Written by Kazuyoshi Okuyama and Yuhei Enoki, based on the story by Rampo Edogawa. Directed by Kazuyoshi Okuyama. Opens October 6 at the Inwood.