Masters of Horror was an anthology horror series released by Showtime in 2005. Famous and rising horror directors from around the world were invited to create hour-long horror films with no restrictions. The show ran for two seasons on Showtime before being rebooted as Fear Itself for one season on NBC.
If you thought the production drama on Haeckel’s Tale was something big, you aren’t ready for Imprint. I’ve placed the story of what happened to this episode and how it shaped the rest of the series as the second half of the article, under the asterisks.
It is the Victorian Era. Christopher, an American journalist, has returned to Japan to find Komono, his former girlfriend who was sold into prostitution. He promised to bring her back to America and give her a better life. He winds up meeting a young woman who tells him Komono has died by suicide. The woman tries to tell Christopher what happened, but he refuses to believe her. She tells him the story again and again until he decides what he believes the truth is.
Director Takashi Miike has his own way of making horror films. He creates visuals that are extremely graphic and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. His films usually teeter between multiple genres at once, offering a bitterly satirical look at injustices in society played out by over the top archetypes of criminals, antiheroes, and straight up villains. Miike is responsible for some of the most notorious horror/thriller films of all time, including Full Metal Yakuza, Audition, Ichi the Killer, and The Happiness of the Katakuris. He makes the kind of horror films that other horror directors straight up admit terrify them. Series creator Mick Garris at the time called Imprint the most disturbing film he’d ever seen.
Admittedly, Imprint is the goriest episode of the series so far. I’m a hardened horror fan who has seen some of the most notorious gore films of all time and found myself trying to look away from some of what happens onscreen. To be fair, you don’t invite Miike to the party and not expect to see blood, injuries, and ailments treated as the reality of the world. What is the opposite of looking at the bright side of life? Miike’s filmography is the image that accompanies that phrase in the dictionary.
There is a torture scene about halfway through this episode that is the single most violent thing he’s ever put onscreen. Imagine if Miike didn’t have to carefully edit around the violence in the climax of Audition; that’s the level of violence in Imprint, only inflicted upon a far more sympathetic character. It is intentionally cruel by design, though perhaps a bit too indulgent in its expression of gore for the sake of gore to effectively make its point in the overall narrative.
Part of what is so shocking about Imprint for an American audience is the world of Japanese horror. It is a fundamentally different approach to the genre where the characters can never truly win. This was still an emerging market in the West in 2006, called J-Horror and treated as some massive discovery. In reality, Japanese cinema has a long history of telling horror stories, going back to the early days of their studio system.
In broad strokes, Japanese horror films tend to be exaggerated explorations of the human condition in life and death. The characters are over the top by design and are punished for the tiniest crimes they may have committed in their lives. They acknowledge the reality of an afterlife. The characters believe there are spirits doomed to wander the earth and punish anyone who gets in their way. It’s a horror driven by hiding secrets in plain sight through shifts in perspective. A common structure in Japanese cinema is a multiple act structure where the same recent event is told in slightly different ways over and over until the characters in a framing story can agree on a shared truth. In horror, the third version will be the most upsetting.
Imprint is Miike’s love letter to the history of Japanese horror. It has his trademark gore, elements of fantasy, and grungy aesthetic. It also features a deeply satirical angle on a topic that is still taboo in American society. This is a horror story told by and about prostitutes dealing with reproductive rights and bodily autonomy. I don’t want to go into spoilers about the story itself, but know that Miike is judging society for demonizing women, not the women themselves. Screenwriter Daisuke Tengan, adapting Shimako Iwai’s novel, creates a heartbreaking portrait of women forced to the outskirts of society and struggling to survive.
If you do choose to seek the episode out, I strongly encourage you to review the content warning at the bottom of the page. I’ve posted them with every article in this series, but Imprint has that content warning as the subject and substance of its storytelling. Keep yourself safe and be an informed viewer on this episode.
Masters of Horror was pitched and advertised as a horror series where the directors were allowed to film whatever they wanted for their episode with no restrictions. Sure, there was a nip or tuck on occasion to tone down some more sexually explicit gore (Jenifer was edited for its broadcast debut after accidentally being released early for on demand cable/satellite services), but nothing you would notice if you didn’t know to look for it. The directors, the writers, the production teams, and the audience were told that there would be no censorship on these episodes. We were all lied to.
Imprint, the season one finale, did not air with season one. It has never aired on television in the United States. Showtime pulled the episode from broadcast because of sensitive and disturbing content. This excuse did not fly back then and it’s more blatant now. The torture scene pushes the boundaries, but is no worse than what happens in Jenifer, Chocolate, Pick Me Up, or Cigarette Burns. The sexual content is tamer than Chocolate, Jenifer, and Haeckel’s Tale. Something else was going on.
Basically, Takashi Miike’s episode didn’t get to air as planned because his episode dealt with abortion. Future releases in other countries always cut out a specific images related to that content and did some very slight edits to the torture scene. Articles at the time did not speculate on the cause of the ban, but clearly stated that Showtime objected to the portrayal of abortion. The episode was released on DVD (individually and as part of the boxed set), but the trust was broken.
Everything that happened with the rest of the Masters of Horror series stems from this act of censorship. John Carpenter teamed up with his writers from Cigarette Burns to create an over the top gross-out religious gore film about protests at a women’s health clinic; Pro-Life aired as intended with no pushback from Showtime during season two. More episodes than not slipped into taboo territory and the blood flowed faster and harder than ever before.
Viewership also dropped significantly in season two, leading to Showtime giving the ultimatum that they would not personally fund the episodes for a third season. Lionsgate stepped in to fund the rebooted Fear Itself series for NBC. That show didn’t even air its full season on TV, dropping the back half of the season on the NBC website. Network TV has much stricter guidelines for what can go to air and the joy of endless possibilities was sadly missing in the third/reboot season.
We will never know what could have happened if Showtime just allowed Imprint to air as planned. We do know that DVD release received rave reviews from all the major horror publications at the time. It was heralded as the best episode of the series. Whether or not that’s a reflection of the quality of the episode or a critical tool to call out Showtime’s actions is up for debate. The narrative quickly became cemented in the minds of anyone following or involved in the series. The rest of the show, however long it could have lasted, could never be treated the same way again.
content warning: gore, nudity, torture, violence against women, graphic medical content, sexual violence, abortion, incest
Up Next: Season 2 Episode 1 “The Damned Thing,” directed by Tobe Hooper.