Judge Adam Arseneau once took a naked girl home he found in the subway, but he...you know what? Never mind. Forget we said anything.
"Anybody in fear is beautiful…but if it's fear of death, it's mediocre."
Marebito, the new film by Japanese horror director Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On, The Grudge), is timeless in its teachings: when you find a naked girl chained up in a bizarre series of catacombs buried beneath the streets of Tokyo, it is probably a bad idea to take her home with you.
Facts of the Case
Masuoka (played by prolific director Shinya Tsukamoto, Vital, A Snake of June, Bullet Ballet) is a middle-aged freelance cameraman who lives a mediocre life. He enjoys wandering around the city with his camera at the ready, filming things that strike him as odd. Captivated by the strange and bizarre, like UFOs and the supernatural, he is constantly disappointed by that which he films. To him, it all lacks intensity.
Wandering around with his camera one day, Masuoka ends up filming a gory suicide by a terrified man in the subway who stabs himself with a knife in his eye. Masuoka becomes obsessed with this footage, captivated by the intense fear in the man's gaze. What is he seeing that has him so fearful? Is this the intensity he has been searching for? Beyond all rational explanation, he yearns to experience that level of dread and fear, to really feel something genuinely terrifying. On a mission now, he begins wandering around the scene of the crime, looking for clues.
Out of the corner of his eye, he catches strange creatures moving in his peripheral vision, like ghostly specters of pale humans crawling around on all fours. He follows them into a series of catacombs and tunnels underneath the streets of Tokyo, where he makes a bizarre discovery: a naked woman chained to a rock. Fascinated, he takes the woman back to his apartment.
The strange woman, whom he nicknames "F," cannot walk or speak, and simply sleeps all day, eating and drinking nothing of any kind. She acts more like an animal than a human. Masuoka is captivated by this woman and tries to unlock the secret of her existence, but the more time he spends with the mysterious woman, the more he realizes she may be something not entirely human…
>From a traditional narrative standpoint, Marebito doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but in defense of the film, it really doesn't even bother trying. Like much of Tsukamoto's work, Shimizu completely circumvents issues of plot and storyline and focuses instead of building unsettling atmospheres of creeping dread, at the total expense of all other elements. The end result is a film practically nonsensical in plot, but almost entirely ethereal and otherworldly, less interested in being horrific and scary in a traditional horror film sense, focusing on simply being very, very unsettling.
But despite what the packaging may lead you to believe, this is not a horror film, at least, not in the way we use the label today. To use a literary metaphor, it is the difference between Stephen King, a writer who writes about horrific things, versus Edgar Allen Poe, a writer who writes about the horrors of the heart. Both can be scary, but not in the same way.
Fairly tame by today's gory horror standards, Marebito is dull in terms of frightening content, but nonetheless profoundly disturbing. The film is an exploration of fear itself, examining the subject from a philosophical and often spiritual perspective through metaphor and atmosphere. By exploring the nature of fear itself, Shimizu manages to get under our skin and prod at the root anxieties, kind of like David Cronenberg does or Shinya Tsukamoto does in his own work. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself as I watched Marebito that I wasn't watching a Tsukamoto film, so similar in tone to his own work this film is. Of course, seeing him in every frame probably contributed to this notion of mine.
Tsukamoto is perfectly cast as the distant and bland Masuoka, who descends further and further into misery as the film progresses; his naturally detached demeanor fits the character perfectly. It is hard to say how much influence Tsukamoto himself had over the film—probably none, as he is simply playing an acting role—but there are undeniable similarities between the subjects explored in Marebito and Tsukamoto's recent work, like Vital. Examinations of fear and death are pretty well-established ground for Tsukamoto and given the lack of material available to examine from Shimizu (Ju-On and The Grudge is pretty much all he's done so far), it might be reasonable to say that Tsukamoto's influence, even unconsciously, can be seen throughout.
The film paces itself along quite deliberately, in slow measured paces of oddness and weirdness before tweaking at the end slightly; not so much a plot twist as a double lutz toe combination, flailing around wildly but ending up heading in the same direction. Without spoiling things, a suggestion is made of an alternative interpretation of events transpiring in Marebito that throws the viewer for an unexpected loop. It is a shocking interpretation, but one that makes complete sense for a twist ending, except that the notion is discarded and the film goes along its chosen path. It is something of a fake-out, but it plays extremely well, giving a somber fatalist tone to the film like something out of an H.P Lovecraft novel. There is a tragic inevitably to Masuoka, an overpowering need for self-destruction, whether deliberate or unintentional, that drives his every movement and action. The question is never how to redeem Masuoka, only to watch exactly how badly he destroys himself.
As for the naked chick? She's just plain weird. The less I say about her, the better the film will be for you. Trust me.
As with most of Tartan's Asian Extreme line, Marebito has been given a fantastic technical presentation. Shot in just over a week on digital video, Marebito is a down-and-dirty film production, with minimum sets and expenditures, slightly corny special effects and CGI, and an abundance of shaky hand-held shots. The film has a multi-textual presentation, showing both the actual film and the film that the character himself shoots on video. The in-film footage is deliberately degraded and lo-fi, but the actual film itself is presented quite excellent, with deep black levels, minimum grain and a pallid color tone that fits the film well. Like all digital video, the contrast gets a bit wacky during low-light shots, but Shimizu handles the medium quite well.
The sound is quite splendid, giving us an abundance of choices; a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, a Surround 5.1 track and a DTS track, all Japanese. Both the 5.1 and DTS tracks are phenomenal, with clear dialogue, fantastic low-range bass response, excellent use of ambient and environmental effects, and good action in the rear channels. The stereo presentation is weak in comparison, suffering from volume loss and muffled dialogue, but is still decent enough for casual viewing. Not surprisingly, the DTS has a bit more subtlety about it, but both tracks are virtually identical. The score is an ambient piano affair, haunting in its minimalism.
The offer of extras is fairly adequate, featuring separate interviews with director Takashi Shimizu, actor Shinya Tsukamoto and producer Hiroshi Takahashi. The interviews are about 15 to 20 minutes in length each, excessively polite in that Japanese sort of way, and fairly informative—especially Tsukamoto's observations. He's clearly given his character some thought.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Creepy" would be a good way to describe Marebito, because the film has a nasty tendency to make you feel uneasy. But as stated before, it isn't scary in the way North American audiences have come to regard "scary" in movies. The gore is restrained, the violence is mostly off-screen, and there are no "boo" moments. This is probably the singular point of failure for a film being marketed as a horror film, especially given Shimizu's previous work of Ju-On and his English remake of his own film, The Grudge. Based on the packaging, one expects exactly this kind of horror film.
Those who have refined taste in Asian horror and study under the feet of atmospheric directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Shinya Tsukamoto will have no problems getting on board with the low-key dread in Marebito, but when I close my eyes, I can see legions of innocent people at Blockbuster renting this film, taking it home, and falling asleep. And that is unfortunate.
Macabre in an H.P. Lovecraft sort of way, Marebito doesn't exactly scare, but it definitely sets the skin a crawlin' in a delightfully perverse sort of way. So long as you go into the film expecting nothing more than a good creepy metaphysical drama, Marebito will not disappoint.
Not guilty, provided you do your homework first.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Interview with Director Takashi Shimizu
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