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Marebito   B

Tartan Films / Palisades Pictures

Year Released: 2004 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Writer: Chiaki Konaka
Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara, Miho Ninagawa, Shun Sugata.

Review by Jim Harper

Having directed five installments of his lucrative Ju-On/The Grudge franchise (with another two on the way), critics and fans alike have begun to wonder whether Takashi Shimizu would be able to demonstrate the same kind of talent outside those comfortable confines. His only other non-Ju-On film, 2001's Tomie: Replay, was one of the better installments of the series, but did not match the quality of his other works. It's hardly surprising then that there has been a good deal of interest in Marebito, a low-budget film shot in just over a week while Shimizu was waiting to begin work on his big-budget U.S. debut, The Grudge (2004).

After filming the public suicide of a middle-aged man, freelance cameraman Masuoka (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, the acclaimed director of A Snake of June and the Tetsuo films) becomes obsessed with capturing images of overwhelming terror. This provokes a series of disturbing visions that lead Masuoka deep into the tunnels that run beneath Tokyo. Eventually he comes upon the ruins of an ancient city, deserted except for a single semi-conscious girl, who seems to be human, in appearance at least. After taking her back to his apartment, Masuoka begins to study and care for his new companion (whom he names simply F), despite the discovery that she will die unless fed fresh blood, preferably human.

It's safe to say that Marebito is a substantial departure from Shimizu's other work, not to mention the work of many of his contemporaries. This is partly due to Chiaki Konaka's eclectic script, which mixes elements of hollow-Earth theory and H.P. Lovecraft, throwing in references to Madame Blavatsky, Werner Herzog, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker along the way. Konaka deliberately avoids explanations and shifts course a few times, leaving the viewer unsure whether what they're seeing is reality or delusion. Shimizu builds upon this foundation by constructing a deeply claustrophobic atmosphere. The use of confined spaces, handheld cameras, and the absence of long shots all contribute to the feeling of confinement and draw the viewer in, something that can make you noticeably uncomfortable during the film's more effective moments. Perhaps wisely, he avoids many of the established motifs of Japanese horror, although pale ghostly figures hovering on the edge of vision still make an appearance. The finished article resembles a nightmare more than a horror film, with logic and resolution taking a back seat to atmosphere and imagination.

Unfortunately, after a first half filled with interesting developments, the story becomes more predictable and Marebito begins to lose pace. Despite her unusual background, F is not a particularly complicated character, and Masuoka remains oddly expressionless throughout much of the film. A few well-placed moments of violence and gore help to relieve the ennui, although they can't hide the fact that the film has settled into something of a rut. The first 45 minutes are strong enough to keep you watching until the end, but it's perhaps a good thing that it only lasts for 92 minutes.

Flaws aside, Marebito is a strikingly original work that not only confirms Shimizu's talent but also suggests that those commentators who claim there is little creativity left in the Japanese horror genre may have spoken too soon. Marebito is unlikely to secure any sizeable commercial returns -- it's far too offbeat and bizarre to attract the same kind of mass audience as the Ju-On movies -- but it's an impressive feather in Shimizu's cap nonetheless.

Review published 12.08.2005.

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