31 Days Of Hell: Marebito

We continue 31 Days Of Hell with our review of Marebito.

"Damn you Sprint! I keep losing my
signal and this weird face keeps
popping up!"
The ancient Japanese word Marebito, which loosely translates to Unique One or The Stranger from Afar refers to a supernatural being bringing wisdom and happiness.  A mythological idea steeped in traditional Japanese folklore, it’s a ritual or festive occasion of sorts celebrating divine entities bestowing their gifts upon villagers.  Often thought of as a positive regard for the otherworldly, the myth of the stranger with inhuman powers seems to have faded out over the years but is still discussed in textbooks. 

Enter J-horror director Takashi Shimizu, best known for the Ju-On video and film series before he remade the films in English as The Grudge.  The repetitive and episodic tale of an angry spirit who kills nearly all who come into contact with it, this was what catapulted Shimizu to the mainstream and eventual the world over as a top notch perpetrator of horror films.  While those films merits are debatable, typically populated with underwritten clich├ęd stereotypes not all that dissimilar from the Friday the 13th series (not all but most), Ju-On and The Grudge are mostly Shimizu’s bread and butter.  I was never really a fan of Shimizu, finding him to be an overrated stylist when compared to directors like Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.  But then in the heyday of Tartan Asia Extreme DVD releasing, something truly unique, original and genuinely frightening emerged from Mr. Shimizu: a quickie shot on digital video in between the production of Ju-On: The Grudge and the US remake of The Grudge called Marebito.  Made on a shoestring budget with the great director Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) as the central protagonist (or antagonist depending on your point of view), it’s hard to believe the one film that would ultimately turn me around on the Grudge director would be one of his more miniscule efforts.

The story of a videographer who becomes obsessed with fear after filming a man in a subway committing suicide, Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) leaves the safe confines of his apartment adorned with video screens and editing equipment to descend into the subterranean sewers beneath Japan.  Deep within the tunnels, he happens upon a naked woman (Tomomi Miyashita) chained to a wall who doesn’t speak, eat or drink.  Rescuing her by bringing her back to his apartment, he quickly discovers the mute woman thirsts for something a bit more sinister than he expected.  Not that this is a problem for Masuoka, who firmly believes this strange figure will be the key to penetrating the essence of fear and satiate his obsessions.  Via voiceover narration, Masuoka intimates his oddly sociopathic obsessions to the viewer and many scenes take the perspective of his fuzzy video camera.  While most definitely a Takashi Shimizu film, this is clearly Tsukamoto’s show and the film would not have been half as compelling without him.  It’s this aspect which elevates Marebito above Shimizu’s more popular and polished Ju-On series, as those films lacked a main character we could invest in irrespective of good or evil.  Tsukamoto himself is a masterful actor and director and watching Marebito, you have to wonder how much freedom Shimizu gave Tsukamoto to develop the character however he pleased.   

"Things are about to get very nasty."
As aforementioned, the low budget can be trying at times with one sequence of an underground city looking very like a Playstation One full motion video rife with blocky pixilation.  Unlike The Grudge which was all about a buildup to a scream, Marebito is soaked in atmosphere with a subtle ambient score aiding the loose tension throughout the picture.  It’s also startlingly more violent than The Grudge including a moment in which Masuoka dismisses a graphic snuff torture video as fake.  There’s an underlying H.P. Lovecraftian surrealism running through the whole thing with hints dropped about the protagonist’s sanity as to whether or not what we’re seeing is real or merely a hallucination.  Neither Shimizu nor Tsukamoto tell you what to believe, only leaving you with Masuoka’s perspective to inform the viewer.  

It’s one of those horror films evoking unease while simultaneously allowing you to make your own judgments about the events unfolding.  The handheld quickie approach to DV filmmaking is very common in Japan,  with many directors starting out on V-cinema with some managing to be bumped up to theatrical release.  Among the quickies, Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q and Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito are the very best ones, exploiting the limitations of the budget and story size to extraordinary degrees visually, sonically and conceptually.  At last, unlike The Grudge which was all style with no substance, Takashi Shimizu has finally made a film that’s genuinely really scary with a character you can invest in carrying the whole thing.  Does Marebito allow you the viewer to see and feel the fear Masuoka so desperately seeks?  The answer lies deep within the underground lair that is arguably one of the best low budget horror films to come out of Japan in the last decade.


-Andrew Kotwicki

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