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Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Horror genre infused with new blood

Horror movies are, for me, like heavy metal songs. With a few notable exceptions ("Night of the Living Dead," "The Shining"), they run together in my brain. Horror, as practiced by Hollywood, isoften fetishistic -- all that loving attention devoted to glinting blades and shining blood.

Also, even if they aren't closet S/M aficionados, Hollywood horrormeisters often hit the same cinematic power chords to hold the attention of their target audience -- slack-jawed teenagers -- racheting up the volume when that attention starts to wander.

In Japan, horror is also a genre for the young. The filmmakers' approach to their material, however, is often less formulaic and bombastic. Rather than bludgeoning the audience with the same old, they would rather ask "what if" questions that may have their roots in Japanese folklore, but touch contemporary psychic chords in ways fresh, clever and scary.

The plot kernel of the hit "Ring" series -- a spooky video tape that kills whoever watches it within a week -- sounds like an urban legend sprung from a fertile teenage brain. The filmmakers' development of this idea, including the introduction of a vengeful female spirit, may borrow from kwaidan(Japanese ghost story) motifs, but in the second installment, "Rasen," director Joji Iida takes the audience into psychic territory reminiscent of David Lynch at his more bizarre.

Ataru Oikawa's third feature, "Tomie," has a similarly simple-but-brilliant premise: a murder victim who won't stay dead. Police investigating the killing of a high school girl named Tomie Kawakami (Miho Kanno) learn that, in the months since her death, four of her classmates have killed themselves and seven, including a teacher, have gone insane. Even more surprising, they discover that, three years ago another Tomie Kawakami was murdered in Gifu Prefecture. Checking their unsolved murder files, they find other dead Tomie Kawakamis, going back to the beginning of the Meiji Era. What is going on?

A detective (Tomoro Taguchi) on the case tracks a classmate of Tomie's named Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura) to Tokyo. He finds her attending a photography school and receiving treatment from a psychiatrist (Yoriko Doguchi) for insomnia and amnesia. She has lost three months out of her life that coincide with the murder. Did a traffic accident cause the loss -- as she has been led to believe by her mother -- or was it something else? Why does she have sleep-disturbing visions of herself bathed in blood?

Meanwhile, next door to the apartment where Tsukiko lives with lover Yoichi, a sullen hunk who works as a short-order cook in a nearby restaurant, a furtive young man is tenderly raising what seems to be a baby in a cardboard box. The cries of this creature, however, are not quite human. In a matter of weeks, it grows into a young woman with a sugary voice and a devilish temperament, who is forever combing her long, thick hair.

The young man is obsessed with her, though she teases and tortures him. One day she leaves him, writhing on the floor in excruciating pain, to venture into the world. Soon she is working as a waitress at Yoichi's restaurant. Her name? Tomie Kawakami.

Tomie, it turns out, is not content to wait for her next murderer to come along. Others have to die first, including the restaurant manager, who is found with an umbrella rammed through his throat and out the back of his neck, and a big-haired classmate of Tsukiko's who is discovered sitting next to a bathtub, fully clothed, strangled by a shower hose. Tomie's real target, however, is Tsukiko. How, Tomi laments, could her old classmate have forgotten her? Weren't they once friends?

Taken from a popular horror manga series by Junji Ito, this story resembles the "Ring" films in its depiction of woman-as-avenger, all implacable fury behind her uncanny smile. Director and scriptwriter Ataru Oikawa, whose credits include "Octopus Army" and "The Boy Made in Japan," takes the risk of portraying this mythic figure as a pretty (if white-faced and orange-eyed) teenage girl, minus the usual jack-in-box trickery. Imagine Freddy Krueger, in medium close-up, having a long, intimate chat with a trussed-up victim prior to dicing her.

His Tomie, fortunately, is Miho Kanno, who has become the queen of horror since her debut in Shimako Sato's 1995 "Eko Eko Azaraku." Though suitably creepy, her Tomie seldom descends to camp. Instead, she gives Tomie dimensions that the usual horror movie monster could never imagine. Her envy of Tsukiko -- her former friend is entering the country of adulthood where she can never follow -- has a genuine, if goosebump-producing, pathos.

As Tsukiko, Mami Nakamura initially comes off as a gangly, big-eyed victim-in-waiting, but in battling Tomie she projects a stubborn will to live reminiscent of her break-out performance as a sexually abused teenager in Genjiro Arato's "Father F**ker." In the key confrontation scene between the two antagonists, most actresses playing Tsukiko would run standard fear and panic riffs. Nakamura, however, smolders with an anger and disgust that lifts the scene beyond cliche and makes us see why she is more than Tomie's equal.

Finally, the photography by Kazuhiro Suzuki, makeup by Pierre Suda and score by Hiroshi Futami are restrainedly atmospheric, skin-crawlingly effective. Even the program -- a lavishly produced book that contains the script and dozens of color stills -- evidences the same care that went into the entire project.

In Hollywood, horror is a ghetto most directors with big ambitions try to avoid. In Japan, it is becoming a genre that attracts rising talents who are producing films of originality and power, with a mass audience appeal. Stephen King, move over -- the next Japanese invasion is about to begin.

"Tomie" is playing at Shinjuku Joy Cinema 1.

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