Wednesday, September 12, 2007


A few years back, when Asian horror was still a relatively new fixation of mine, and still relatively new in the eyes of most westerners, I caught my first glimpse of filmmaker Takashi Shimizu in the low budget horror film Ju-On. It was on a slightly grainy 'grey-market' VCD(I have appropriated the term grey-market from the All Movie Guide entry to this film, because it's a perfect way of describing those unofficial imports that pop up where international copyright laws get hazy), and it scared the bejesus out of me. Like no film had since I was a child, really, and certainly more so than Ringu. A slightly lackluster sequel followed, but it still had a few moments that elevated it to likable, and of course that utterly horrible remake(helmed by Shimizu himself, in all fairness). None of those things dampened my enjoyment of the original, but then came the official release. I bought the DVD as soon as it came out, and told all of my friends to buy it, because it was the scariest film I'd seen in ages. Watching the movie at home, I was completely unmoved, and secretly hoped none of my friends had followed my advice, because the film was decidedly not scary. What had happened was that the film was too clean, too sterile, and what had been terrifying in grainy low-definition became silly and cheap when displayed in a pristine digital format. Possibly, Shimizu-san was aware of this problem, and so filmed his followup to the Ju-On films, Marebito, in a mixture of slightly grainy digital, interspersed with ultra-grainy practical sources, such as a character's handheld video camera, or security-cam footage. And, I must admit, the tactic worked. For the first half of this film I was absolutely terrified, pushing back in my seat and tensing up for a huge scare that always seemed just around the corner.

Cult Japanese director Shinya Tsukamota(director of the infamous Tetsuo films) plays Masuoka, a freelance cameraman who takes whatever odd jobs he can get(documentary, TV news) and spends his free time watching and rewatching his footage. His obsession with filmed media extends to his personal life, and he has camera's set up around his apartment, seemingly not for security purposes. He also takes his camera with him everywhere, sometimes concealing it in a bag and filming his own public interactions, or walking everywhere with the camera in front of him, experiencing the world almost entirely through a viewfinder. Lately, Masuoka has been obsessed with a suicide he witnessed, and filmed, in a subway station. Constantly rewatching the footage, he yearns to see what the suicidal man saw, revisiting the scene of the incident, and embarking on a journey to what may or may not be the Underworld. He remarks at one point that "They didn't see something that terrified them. They saw something because they were terrified." It's statements like that that make it hard to imagine the film isn't speaking directly to(and about) us, the audience. Masuoka searches for terror with increasing veracity, desiring to learn what true terror can teach him, and ruminating on the unending search for new and more horrifying things. And in the end, isn't that exactly what brings us to movies like this?

As Masuoka ventures further and further beneath the streets of Tokyo, he meets the prerequisite oddballs and symbolically wraithlike strangers. Eventually the journey goes deeper than would logically be thought possible, until he finds himself in vast underground caverns reminiscent of a Jules Verne novel, with ruins straight out of Lovecraft. In fact, a lot of this movie seems like a fever dream inspired by turn of the(last) century fiction and occult beliefs, with references to the Dero's(short for Detrimental Robots, featured in Richard Shaver's sci-fi stories), Agartha and the Hollow Earth ideas popular in Lovecraft fiction, and Victorian-era occultist writer HP Blavatsky, all filtered through a modern day Japanese sense of terror and fear of technology. Eventually, in these vast underground caverns, full of natural light, Masuoka discovers a nude girl chained to the rock. She's unresponsive, and, it should be noted, attractive. It may be that last part that most informs Masuoka's decision to bring her back to his apartment. Although the relationship never becomes sexual, and he seems to be honestly interested in helping her recover from what he imagines was a harrowing ordeal.

After this point in the film, the focus on horror shifts from actual scares to terror at the depths that human depravity can reach. The film's frights are more akin to Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, as Masuoka continually films the deeds he is driven to by the madness surrounding him, watching his adventures later with the same emotionless stare he wore when perpetrating the acts. There are a lot of ideas here, and many ways to interpret them. Masuoka's spiralling descent into madness becomes more frenzied, and the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur for both him, and the audience. This isn't a new technique in horror, but it's more clever in it's execution in Marebito. The implication is that when every aspect of your life can be filmed, then edited and re-edited, how do you keep track of what really happened? Events begin to take on different shades, they happen in a slightly different order, and people become characters that shift and change throughout the film. In this case the film is Masuoka's life, and the meta-message is that his madness spreads and draws the people around him into it. In this way it fits perfectly into the canon of Asian horror films dealing with technological anxieties. The camera distorts what it films, and reflects that back on society until it too becomes distorted. A sinister feedback loop that mirrors that politician's argument about how violence in media will bring about the end of the world.

As great as this film is, the end is a bit of a letdown. It fits, perfectly in fact, with the message of the film, but it still gets wrapped up in an unhealthy layer of Asian Horror Bullshit(henceforth to be known as AHB). AHB, basically is the ill-defined, pseudo-philosophical meandering that enters into almost every Asian horror film. Stuff that the filmmakers probably think is going to blow your mind, but is basically boring and nonsensical. It's not as prevalent here as in others, but the film still collapses under the weight of arty, philosophical time and reality warps. It's all consistent, as I said, but it seems a little... bare. The ending came and felt as if it didn't receive the same care the rest of the film did.

When the movie ended, I had no idea how much time had passed. The films running time is officially 92 minutes, but the reality warping effects of the camera spread outwards from the DVD, trapping you in a time-loop. All I knew at the end of the film was that there was daylight outside when I started, and it was pitch-black as the end credits rolled(nightfall comes quickly during Alaskan falls and winters). Had it been 45 minutes? Three hours? Though I didn't outright love the film, it cast a spell on me, and sucked me in to a degree most movies can't manage. If your looking for another frightfest along the lines of Ju-On, you may not really dig this film. But if your looking for something different in the increasingly stale J-Horror subgenre, this film is right up your alley.

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