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Friday, Feb. 24, 2006
Ratcheting up the fear factor
The task of horror movies is simple -- to scare you. Which, in an age of so much real-life horror, just a click away, has become harder, if not impossible. Hollywood found an answer to this dilemma in J-Horror, which got its scares from, not psychotics with edged weapons, but more familiar sources -- scratchy video tapes, moldy closets, water puddling ominously on the floor.
In other words, it tapped into everyday paranoia in ways that, compared with formulaic Hollywood product, looked fresh, inventive -- and scary. Enter the remakers and the first Japanese director to hit $100 million at the U.S. box office -- Takashi "The Grudge" Shimizu.
But it's been nearly a decade since the release of the first internationally influential J-Horror films, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Cure" and Hideo Nakata's "Ring," and the genre's tricks have become as familiar as a slasher pic.
Local audiences have responded with a collective yawn and J-Horror films and their remakes have faded at the box office as a result. Shimizu's latest -- "Rinne (Reincarnation)" -- grossed an anemic 430 million yen, despite a strong PR push.
Two new horror releases -- Shinya Tsukamoto's "Haze" and Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "Siren (Forbidden Siren)" -- may not be the solution to the genre's problems, but they do point to new directions. Shot with a DV camera and released theatrically in a 49-minute version, "Haze" (which will show at Shibuya's Rise X) resembles Tsukamoto's previous investigations into extremes of pain, rage and general madness, but it is also an experiment in minimalist technique and narrative. It's one tiny camera filming one desperate man with only one objective: escape.
The story is a claustrophobe's nightmare. The anonymous hero (Tsukamoto) wakes to find himself at the bottom of a long, narrow concrete shaft, bleeding from a stomach wound. How did he get there? He -- and we -- have no idea. All he knows is he has to find a way out -- or die. Slowly and painfully, he begins to climb, but runs into one panic-inducing cul-de-sac after another.
He slips into pale dreams of impending death, but a disturbing vision -- or is it the fragment of a memory? -- stirs him to one last frantic effort. He smells the rot of corpses and then sees . . . but maybe I shouldn't go there.
As a mild claustrophobe myself, I would rather die the death of a thousand cuts than be crammed into an MRI machine -- I got the horror of "Haze" immediately, as well as the difficulty of sustaining that horror on the screen. In filming his trapped hero up close Tsukamoto had to use outside light and open one side of his concrete hellhole, giving him -- and us -- metaphorical breathing space.
Quentin Tarantino was more diabolically clever in "Kill Bill Vol. 2," lighting the entombed Uma Thurman with her own flashlight and seeming to film from inside her coffin. That said, Tsukamoto gets the flesh creeping on what was probably one-hundredth of Tarantino's budget.
* * *
Far more elaborate in concept and execution is Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "Siren," which is based on a popular Sony game. The story, however, is less a rehash of the game than a mix of various genre tropes, served up with a meticulous attention to detail and welcome dashes of originality.
The back story: In 1976, on the southern island of Yamijima, the sea turns red, a siren begins wailing -- and all but one of the inhabitants disappear. The sole survivor (Hiroshi Abe) is discovered with his mind gone and his eyes bulging with terror.
Twenty-nine years later, Shinichi (Reo Morimoto), a mild-mannered freelance writer, comes to live on the island with his grown daughter, Yuki (Yui Ichikawa), and his young son, Hideo (Jun Nishiyama). Shinichi hopes that the change of scenery will do his sickly son good, but it is the ever-anxious Yuki who takes care of him.
They are greeted on their arrival by the kindly Dr. Mi-namida (Naoki Tanaka), but the other inhabitants stare at them blankly, sullenly. Their Japanese-style house, deep in the forest, has not been inhabited in years -- and looks it. A neighbor lady (Naomi Nishida) comes calling and offers Yuki advice with a frazzled urgency: Don't walk alone at night, don't go to the steel tower on the hill -- and if the siren on the tower sounds, don't go outside.
What, Yuki wonders, does she mean? As the day passes, Yuki learns that her new home has other . . . peculiarities, including a sinister folk religion, strange graffiti (the words "dog" and "live" in Roman letters feature prominently), an eerie folk song (with lyrics about dogs turning into gods and the living turning evil).
Meanwhile, Hideo keeps wandering off -- it's enough to drive anyone mad. Then one day the siren starts wailing . . . and Yuki finds out what all the warnings really mean.
The story of outsiders arriving on a remote island expecting paradise and finding hell is not new -- Taku Shingo's "Hisai (Secret Ceremony)" from 1998 and Shohei Imamura's "Kamigami no Fukai Yokubo (The Profound Desire of the Gods)" from 1968 told similar ones. Those films, however, pretended to be art, while "Siren" only wants to lose its audience in what might be called the fog of horror. Nothing is quite what it seems in this movie -- which by now is a standard psycho-horror strategy -- but "Siren" goes farther than most films in creating a world of menacing ambiguity, in which you're never quite sure, until the revelatory third act, what is what.
Tsutsumi, whose previous films include the similarly twisty "Chinese Dinner," "2LDK" and "Trick," is not a horror specialist, but he is a master cinematic gamester, who enjoys larding his films with bits of information -- or in the case of "Siren," clues -- that even the alert may not decode until the second or third viewing.
But what really sets "Siren" apart from the general genre run is its soundtrack, especially the siren that, in the course of the film becomes another character, shrieking, wailing, burrowing its way into your brain. A word of advice to the easily rattled: Bring earplugs.