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Where EAST meets the Northwest

WHAT FEAR LOOKS LIKE. Takeshi Shimizu’s horror film Marebito, the English translation of which means both "stranger from afar" and "strange person or being," is available on DVD. (Photos courtesy of Tartan Asia Extreme)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #37 (September 12, 2006), page 16.

A man who seeks madness — and finds it

Marebito

Directed by Takeshi Shimizu
Produced by Hiroshi Takahashi
Distributed by Tartan Asia Extreme, 2004
DVD, 92 minutes, $24.99

By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter

Japanese horror films often walk the line between real and psychological, presenting fantasy as reality or ghosts as evidently "real" people. These elements are part of director Takeshi Shimizu’s Marebito, along with meta-filmic questions about the nature of fear itself, and what effects horrific acts have on victims, perpetrators, and observers. Shot in only eight days, between Shimizu’s productions for Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its American remake The Grudge (2004), Marebito sometimes shows the haste with which it was made. The result, however, is quite different from typical horror fare, delivering the odd and disturbing story of one man’s quest for terror and madness.

Haunted by the suicide of a man whose eyes reveal utter and abject terror, independent cameraman Takuyoshi Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) sets out to find what frightened the man so much, and to experience a similar horror himself. Following hints from his video of the incident, Masuoka descends into the city’s subway system and finds a vast subterranean world beneath Tokyo’s streets. There, guided partway by the suicide victim himself, Masuoka finds the ruins of a long-lost civilization and a savage, naked woman (Tomomi Miyashita) chained in a small alcove. This lost world and its inhabitants are but one of the meanings suggested by the English translation of marebito, which means both "stranger from afar" and "strange person or being."

Masuoka brings the woman back to his apartment, only to discover that she is far stranger and more savage than he has ever imagined. While he attempts to continue his normal life, Masuoka finds himself followed by a strange man and a deranged woman who insist he is holding their daughter captive. As he unravels more about the savage woman and the world she inhabits, Masuoka must grapple with his sanity as well as his own internal demons, leading to a disturbing, open-ended, and ultimately satisfying conclusion. In the end, we are left to wonder whether the subterranean inhabitants are the strangers, or the word refers to Masuoka himself.

Shot partially on video from Masuoka’s perspective, Marebito has a rawness and immediacy to it that suits its subject well. This first-person point of view, along with frequent voice-overs from Masuoka, gives Marebito the feel of quasi-documentary films such as The Blair Witch Project. The contrast between scenes on film and those shot on video also mimics Masuoka’s feeling of unreality, hinting at his own unstable mental condition. Some objects appear on video but not in the "real" world, and vice versa — static "snow" patterns occur frequently, both on monitors and between scenes, blurring the lines between perception and reality. Masuoka often turns the camera on himself, and we see the utter dispassion he feels, even amid bloody horrors and unimaginable situations.

The rapid production schedule, and the similarly accelerated creation process, is most often evident in the plot, which has more dead-ends, holes, and red herrings than is typical from even an offbeat film such as Marebito. Masuoka begins the film with videotaped footage of a mysterious woman whose identity is not revealed, nor returned to. Also, the strange subterranean beasts he encounters at several points in the film seem little more than window-dressing, as they never affect the action or plot.

Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the landscape and action exist on a physical and psychological level, and it can be difficult to determine on which level — if not both — the film is taking place. Characters and events are meant to have a surreal quality, but viewers looking for a straightforward presentation of classic (or even classically Asian) horror will not find it here. Regardless, the psychological horror has a depth and texture that will draw the viewer in, and linger on in the mind, for those willing to suspend their sense of plot logic.

The horror exists in spite of the minimal special effects, consisting of some CGI scenery and loads of fake blood, all of it either too red or too translucent to seem realistic. The atmosphere, however, is bolstered by the strong acting of Tsukamoto and Miyashita — whose performance is almost entirely wordless — and the unsettling atmosphere created by Shimizu. As much a rumination on the essence of horror as a typical horror film, Marebito will engage viewers who like to think while they watch, and undoubtedly turn off those looking for a simple slasher flick with a stale, standard plotline.

Marebito is now available on DVD. To learn more about Tartan’s Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.