(Almost) Banned in Tokyo!

A genuine Holy Grail among international-horror-movie hounds since its 1969 Japanese release and subsequent near-disappearance, Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men finally gets a legit DVD release next week courtesy of intrepid, mondo-grindhouse label Synapse Films.

Largely known by reputation—and from an intriguingly gruesome still in Denis Gifford’s 1973 tome A Pictorial History of Horror MoviesMalformed is cobbled together from several short stories by early Showa Period mystery scribe Edogawa Rampo (ne Taro Hirai). Ishii, a genre workhorse whose films are characterized by an antic indifference to narrative coherence, stitches the disparate plots together with scenes of implied bestiality, explicit incest, extravagant misogyny, and—disappointingly—real animal death. The result is an ambitious, druggy shambles that’s both better and worse than expected, and never less than surpassingly weird.

Whatever the movie’s deficits, unapologetic fetishists Ishii and Rampo were a good match, and Malformed contains brief flashes of nightmarish brilliance. Most revolve around Tatsumi Hijikata, creator of avant-garde dance movement butoh, whose mesmerizingly hammy turn as a reclusive doctor surgically creating a race of freaks comes off as a twitchy cross between H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau and, oh, Richard Speck.

As for the film’s almost-banned status, I’d wager it was as much from political squeamishness as disgust over Ishii’s gleeful public display of his private obsessions: Accurately or not, Malformed holds up an unflattering mirror to—or serves as a prime example of—Japan’s postwar cultural rot.

Synapse’s transfer is pristine, and among the disc’s bonanza of extras is a featurette with reflections from auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, whose 1999 Gemini (available from Image) is a more focused take on some of Malformed’s sources. There’s also a brief doc chronicling an Ishii fete at the 2003 Far East Film Festival in Italy, where Malformed played to an apparently packed, probably not stoned enough crowd.