Sometimes Judge Geoffrey Miller considers brutally murdering his neighbors, especially when they have the nerve to play their stereo loud right after putting in a noise complaint about him.
"That was another me who lives in my body. He's been waiting inside me for ten years…to take revenge on Akai."—Juzo
The Neighbor No. Thirteen is the latest entry in the current trend of live-action adaptations of ultraviolent Japanese manga series. Based on a creation by Santa Inoue, it's a dark and disturbing tale of a young man whose personality splits in two. First-time director Yasuo Inoue (no relation to Santa) showcases his nascent talent, but the film doesn't quite come together as a satisfying experience.
Facts of the Case
When he was a child in elementary school, Juzo Murasaki (Shun Oguri) was endlessly tortured by a group of his classmates, led by Toru Akai (Hirofumi Arai). It's not just any normal teasing; they would force him to eat cockroaches and drop acid on his face. Ten years later, Juzo, now an adult, has just moved into a new apartment. It just so happens that Akai has moved into the apartment directly above, along with his wife Nozomi (Yumi Yoshimura, the Yumi half of J-popsters Puffy AmiYumi) and young son, but neither yet knows it. When Juzo takes a construction job, he finds his life again intersecting with Akai, who becomes his new boss. The cycle of bullying starts all over again, but this time there's a twist. A new persona emerges from Juzo, called the Neighbor Number 13 (Shido Nakamura), and he's far removed from Juzo's normal wimpy pushover personality; in fact, he's an unhinged, violent monster. While the Neighbor Number 13 just helps Juzo stand up for himself at first, he's soon committing far more sinister acts…and threatening to take over Juzo's body.
Breaking down The Neighbor No. Thirteen's premise, it sounds like generic, boilerplate horror—the sort of flick that can be good cheesy fun. After all, the only thing more clichéd than the old Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde template is yet another story of a bullied kid taking revenge on his tormentor. Any movie that has both surely can't take itself seriously, right? Guess again. For better or worse, you won't find the typical cheap thrills of B-grade horror here.
The Neighbor No. Thirteen is slow, deliberate, and arty. It's definitely a horror film, albeit one that's laced with heavy psychological overtones, and is closer to drama than action. Famed Japanese director Takashi Miike (who makes a brief cameo) is certainly an influence. Miike's brand of transgressive violence is here, but the more restrained Miike of Audition is a closer analogue. It's the quiet moments that provide the most tension in this movie.
Perpetually dressed in an orange down vest (even in flashback childhood scenes) that makes him look like a Coast Guard reject, Juzo has the sort of comical appearance that begs to be the brunt of jokes. He's weak and ineffectual, even taking the cruelest punishments with only token resistance. In contrast, Juzo's evil eponymous alter ego is a menace on par with Jason or Freddy. Shido Nakamura, with scraggly facial hair and disfiguring scars, plays the Neighbor Number 13 to perfection. As he goes in for a kill, he stomps around and lets out a terrifying, high-pitched laugh; he's an overgrown child who takes sadistic joy in violence the same way Juzo's bullies did.
Right from the surreal opening scene, set in a desolate shack that represents Juzo's troubled mind, director Yasuo Inoue creates a distinctive style that's unusually well-developed for a newcomer to feature films. (He has previous experience in music videos and commercials.) Inoue favors lingering, nearly motionless, wide shots. His compositions are meticulous, framed as though they were still pictures. Other than a hyper animated sequence (which he technically didn't direct), he maintains a meditative pace with the patience of a monk. Although I can't deny his technical prowess, his style simply isn't a good fit with The Neighbor No. Thirteen; a movie built on such a thin plot needs a director to infuse it with energetic pizzazz to keep audiences from stopping to think about how swallow it is.
The first half of the movie is by far the strongest, giving the impression that it's building steam towards a riveting climax, but it's betrayed by a weak twist that steals much of its fire. Suddenly, we're thrown into a situation where Akai is the one playing the sympathetic role. This wouldn't be too hard to swallow, except that right up until that moment, Akai is still an unrepentant prick. Even some sort of background on what turned him into such a jerk would have made him slightly more likable.
A disappointing, unsatisfying finale seals the deal: The Neighbor No. Thirteen fizzles out, leaving me to wonder what exactly went wrong. Taken from as a horror or thriller movie, it lacks the impact and punch necessary to excite viewers; its action scenes are brief and sporadic. As a drama, its characters are too weak and poorly drawn to carry the story. The result is an odd, awkward beast that never quite finds its footing.
Media Blasters has done a fine job bringing yet another obscure film to the west. While there aren't any extras besides an image gallery and a handful of trailers and commercials, the picture and sound have been given top treatment. My only complaint is that the horrible English dub track (probably recorded only to get the movie onto the late-night schedules of some pay cable channels) is the default one. Switch over to the original Japanese track, or suffer a travesty straight from the Godzilla school of bad dubbing.
I have no doubt that Yasuo Inoue has a bright future as a film director. He displays plenty of promise here; he just needs to find the right vehicle for it. As for The Neighbor No. Thirteen, it's nothing more than a footnote, a curious debut that hopefully portends greater things. Fans of Japanese cinema will surely have their interest piqued by some of the film's good ideas (and the implicit Takashi Miike stamp of approval that can be derived from his cameo), but ultimately, few will be fulfilled by it.
The Neighbor No. Thirteen is to be put under house arrest, only allowed visitations from J-Horror fans who have already seen other, superior examples of the genre.
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