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Revisiting Japan’s Banned & Highly Controversial HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN

A man wakes up in a mental institution unaware of why he’s there and with no memory of who he is, only strange visions and random memories he can’t place.  When a man from a wealthy family (who happens to look exactly like him) dies, the man assumes his identity.  Posing as a dead man, he learns about his “father”, a strange and deformed man living on an island just off-shore, an island the father is turning into a bizarre amusement park full of psychedelic  imagery, religious symbolism and deformities.

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HORRORS OF MALFORMED MAN is a highly disturbing variant of THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, but instead of Brando you’ve got a tall, web-fingered lunatic with the most fluid dance moves you’ve ever seen. This controversial Toei film is considered to be one of the precursors to Pinky Violence films, which reigned Japan’s exploitation cinema scene in the 60s and 70s. Hypnotic and full of bizarre imagery, MALFORMED MEN had the honor of being banned in Japan and went nearly unseen for decades until it was released to DVD in 2007.  The movie is beautifully shot and exhibits all the pain of a madman unleashing his genius onto the screen.

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Director Teruo Ishii, was born in Tokyo in 1924 and developed a love for cinema at an early age. He was particularly fond of French art cinema. In 1942, he began working in the film industry as an assistant director for Toho Studios.  He soon put his film career on hold when he was sent to Manchuria to take aerial photographs of during World War II. He gained firsthand knowledge of the depravities of war, experiencing all the frightening visuals up close.

Director Teruo Ishii
Director Teruo Ishii

After the war, Ishii worked for Shintoho Studios. Ishii made his directorial debut with the boxing film KING OF THE RING: THE WORLD OF GLORY.  He was then hired to direct six episodes of SUPER GIANT, a children’s science fiction series. The series would eventually make its way to the states under the name STARMAN. In 1961, Shintoho declared bankruptcy, and Ishii decided to take a job with Toei.

SONY DSC
SONY DSC

Toei, which had been around since 1938, had established itself as the leader in live-action martial-arts dramas. At Toei, Ishii gained notoriety for his Yakuza film, FLOWER AND STORM AND GANG. The film proved to be his biggest success to date and spawned an entire series of Toei Yakuza films. Ishii went on on to direct 10 of the films in the 18 film series. By 1968 Ishii had created two more popular long-running series for Toei, including HOT SPRINGS GEISHA (1968 – 1972) and SHOGUN’S JOYS OF TORTURE (1968). Ishii directed all 8 films in the SHOGUN series, a franchise that was more in keeping with the director’s tastes. Labeled an “ero guro” film, a term coined in the 1930s for a Japanese artistic movement known for being erotic and grotesque, it was Toei’s first taste of the genre that mixed excessive violence and explicit sex which became the launching pad for Pink films.

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A true fan of horror, Ishii worked at adapting the texts of his hero, author and one of the founders of “ero-guro”, Edogawa Ranpo. Ranpo, was heavily influenced by the works of Western writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1969, Ishii pulled from several of Ranpo’s stories, most notably THE STRANGE TALE OF PANORAMA ISLAND (1926), to create HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN. One of the best (and most controversial) ero-guro films on the market, it established Toei as the leading creator of torture films and the father of Pinky violence.

Author Edogawa Ranpo
Author Edogawa Ranpo

Influenced heavily by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film was met by a Japanese audience with fresh memories of the war. After a brief and heavily ridiculed run, it was pulled from theaters. And as Japan found itself dealing more and more with the deforming side effects of atomic fallout, they eventually banned the use of the word “malformed”, effectively banning the film itself and sending it underground for the next several decades.

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Available on DVD since 2007 (via Synapse Films), HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is a great introduction to Pink films as well as a historically important look into the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its influence on art and culture. Although extremely disturbing and grotesque, if you have the stomach for it, I highly recommend you not only see this film but buy a copy to keep in your collection.

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