What’s a filmmaker to do when his inventions quickly become clichés? The cycle of Japanese horror films that began with Hideo Nakata’s “Ring” series didn’t reach mainstream America in their original forms, but they formed the basis for Hollywood remakes and appropriations, while eventually finding a cult audience on DVD. Generally female-friendly and light on violence, J-horror became symbolized by one image—a ghostly young girl dressed in white, dangling long tresses of black hair. This vision had such iconic power that it quickly appeared in films across Asia—like Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s “A Tale of Two Sisters”—and even in the U.S. “Ring” combined an old-fashioned ghost story with modern anxiety about technology, but its imitators were unable to come up with an equally potent synthesis.
“The Blair Witch Project” might be the last American horror film to serve as a genuine counterpart; since then, we’ve had to suffer through buckets-of-blood crap like James Wan’s inexplicably popular “Saw.”
The originators of J-horror have gone in several directions. Nakata came to Hollywood, making the American version of “The Ring Two” himself. Following “Pulse,” recently released in the U.S., Kiyoshi Kurosawa made “Bright Future,” which was not a genre film, and “Doppelganger,” which turned from horror into comedy. Takashi Shimizu started working after Kurosawa, who was one of his teachers, and Nakata. Before making “Marebito,” he had helmed five different variations on the haunted house premise of “Ju-on”—two made for the Japanese straight-to-video market, two for the big screen, and “The Grudge,” an American-funded, English-language remake starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Two more incarnations, “Ju-on 3” and “The Grudge 2,” are on the way, but in between all this activity, Shimizu made a film on digital video in eight days.
Both intriguing and goofy, “Marebito” suggests a potentially promising new direction for J-horror. Masuoka (director Shinya Tsukamoto) is a cameraman obsessed by terror. Spying on his neighbors, he speculates about their undoubtedly anxiety-filled lives. His apartment is filled with video monitors and equipment. He usually walks around with a camera in hand. He’s particularly fascinated by one image—a man committing suicide by stabbing himself in the eye on the subway. Watching it again and again, he tries to understand the rationale behind this act. Masuoka goes down to the subway tunnels, searching for the site of this suicide. He discovers an underworld of caverns where homeless people and ghosts dwell. Amidst them, he finds a naked girl (Tonomi Miyashita) chained to a rock. Taking her home, he names her F and tries to take care of her, but she neither eats nor drinks and seems likely to waste away.
“Ju-on” was effectively scary but relatively free of subtext. “Marebito” is loaded with thematic ballast—the society of the spectacle, the evanescent nature of the Japanese family, paternal sacrifice. In its first ten minutes, it looks like a horror film made by the Japan-obsessed French documentarian Chris Marker. Even the unmediated images in “Marebito” look slightly off-kilter, although shots of Masuoka are clearer than the ones taken by his ever-present camera. Shimizu demonstrates that it’s possible to get a wide range of textures, some of them quite appealing, out of digital video.
“Ju-on” relied heavily on off screen space and ominous sounds for scares, but “Marebito” is more oriented towards Lovecraftian conceptual mythology—he’s done his research in paranormal lore—as well as being much bloodier. Despite a tiny budget, Shimizu creates an uncanny sense of underworld fantasy, proving that digital video doesn’t have to look cheap and ugly.
“Marebito” translates as “the stranger from afar.” It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the title refers to F, but Masuoka seems like a guest in his own life. Horror fans may be quicker than most to identify with his quest for dread, but the film leaves his psychology an enigma. Tsukamoto’s grimy 1988 “Tetsuo: Iron Man,” which made his international reputation, came across like a cinematic equivalent to the abrasive industrial rock of Ministry and Big Black, but the director himself has aged into a dazed-looking nebbish. Masuoka seems utterly desensitized; while he’s analyzes his problems and obsessions to death in voice-over, he’s unable to find any constructive solutions.
Lately, Japanese cinema has seemed like an ongoing, deeply ambivalent—if not totally pessimistic—treatise on technology and alienation. More than any other nation’s, it seems obsessed with the ramifications of media overload. Shimizu often falters, as he offers up silly images of monsters, and rational explanations are thrown out and then taken back. Even so, “Marebito” finds a strange hope in hell, contrasting the world of images and the undeniable reality of blood, desperately trying to find a way to connect the two. F may not have much personality to speak of—Masuoka doubts that she’s even human—but she brings J-horror out of the realm of cutely ominous waifs and back to a defiant focus on the body and its terrors.