... aka: Collected Tales of Edogawa Rampo: Horrors of Malformed Men
... aka: Horrors of Malformed Men
... aka: L'effrayant Docteur Hijikata (The Scary Doctor Hijikata)
If I wasn't too lazy to get out of my chair right now, I'd probably kick myself for not getting around to this one sooner... especially since I've owned the DVD for a good decade now!
With his sanity and thus the validity of what we're about to see always in question, former medical student Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) narrates this tale from his cell at a Taisho Era mental asylum circa 1825. Though he suffers from some sort of amnesia and can't remember much of his past, he's haunted by visions of a seashore, a creepy long-haired man in a dress hanging around rocky cliffs and a beautiful woman whose face keeps changing into that of an ugly man. The only thing seemingly tying it all together is a distinct lullaby. Late one night, a bald man in an adjacent cell sneaks out and attacks him. Hirosuke kills him and then manages to escape. Outside, he hears someone humming the familiar lullaby and finds out it's a young woman named Hatsuyo (Teruko Yumi), who works at a traveling circus that just so happens to be in town and claims she may have keep kidnapped. She's able to help place the lullaby as coming from an island before she's mysteriously murdered in broad daylight; leaving Hirosuke holding the bloody knife. He's blamed for the killing and flees.
While taking a train ride to the coast, Hirosuke happens to glance down at a newspaper and finds a man who looks identical to him listed in an obituary. The man, named Genzaburo, was the son of the wealthy Jôgorô Komoda (Tatsumi Hijikata), a local eccentric with bad eyesight and webbed fingers who purchased a nearby island with plans on turning it into some kind of amusement park. Jôgorô had retreated to the island to live full time with his wife, leaving Genzaburo to be raised by a nurse on the mainland. Per a blind masseuse who regularly worked on Genzaburo, Hirosuke has the same identical scar (shaped like a swastika) on the sole of his foot. Same face and now the same distinctive scar? Can that possibly be a coincidence? Hirosuke begins to suspect he may actually be Genzaburo himself. Just to be sure he's not, he exhumes the grave. Nope. Genzaburo's corpse is there. He just happens to be a dead ringer for him.
Since he's now wanted for several murders, Hirosuke decides to perform a little identity switcheroo. He leaves a suicide note by the shore, swaps clothes with the corpse, throws the body in the water and thus effectively kills off Hirosuke for all intents and purposes. He then lies down in the graveyard and is discovered by some monks. Newspapers are soon filled with stories about Genzaburo's miraculous resurrection. He return to Genzaburo's home to live with his widow Chioko (Michiko Kobata), distant relative Shizuko (Yukie Kagawa), servant Hirukawa (Asao Koike), elderly nurse Gindashi (Kyômi Sakura) and some maids. Seeing how all of these people knew the previous master and his quirks very well, Hirosuke must make some big adjustments to his typical behavior, including pretending to be left-handed and having poor vision to emulate Genzaburo. However, some things can't be faked, like the family dog not recognizing him or his scent and attacking as if he were a stranger.
Hirosuke also has to get a feel for the household dynamic. Though he starts fulfilling his husbandry bedroom duties to please Chioko, he also discovers that Shizuko was having an affair with Genzaburo, which means he has to pick up where the former master left off with her as well. You know, so no one gets suspicious! Making matters even more complicated, he also has to continue with the family business ventures and things aren't looking so good there. Not only does he not know what he's doing but they're teetering on bankruptcy and a lot of the paperwork requires a verifiable signature. He's able to buy himself a little more time spilling tea on documents but that's not going to work forever. Trying to impersonate someone else, even someone with loads of privilege and money, isn't quite as easy as he expected!
As if everything isn't stressful enough already, it turns out that Genzaburo may have been murdered, so whomever was responsible for that will probably come after him as well. Deadly snakes are snuck into a bathroom to try to kill Shizuko and blackmail notes are left in various family member's bedrooms. In one, the blackmailer reveals they know about the affair. In another, they repeat private bedroom conversations between husband and wife verbatim. Several strange deformed men show up to terrorize everyone and Chioko awakens from her sleep in severe pain, spits up blood and then dies. Hirosuke decides it's then time to go against Genzaburo's reclusive father's wishes and visit the island... and then the film gets really, REALLY weird.
I've seen some ludicrously overly-complicated plots in my day but this one about takes the cake! I'm not even going to go into much further detail about all of the characters and their various alliances, betrayals, false identities and such. We only have so much time in one day! Instead I'd like to point out that what starts out as a strange mystery turns into something more along the lines of The Island of Dr. Moreau at around the midway point. This actually does a very good job pacing itself and sets aside plenty of time in the second half to unleash a bunch of bizarre, gruesome and surreal surprises.
Using a false employment agency in Tokyo as a front, Genzaburo's father Jôgorô and his accomplices (including a hunchback) have been able to kidnap hundreds of young women and transport them to the island, where they've either been turned into slave girls, mindless zombies or half-human / half-animal hybrids. White-painted women in thongs run around in herds making animal noises and being whipped, silver-painted men and women put on a Vegas-style show (!) with mirrors, acrobatics, sparklers and colorful lighting, some girls have taken on identities of fish, birds or sheep, bandaged people are kept in cages and fed grass and the deranged mad scientist has even perfected the first-ever male-female Siamese twin, with the female half - Hideki (Teruko Yumi again in a second role) - eventually becoming Hirosuke's lover after she's separated.
Sepia and pink tinted flashbacks feature such sights as a crazed, sadistic transvestite torturing imprisoned topless girls with a knife while cackling with glee and red and green tinted ones detail Jôgorô's unhappy marriage to the unfaithful Toki (Mitsuko Aoi), whom he's been keeping prisoner in a cave, where she's been forced to eat crabs and bugs off her dead lover's corpse (!) to survive. There's plenty of blood and gore, endless female nudity, incest, a real snake getting killed, an amazing Trojan Horse-style grope chair and an absolutely hilarious finale featuring a couple committing suicide via fireworks explosion, which send their heads and various body parts flying across the evening sky!
This is definitely a case where a film with a problematic script (cobbled together using numerous stories from Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo) is carried by directorial flair, originality, artistry, oddball visuals, a distinct lack of good taste and overall craziness. And Tatsumi Hijikata should have been showered with awards for his mesmerizing, truly demented performance as the father.
This Toei Company production went unreleased on any home viewing format for nearly 40 years but was finally unearthed by Synapse Films and Panik House Entertainment, who released it on DVD for the first time in 2007. That was followed by a 2018 Blu-ray release from Arrow Video. Watch and be amazed!