"By looking at her through the lens," explains cameraman and obsessive voyeur Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto), speaking of a mysterious woman he films from his apartment building, "I believe that I've salvaged her soul." But Masuoka wants to accomplish even greater, and more disturbing, metaphysical feats in Takashi Shimizu's "Marebito." After capturing footage of a gruesome suicide in an underground tunnel, Masuoka seeks to experience the ultimate sensation of fear--he's just as interested in recording "the terror of the victim on my retina and video tape" as in learning exactly what the man in the subway saw that produced such a horrified countenance of death. Masuoka, of course, isn't alone in his pursuit. He follows in the footsteps of "Peeping Tom"'s Carl Boehm, becoming seduced by the image's twin lures of revelation and elusiveness. He also has traits in common with the protagonists from contemporary techno-wary J-horror films like "Ringu" and "Pulse," who find themselves encountering supernatural phenomena while routinely using modern media. Shimizu's film similarly pools from a variety of material, promising a potentially disarming hybrid of psychological thriller and otherworldly spookiness. But "Marebito"'s individual elements never coalesce into a satisfying whole, while its nascent investigation of voyeurism is dropped in favor of a more familiar narrative of madness.
There are intimations of the hidden and demonic at the beginning of "Marebito" (which means "The Stranger from Afar"), but we're not sure quite where we're headed until Masuoka explores the subterranean passages of the city in search of what made the suicidal man so fearful before plunging a knife in his eye. Masuoka notices a pattern in the footage of victims: "They weren't terrified to see whatever they saw. They saw something because they were terrified." While filming his search, he encounters the ghost of the suicide (who acts as a sort of tour guide through the passages), steals a glimpse of the rumored robot-creatures called Deros, and then enters a secret underground city, where he discovers a naked young woman chained to a rock (Tomomi Miyashita), appearing almost human except for especially sharp incisors and an ignorance of language. Masuoka keeps her in his apartment, monitoring her every movement via strategically placed surveillance cameras. Eventually discovering the vampiric qualities of F, as he names the woman, Masuoka becomes unstoppably drawn into her world.
And that's when "Marebito" gets more than a little silly. Once Masuoka resorts to more and more drastic measures to properly satiate F's bizarre appetite, the action unintentionally verges into "Little Shop of Horrors" territory. This leads to moments torn straight from "Peeping Tom," as the slowly unraveling cameraman follows through on his earlier hints of sadism by recording the bloody deaths of a couple of poor women. Soon we realize (possible spoilers ahead) all is clearly not as we've been made to believe in Masuoka's world. But the twist is the same old lazy cop-out that's been used since "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"-- a meticulously crafted world stretching the borders of the imagination (an amazing accomplishment in "Marebito" considering that Shimizu shot the film in only eight days in between installments of the "Grudge" series) is recouped as a straightforward tale portraying a descent into lunacy.
In "Marebito" the retreat into subjective madness comes across as safe. Unlike the soon to be released "Cache"--which conflates film and video to challenge viewer expectations and call into question the entire epistemological project of image-making--"Marebito" clearly privileges the objective shots we see on high-quality digital video the grainy, humming (and often disrupted) video images that function as Masuoka's antihero point of view. A certain comfort is afforded in being able to properly differentiate the off-kilter subjectivity of the protagonist and everything else we see, effectively negating "Marebito"'s creep factor -- instead of implicating the viewer in the same voyeuristic tendencies Masuoka indulges, we're easily let off the hook. Once the building dread of "Marebito"'s first half dissipates, replaced by some rather ho-hum blood-sucking, the scariness has worn off, and the metaphor has become obvious. Instead of Masuoka draining victims through the devouring gaze of his camera, however, "Marebito" has drained itself of its own life and squandered an opportunity to up the stakes in a J-horror movement rarely short on innovation.
Take 2 By Nicolas Rapold
For better or worse, "Marebito" takes horror into the realm of nebbishy video diary. A cameraman, Masuoka (played by "Tetsuo" director-fetishist Shinya Tsukamoto), narrates his search for supreme terror on and off the Tokyo streets, ultimately undertaking a journey into the netherworld (located under the subway). Masuoka's self-dramatizing voice-over, which has the air of an into-the-bush nature documentary, allows director Takashi Shimizu ("Ju-On: The Grudge") to announce his ideas about the nature and purpose of fear and media anxiety. The wandering of our guide, whose own handheld camera footage alternates unpredictably with the film's main footage, succeeds in disorienting all the more, as the film offers a center only to revoke it. This investigative standpoint seems a logical iteration for Japanese horror, and it remains illuminating to see a foreign cinema's genre that has so internalized the cultural and spiritual reality of surveillance, especially in a month that will also see the release of Michael Haneke's "Cache."
But Masuoka's underground exploration leads him to a mannequin-like naked young woman curled up in a little cave, at which point we begin to wonder about the messenger for this medium. He names the pretty, pale, and mute being F, and keeps tabs on his so-called "pet" with a cell-phone baby monitor, as if domesticating mortality. But when he realizes that F drinks blood, and he begins to get calls from a voice-distorted dark emissary, the weight of the film shifts definitively with the personality of our narrator and becomes a geek-Goth fantasy. As in, "Dude, I have this undead succubus at home that I keep alive with human blood. And sometimes I make a little donation of my own. ;-D" The culmination is when he hits upon the idea of bloodletting from his mouth, inciting a voracious vampiric smooch--an unmistakable peanut-butter-and-the-dog moment. [Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer and the assistant editor of Film Comment.]
Take 3 By Michael Koresky
As long as there are young girls with strands of thick black hair stuck to their sweaty foreheads who crawl along the floor with eerily arrhythmic purposefulness or shamble with zombie-like delicacy, J-Horror will never die. "Ringu," "Pulse," "The Grudge," and even moments of Miike's "Audition" play off of this new genre icon. With Takashi Shimizu's "Marebito," perhaps J-Horror reaches its creepy-girl endpoint: Introduced naked and chained to a rock in the urban-legendary subterranean depths beneath Tokyo, the girl, named F, is certainly a more sexed-up version of C.H.U.D., that other famous and similarly risible humanoid underground cave dweller. With her Ginsu-sharp incisors and rouge-stained mouth, F's tastes do not remain ambiguous for very long; it's the motives, not to mention the sanity, of her new caretaker, played with convincing befuddlement and unease by "Tetsuo"'s Shinya Tsukamoto, which become the film's real question mark. "Marebito" impresses more as a cheapie horror flick made on the sly than as a complete vision of subjective madness and terror, and one can't help but feel somewhat shortchanged that its protagonist's unending search for the ultimate face of fear turns up so fruitless.
Yet Shimizu, whose original "Grudge" was a wonderfully sustained aggressive scare machine that refreshingly gave logic the middle finger, has more than a few ideas up his sleeve. Ultimately, "Marebito" says less about surveillance (the film is often shot through with the murky handheld video grime of its freelance news cameraman's peeping tom machine) than about all these young crawling, gnawing ladies caught in the unforgiving frame of their male captors. While it may be no "Audition" (that conceptual revenge piece's second half was one of the most alarming and confounding catharses put to film), "Marebito" keeps its gaze focused and tight, and never bites off more than it can chew.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]