The artist consumed by their art is a potent motif, creation and destruction two sides of the same coin, but there’s rarely been a painter attacked by the canvas quite as literally as the sculptors of Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Chi wo Su Nendo) are depleted by their material. The first feature from practical effects specialist Soichi Umezawa is refreshingly unpretentious, unabashed schlock designed to showcase Umezawa’s obvious skill in stop motion and prosthetics but it does perhaps have a point to make in the legacy of embittered artistry and frustrated dreams of those whose art is never recognised.
Middle-aged sculptress Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) flees the duplicitous Tokyo art scene after being betrayed in love by her no good husband who also runs a studio specialising in training students to gain admission into one of Japan’s many exclusive art schools. In fact, Umezawa somewhat strangely opens with a title card revealing the comparatively small percentage of pupils each school accepts in contrast to the large number of applications, neatly setting up the desperation and sense of inadequacy that plagues most of our heroes, Aina included. Retreating to the country she sets up shop in a small shed which is later ravaged by an earthquake, leading to her discovery of a buried tin filled with mysterious clay and other artistic accoutrements left behind, she assumes, by the previous occupant. The trouble starts when errant student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who had been studying at a workshop in Tokyo, returns earlier than expected much to the chagrin of rival Reina (Ena Fujita) and discovers a new pupil has borrowed her clay. Predictably, she decides to use some from the mysterious bag, reviving the evil with water and discovering that somehow this magic substance seems to have upped her game.
Umezama continues to flag the urban rural divide, the students beginning turn against Aina believing that it’s her time in Tokyo which has given Kaori a leg up, something that further wounds Aina in her sense of professional pride as she channels her rage and frustration into moulding her pupils into top candidates as a means of besting her ex. The sculptors knead their frustrated desires into the clay, it feeds on their misery and disappointment. This particular clay, however, is more cursed than most in that it is apparently infected by some kind of toxic disease which plagued the previous owner, symptomatic of the degree to which his art, or more pointedly the refusal of others to recognise it, destroys him.
Aside from that there are a host of interpersonal problems between the students and their teacher. As the only male sculptor points out, they are both classmates and enemies as they are forced to compete against each other for the prize of recognition in the form of admission to an art school. Meanwhile, he is also the subject of a love triangle, refusing a homemade bento from an admirer in favour of one from another, this essential act of emotional betrayal later providing an in route for the murderous clay.
Nevertheless, Umezawa is not so interested in the implications of the interpersonal drama as its potential for bloody action. The clay works its way into the bones of the sculptor, consuming and possessing them in a series of pleasingly retro, Cronenbergian practical effects. “I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention” Reina had snapped back in insisting that this small rural school suits her fine despite having just been given a dressing down for the “conventionality” of her final assignment. The clay, perhaps, attempts to rob them of their individuality, turning them into a mindless plastic mass fuelled only by negative emotions, thirsty for blood and hellbent on destruction. Somewhat incomprehensibly, a failed sculptor turned restaurateur convinces the original owner of the clay that his creepy creations will sell like hot cakes to hospitality establishments in the city, allowing his final humanoid legacy to become a kind of Frankensein’s child carrying all his rage and resentment into the future but attacking, it seems, other marginalised artists rather than the hated Tokyo arts scene which is the real target of his ire. Aina, having for the moment neutralised the clay, considers unleashing it against her ex, bringing the grudge full circle in its own, ironic, way but also consumed by resentment and jealousy. The “toxic waste” of artistic disappointment refuses to die, burrowing its way underground even as the responsible attempt to bury it, lying in wait for the next tortured artist willing to sell their soul for illusory success.
US release trailer (English subtitles)