The camera pans across a dank, dark, warehouse-like space where a young couple is being held captive. Filthy, gagged and chained to steel tables, they exchange looks of utter fear and despair. A menacing figure clad in a green surgeon’s uniform enters the room. He walks over to the bound man and says, “Would you die for her?” A beat goes by, and he repeats his challenge. “Would you?” The victim slowly nods, his gaze traveling to the young woman. The surgeon’s eyes gleam as he reaches for a pair of pliers.
What follows is 50 minutes of torture, sadism and brutality that comprises the bulk of director Koji Shiraishi’s horror flick Grotesque. The film debuted to relatively little fanfare in a few Japanese theaters earlier this year, and even though a DVD release followed, it would have likely faded into obscurity were it not for one headline-making decision.
Last month, the British Board of Film Classification—the agency responsible for assessing and rating movies—declined to give the work an “18” rating, a move which effectively banned its sale and distribution within the UK.
“Grotesque features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism,” said BBFC director David Cooke, in a statement. “The chief pleasure on offer seems to be in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake.” The film thus was determined to present a significant “risk of harm” to viewers that was unmitigated by any redeeming artistic merit.
Such a ruling is not only rare, it’s almost unprecedented. Out of the roughly 10,000 movies reviewed by the board annually, the only other film to receive the ban in the last three years was Murder Set Pieces, an American production about a photographer who rapes and kills prostitutes. Shortly after the BBFC’s announcement, the ban of Grotesque made headlines all over the world, and thrust into the spotlight an obscure 36-year-old Japanese director who is at the forefront of his country’s thriving splatter-film movement.