Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Snake. Men.

One of the many things that's kept me busy this year has been producing the DVD special editions of two fantastic late 1960s genre films from Japan's Toei Studios, for Michigan-based company
Synapse Films. For the uninitiated, Toei is probably the greatest cult and genre film studio in the long history of Japanese moviemaking. Toho had the best monster movies, Nikkatsu had an immense pool of talented and charismatic stars, and Daiei produced the best classic swordplay films, but Toei reinvented the yakuza movie at least twice in its history, and it's the place to go for awesome Japanese cult cinema.

So imagine my excitement when I were asked to participate in the release of what's probably the Holy Grail of Japanese cult cinema, director Teruo Ishii's long-elusive Kyofu kikei ningen, or Horrors of Malformed Men. This is a movie that had never been released on home video before. Ever. Anywhere in the world. Even the studio that had produced it more or less withdrew it from circulation after its initial theatrical release in October of 1969. Since then, it's only screened a handful of times at cinematheques or during midnight movie festivals in Japan.

In 2003, a new print was created for an Ishii retro at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, and that's the first time anyone outside of Japan was able to see it with English subtitles. I managed to catch up with the movie several years ago, like most others, via an awful, non-subtitled bootleg that presented the film at a compromised 1.85:1 aspect ratio - probably originating from some late-night TV broadcast. We invited several friends over for the event, but it was like watching the film through a rain-washed windshield. The movie thrives on its jaw-droppingly colorful, transgressive imagery, and little of this was on view while watching the VHS bootleg tape.

Fast-forward a few years, and I got wind that Panik House Entertainment had licensed the film for US release, along with several other Toei genre titles. I knew PH president Matt Kennedy from a couple of meetings with mutual friends, and immediately shot him an email asking him about producing some supplements for the discs. He said plans weren't set yet, but that he'd keep me in mind. Things went quiet for a while, with no further news about Malformed or any other Toei/Panik House titles surfacing. I even began to get wind of some rumors that PH was in some sort of financial trouble.

The next news came late last summer, when an official announcement went up on the PH blog that they'd partnered with none other than Synapse Films to release the titles. This was great news - I'd known Don May, Jr., the creative brains behind Synapse, since the mid-90s, not long after he'd formed the legendary Elite Entertainment, which produced the very first special edition laserdiscs of cult and horror titles. (You can thank their pioneering work for making all those gorgeous special edition DVDs from Blue Underground, Anchor Bay, No Shame, Subversive, et al possible.) Don explained that they'd partnered with PH to complete the deal for seven films from Toei and that they were going to be doing all the work producing the discs and their supplements. And that's where Outcast came into the picture. We struck a deal to produce not only Malformed Men, but all seven of the Toei titles and now have an ongoing relationship with Synapse, among other DVD labels. Oh - and more on those other titles below.

Sadly, Panik House has closed shop in the year since that blog announcement. Like many specialty DVD labels, they ran into financial troubles and haven't released any new titles since last fall. The reasons for this are many - distributor laziness, retail store ignorance and disinterest, customer attention migrating to other media, less shelf space in stores due to more discs on the market, price points continually diving to levels that can't sustain the costs small companies face - it goes on and on. But Synapse is going strong, and while they know these DVDs aren't going to sell millions of copies, they have faith that well-produced editions will find their audience and, more importantly, that the strength of the films themselves will get critics excited enough to champion them to a new audience of fans. In the case of Malformed Men in particular, I think a lot of critics are going to be astonished and very happy to have discovered it. It's the kind of movie that should hold a more important place in the pantheon of important cinema, and I'm grateful to have been allowed to be a part of bringing it to a wider audience.

But what about those other titles I mentioned?

Well...along with Malformed Men, Nobuo Nakagawa's story of ghostly, serpentine revenge Kaidan hebi-onna (literally Ghost Story of the Snake Woman, but we decided to go with the more tongue-friendly Snake Woman's Curse for the DVD release) streets on August 28th. Reviews should be popping up online for this pair any day now.

Snake Woman is an interesting little film, kind of an anachronism coming in 1968, in that it's a very traditional kaidan story from the director most closely associated with Japanese ghost films. It's also not my first encounter with Nakagawa, having produced the DVD of Nakagawa's incredible Jigoku for The Criterion Collection last year.

I'm currently working on the next three titles to come out, a trio of female swordplay films produced by Toei in the late 60s, collectively called the Yoen dokufu-den series. In that first PH announcement, Matt called them the Sexy Deadly Legend films, but I bet that was just Toei's original export title for the films. It's literally a correct translation, but not very elegant and not even all that grammatical in English. As an alternative, we came up with a series title that captures both the Japanese meaning and something a little more understandable in English: Legends of the Poisonous Seductress. Although the films star the same lead actress (the beautiful Junko Miyazono), their stories are totally distinct and unrelated, so a series title that gave the impression that viewers will see a new "legend" in each film was something we wanted to capture.

And here's some news you're reading here first: the trio of Poisonous Seductress films will be coming out on November 13th of this year. Here's a peek at the cover of the first one, Female Demon Ohyaku. It was designed to fit in with Panik House's previous "Pinky Violence" line of DVDs, and, like Malformed Men and Snake Woman, will feature a reversible cover with the original Japanese poster on the reverse side. Extras on these three will be lighter than on the horror films, unfortunately - just trailers, commentaries on two of them from frequent Japanese film commentator Chris D., and some other minor goodies. But the movies speak for themselves - they're all really entertaining, fast-moving swordplay dramas, and the first one in particular is a real discovery. It's the only one of the three that's black-and-white, and mercifully so, since it's filled with a jaw-dropping catalog of cruelty that shocked me when I first watched it, particularly since I expected it to be the least of the trio, coming from a director who's better-known as an assistant to Nobuo Nakagawa than a filmmaker in his own right. Wait until you see the guillotine scene - or rather, scenes!

After the three Legends films, Synapse will take a break from classic Japanese cinema until next spring, when the final (so far!) Toei titles will come out, but it's a pair worth waiting for: Meiko Kaji's debut films for Toei Studios following her departure from the Stray Cat Rock series at Nikkatsu: the Wandering Ginza Butterfly films (Gincho wataridori and Gincho nagaremono). But more on those some other day...

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Blogger Nicholas Rucka said...

Interesting write-up. The Horrors of the Malformed Men is a mind-bender! I'm going to write something up when I have the time to give it a proper assessment.

Thanks for the scoop Marc! I'm going to post a link to this on my blog.


12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe the hard time i'm having ensuring review copies (final product press, representative of, at least) for 'malformed men' and 'snake woman's curse'... what does a man have to do?!?!?! most important japanese film releases in america this year, as far as i am concerned, and yet reviews do seem to be popping up elsewhere on sites not quite so frequent in their coverage of this stuff.... harumph!

3:36 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Log -

What exactly have you been doing to request the review copies? We haven't gotten an email at the Synapse Publicity account requesting one, and that's how it's done. Just catch your breath and shoot a note to and they'll help you out.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd actually tried a couple times through the Synapse site contact form, but never received any response. I'll try the yahoo address.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Info, to bad to hear that
panik house had so much trouble,
i'd loved to have the pinky violence
box but here in europe it's so damn
hard to get and when you do find
a store that can get it for you
they told me it would cost me about
it's way to much for movies i never
even saw besides the trailer.

wonderful news, that you will keep
up the good work wish you all the

by the way is the pinky violence collection gonna somehow surface on a blu or hd disc???

if yes i gonna try to get me a copy
of that even if i have to cross the ocean!!

9:26 AM  

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