Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on December 9, 2005, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Having, well, not yet exhausted the possibilities of his Ju-On/The Grudge franchise, director Takashi Shimizu tries something a little different with Marebito. Actually, to be fair, this digital feature was actually shot (in only eight days) in between the Japanese and first American versions of his popular franchise, and it represents a step not forward but sideways, into the kind of contemplative genre territory exemplified by the cinema of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The temptation to call it “literary horror” is especially strong because the material suggests it would be more effective as a written work than as a movie—and in fact scriptwriter Chiaki Konaka has also published it as a book in Japan.

Tetsuo/Vital director Shinya Tsukamoto stars as Masuoka, a freelance videographer who becomes obsessed with fear, after he happens upon and tapes a man who kills himself in the subway with a look of abject terror in his eyes. Masuoka’s search for the source of that distress leads him to a strange underground realm beneath Tokyo’s streets, where he comes across Lovecraftian landscapes and a mute, naked young girl (Tomomi Miyashita) chained in a rocky alcove. He winds up taking her home (how he frees her from her chains isn’t explained), dubs her “F” and winds up treating her, by his own admission, “like a pet.” This pet bites, however…

But back to the “by his own admission” part. From beginning to end, Masuoka’s thoughts play on the soundtrack in voiceover, explaining how he’s feeling, what he’s thinking, how he is emotionally reacting to each strange turn of events. Yet the more he talks, the less we know about him, since there’s no emotional correlation in the onscreen characterization to the words we hear him speaking. Perhaps Shimizu intentionally intended for the narration to provide our only insight into Tsukamoto’s blank slate of a performance, but the movie ends up so dependent on telling instead of showing that it becomes tiresome. Given the brief shooting schedule, the more cynical viewer might interpret all the narration as a device to cover gaps in what was shot, yet Shimizu exercises enough formal control over his movie that it’s clear nothing about it was unplanned.

There’s a certain amount of creepy atmosphere in Marebito, and it’s never exactly dull, but there’s very little to hang the mood on. Shimizu doesn’t do much, dramatically or visually, with the idea that Masuoka has recessed to the point where he can only experience the world through video, or with the promising setup of the primal young girl breaking through that barrier (her first action, upon waking up in his apartment, is to knock over the video camera he’s set up to monitor her). Nor is the movie ever especially scary, and it all leads up to the kind of revelatory twist that has become too familiar in recent genre fare. One is left with the sense that Marebito’s material might have been better served had it been directed by Tsukamoto himself—or by Kurosawa, whose Pulse is a far more evocative exploration of the intersection between technology and alienation.

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