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Friday, July 7, 2006

Some not so rocky horror

Death Note

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Shunsuke Kaneko
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Black Night

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Various
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Japanese, Thai, Cantonese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Horror, as a genre, drifts naturally toward cheese and camp. The scares that raised goose pimples in the first series installment draw grins and groans in the fourth -- or 14th.

News photo
The devilish Ryuku, voiced by Shido Nakamura, and Tatsuya Fujiwara in "Death Note" (c) 2006 "DEATH NOTE" FILM PARTNERS

J-Horror resisted this drift by opting for the mundanely familiar and psychologically plausible over Halloween party flash and foolishness. The settings were moldy suburban houses or apartment buildings, not haunted mansions, and the scares came from black shapes glimpsed from the corner of the eye, not grinning monsters with edged weapons jumping from behind a door.

By this standard, Shusuke Kaneko's "Death Note" -- a two-part film based on the best-selling Takeshi Obata manga -- is not J-Horror at all. In fact, it doesn't fit neatly into the horror bin, period, being a mix of cop thriller, seishun eiga (youth movie) and two-player arcade game, wrapped in a stylish manga-esque package.

Released June 17, "Death Note" bumped "The Da Vinci Code" as No. 1 at the local box office and is on its way to becoming the decade's biggest Japanese horror(ish) hit. It has accomplished this feat while violating a key genre rule: Its hero, a brilliant college student named Raito (which means "Light") Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), is also its villain.

Many a movie hero flirts with the dark side, but with Raito, it's love at first sight. When he finds a mysterious notebook with "Death Note" on the cover and learns that he can kill with it simply by writing the victim's name in it (and following certain rules explained in slightly fractured English), shock quickly gives way to what can only be called devilish glee. When the notebook's real owner makes his appearance -- a three-meter-tall "god of death" named Ryuku, who looks like a heavy metal vocalist from Hell -- Raito barely bats an eye. Ryuku (a CG creation voiced by Shido Nakamura) soon becomes his winged familiar -- and the closest thing he has to a friend.

Raito's first victims are criminals who presumably deserve their names in his book of death, but when the cops, led by Raito's straight-as-an-arrow detective father (Takeshi Kaga of "Iron Chef" fame), start closing in with the help of a reclusive slacker genius named only L (Kenichi Matsuyama), he becomes their deadliest enemy, with nary a flicker of doubt or regret.

The film's true focus, however, is less the struggle between good and evil (or rather shades of moral gray) than the battle of wits between Raito and L, with the cops serving mostly as foils. A feisty woman journalist (Asaka Seto) starts putting two and two together, but she is no match for Raito's diabolical wiles. Meanwhile, Raito's high-minded girlfriend (Yuu Kashii) serves as a voice of conscience that goes unheard and unheeded.

The battle (or rather, two-player game) has its fascinations, but CG whiz Kaneko ("Azumi 2," "Gamera 3") and scriptwriter Tetsuya Oishi are presumably saving their biggest scenes for part two, which opens in November. So part one is mostly build up, with little real tension. Also the battle between the cool, heartless killer and the junk-food-loving, asocial brainiac is bloodless. Literally so -- most of the victims keel over from heart attacks. At least they don't dissolve into clouds of pixels.

* * * * *

More in the standard J-Horror line is "Black Night," a three-part pan-Asian anthology directed by Patrick Leung, Takahiko Akiyama and Thanit Jitnukul, and inspired by such J-Horror hits as "Juon (The Grudge)" and "Honogurai Mizu no Soko kara (Dark Water)."

News photo
Dylan Kuo and Annie Liu in "Black Night"

The segments differ in locale (Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand) and style (Leung's is jittery and MTV-ish, Akiyama's ponderous and psycho-dramatic, Jitnukul's dreamy and folkloristic), but all rely on familiar J-Horror devices: Puddling water to indicate the presence of the supernatural, spooky kids who seemingly appear out of nowhere, and the corpse in the murky bath that suddenly springs back to life.

A decade or so ago, when the J-Horror boom was just starting, I might have been gripping my armrests watching the various scares unfold. Instead I found myself drifting off into the void, somewhat like the amnesiac heroine (Asaka Seto) of Akiyama's "Yami (Dark Hole)." Traumatized as a child, she has developed strange and deadly powers that she is not even aware of using.

Several of the images in this segment were impressively creepy, such as the victims' eye sockets that suddenly went black, as though the eyeballs had been sucked out from inside, but when a little boy in a yellow raincoat turned up -- shades of "Honogurai Mizu" -- I started to tune out.

Leung's segment "Next Door," about a musician (Annie Liu) who returns from Taiwan to find her Hong Kong boyfriend (Dylan Kuo) apparently living with another woman, starts promisingly, but ends in grotesque farce, as the living grapple with the undead.

Jitnukul's "The Lost Memory," about an insomniac single mom (Nutsha Bootsri) who is convinced she is being watched by a strange man -- and gets a letter from a dead woman -- is the most genuinely scary of the three, but it also recycles tried-and-true J-Horror tropes.

Why? To cash in with a recognizable "brand," perhaps. How to recover from this creative exhaustion? I say get back to the basics -- that is, the dark, spooky reaches of the psyche and the culture where the scares began, before anyone thought to label them J-Horror.

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