Rampo Noir (2005) is one of these cult films that upon first view appear enigmatic and resistant to interpretation; however, afterward, as you think about it, talk about it, and maybe begin writing about, it discloses layers of hidden meaning. In fact, insofar as the four stories comprising Rampo Noir are ultimately about the pitfalls of obsession, I was genuinely reluctant to committing myself to writing this essay, for fear of entering an endless swirl of images and interpretations. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to not let my mind wander too far.
Rampo Noir is divided into four stories, namely “Mars Canal,” “Mirror Hell,” “Caterpillar,” and “Crawling Bugs.” Each story is directed, respectively, by Suguru Takeuchi, Akio Jissoji, Hisayasu Sato, and Atsushi Kaneko. All of the stories, in turn, are based on the characters and stories created by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), who was renowned for his work in Mystery, of which his “Boy Detective Club” series is most noteworthy, in particular for introducing “Kogoro Akechi” into the world of fictional sleuths. Indeed, Rampo counted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe among his predecessors, as evident in Akechi’s investigative skills and the author’s name, “Edogawa Rampo,” a nom de plume inspired by Poe.
Tadanobu Asano appears in all four stories, playing “Kogoro Akechi,” “Masaki,” and an unnamed character, which allows Asano to display his abundant thespian talents, in addition to giving the anthology a sense of continuity. Adding to the coherency of the four storylines is, as noted above, that all of the characters and plotlines were the product of Rampo’s detective and mystery fiction, which enables Rampo Noir to evoke a world unto itself, in which the logic and limitations of waking life are left behind and the inherent irrationality of dreams define every scene.
Under these circumstances, each story unveils a dark tale of love and obsession, often turning into madness, unleashing in turn the kind of impulses that drive the obsessed beyond the realm of good and evil. Rampo Noir, indeed, is a film possessed by demons. “Mars Canal” is a silent but dizzying display of nude bodies, male and female, engaged in conflict, the former of which winds up alone at a pond in the middle of a treeless landscape. “Mirror Hell” is about a series of murders in which the victims’ faces become disfigured, which is a fate that is evidently tied to every victim possessing an elegant handmade mirror made by the same craftsman. “Caterpillar” is about a limbless and mute man, who’s cared for by his long-suffering wife. However, is this man really a “war god” who survived a terrible wartime incident like his, as it turns out, abusive wife claims? Lastly, “Crawling Bugs” is about a chauffeur who becomes deranged in his obsessive-compulsive affection for a stage actress, whom he ultimately seeks to make “beautiful forever.”
In the end, Rampo Noir was one of those film experiences that wasn’t especially gratifying at first, but became more interesting the more that I thought about what I had seen. In fact, one of the things that I slowly realized is the extent to which Rampo’s fiction has inspired a subgenre of Japanese Dark Cinema, as evident in The Mystery of Rampo (1994) and Caterpillar (2010). In this sense, Rampo is similar to Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), another author whose literary world, such as “In a Grove”—which Akira Kurosawa directed as Rashōmon (1950)—was also driven by the baser instincts of humanity, and who committed suicide at the height of his creative powers. In light of which, perhaps what the stories of Rampo and Akutagawa represent in the final analysis are those instincts and impulses that lay dormant within us all, which, as Rampo Noir demonstrates, are closer to the surface than anyone would care to admit.