June 30, 2011

Marebito (2004)

In the year 1998, a young Japanese film student named Takashi Shimizu was invited by his mentor, filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa to make two short films for an anthology TV film. The resulting short films, "Katasumi" and "4444444444" became part of "Gakkô no kaidan G", and kick-started Shimizu's career as an horror director. Five years later, Shimizu had become one of the most recognized names of the New Wave of Asian horror cinema, thanks to the enormous worldwide success of his horror film series "Ju-on"; which after 4 installments in Japan, was going to be remade in the U.S. by Shimizu himself. However, right before working on the remake, Shimizu teamed up with fellow director Shinya Tsukamoto (of 1989's "Tetsuo" fame) and writer Chiaki Konaka (of the anime "Serial Experiments: Lain"), took some days and a small crew to return to his roots and make a very low-budget horror movie; pretty much in the style he used to make when the "Ju-on" films were straight to video releases. The result was "Marebito", a Konaka screenplay directed by Shimizu and starring Tsukamoto.

In "Marebito" (literally "Stranger") Shinya Tsukamoto is Masuoka, a freelance cameraman almost completely detached from the world and entirely focused on his preference for videotaping and doing camera-work, literally carrying his camera everywhere he goes. Onde day, Masuoka accidentally tapes the suicide of a man named Arei Furoki (Kazuhiro Nakahara) on a subway station. The strange characteristics of this event makes Masuoka to be obsessed with the idea of fear, a fear so powerful that only death can erase. So, in an attempt to understand Furoki's fear, Masuoka descends into the underground tunnels of Tokio, discovering the entrance to a bizarre cavern that seems like a passage to the underworld. Is in this caverns where he finds a naked girl (Tomoi Miyashita) chained to the wall. He unchains her and takes her to his apartment, but soon he discovers that this girl (whom he names "F") is not a normal person, and that her presence in his world will make a darker side of him to come out.

"Marebito" was written by Chiaki Konaka, adapting it from his novel of the same name. Like most of his oeuvre, "Marebito" is a dark psychological story of inner horrors that makes a thinly veiled cometary on the relationship between humans and the technology they produce. Narrated by Masuoka, the story is entirely told from his perspective, allowing a deeper insight on the character's complex psyche and its development through the movie. Full of Lovecraftian elements (Konaka has also written some Cthulhu Mythos stories), "Marebito" follows Masuoka through his discovery of mysteries that should be better kept secret and the terrific consequences of his actions. However, "Marebito" is more than a homage to Lovecraft, as it covers as well themes of videophilia, obsession and isolation, all within the context of Japan's contemporary life. Japan's underground becomes the connection to a world that lives hidden under the urban metropolis. Masuoka's bizarre relationship with F conjugates all these themes in a dark tale of madness where nothing is what it seems.

It seems that this "return to roots" that represented "Marebito" was really beneficial for Takashi Shimizu, as the work he offers in the film is once again a very fresh and original horror movie that proves that there is more in Shimizu's vision than the haunting yet somewhat repetitive "Ju-on" series. Working again on a shoestring budget, Shimizu is able to vividly capture the simple and monotone life of his character, Masuoka. Putting to good use the work of digital cinematography by Tsukasa Tanabe, director Shimizu mimics the world as his main character sees it: a world seen through the camera lens. This truly enhances the claustrophobic atmosphere of "Marebito" as, Masuoka sees and communicates with the world employing through the frame of his camera's eye. While the movie moves at a very slow pace, Shimizu keeps mystery and suspense on the rise as Masuoka's slowly uncovers the secrets of the underground. As in "Ju-on", Shimizu showcases his skill for creating ominous, haunting atmospheres of horror in common settings of everyday life.

While better known as the director of remarkable and influential films such as "Tetsuo" (1989) and "Tokyo Fist" (1995), Shinya Tsukamoto has had a career as an actor in films, not only in his own, but also in those of other directors (most notably in Takashi Miike's "Koroshiya 1"). As the certainly disturbed Masuoka, Tsukamoto offers a very restrained performance, as an everyman kind of character whom is fully dedicated to his passion: videotaping stuff. Dedicated to an obsessive degree, and in this aspect, his characterization as a common man enhance the believability of the role. Certainly, Masuoka could very well be the next door neighbor so, his uncovering of the mysteries that lurk in the shadows is all the more disturbing. Nevertheless, the movie's highlight is Tomomi Miyashita, who gives life to the feral child "F", with a frighteningly believable performance that definitely gives the chills. The rest of the cast is effective, but certainly the movie belongs entirely to Tsukamoto and Miyashita.

"Marebito" is an excellent example of how imagination and a good plot can make a film work even with the most limited resources. The strength of the movie is entirely based on Shimizu's powerful visual style and Konaka's haunting story, which together craft an interesting and nightmarish descent to hell. Of course, the movie suffers the most in the special effects department, with some of the most fantastic visuals looking tragically bad in their making, making sharp contrast with the realism captured by the camera. The use of digital cinematography plays a big part in this realistic tone, which has an almost documentarian visual style, pretty much in tone with Masuoka's vision of life through the lens. While Konaka's story is indeed a tad too convoluted for its own good (not to mention the fact that's filled with many details and obscure references), it is truly captivating because of its nightmarish, surrealist atmosphere; and that disorienting unpredictability that makes it refreshing amongst Asian horror stories.

If the "Ju-on" series of ghost stories helped to make Takashi Shimizu became known worldwide as part of the new generation of creators of Asian horror; "Marebito" is definitely the movie that truly reveals him as a horror author beyond regional or generational classifications. With its surreal atmosphere and its disturbing storyline, "Marebito" offers a new view on Asian horror, different from the classic ghost stories based on Onryō spirits. Certainly, "Marebito" is not a movie destined to be a hit, but it's one that shows Shimizu's stylish brand of cinema. While maybe "The Grudge" is the movie that most people relate to Takashi Shimizu, "Marebito" is ultimately a much better experience and more satisfying movie on the whole.


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