Even Edgar Allan Poe might have been weirded out by this one.
"The Mystery of Rampo," a fascinating, rich tapestry of dark imagination, is at its heart a Poe story. Here's why: Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, whose pen name sounds like Poe's name, is the character at the center of the film, which is inspired by Rampo's fiction. The movie is pure melancholy romance, a surreal story of dreams, obsession and seductive death.
Writer Rampo, played with quiet, compelling intensity by Naoto Takenaka, is feeling glum and disconnected after one of his intriguing stories is banned. In the story, told briefly at the beginning of the film with animation, a dreamy woman leaves her house for the day, and her husband climbs into her empty, womb-like hope chest. When he tries to emerge, he finds the latch is set. He weakens, running out of air, but his wife finds him in time -- and then slams the lid shut after seeing him inside. Womb becomes tomb.
It's a haunting tale, but it's only the beginning. Rampo's editor shows him an article in the newspaper about a woman whose husband has died precisely the same way, although the death is ruled an accident -- and she has never seen the writer's censored story. His compulsion is too great to resist. After seeing visions of her, he visits her and finds the very image of dangerous, exquisite beauty he has created. Her name is Shizuko (Michiko Hada).
Soon it is unclear where his fantasy ends and reality begins. He can see only one way to resolve the question of whether she's a murderer and to find his way out of the nightmares that haunt him: He must write a sequel to his banned work and continue the woman's story. But while he tries to give his imagination concrete form, his life becomes more and more like his dreams. Only when Shizuko presents Rampo with clear evidence of what happened is his dream world shaken.
The detective he writes about, Kogoro Akechi (Masahiro Motoki), is his alter ego and appears to take on a life of his own. Akechi visits the mysterious and rich Marquis (Mikijiro Hira), whose mistress is the mystery woman with whom Rampo is obsessed. Images of impending war and sexual obsessions make their fictional lives seem even more surreal -- until Rampo brings reality and imagination explosively together. (Too explosively, really; it looks like the Death Star blowing up.)
Imagination turns out to be just as true as reality, and perhaps more so. After all, we can be sure of what our fantasies are, but reality is too often beyond our ken. The intersection of reality and fantasy in "Rampo" brings to mind "Brazil," without the satirical bite.
While the brain keeps trying to sort out who's who and what's what in "Rampo," the eyes feast on gorgeous images. The film is beautifully composed and photographed. The lush score by Akira Senju, though a bit over the top at times, drenches each moment in romantic suspense. Deliberately paced, surreal and sensual, "The Mystery of Rampo" gives us a puzzle that folds back on itself; insoluble, but engrossing just the same.
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"The Mystery of Rampo"
Directed by Kazuyoshi Okuyama
Starring Naoto Takenaka and Michiko Hada
Released by Samuel Goldwyn
Unrated (adult themes, nudity, sexual situations)