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Marebito (2004)
Director: Shimizu Takashi

review by Gary McMahon

"Horror is actually an ancient wisdom that we find deep in the memory of our souls..."

With Ju-On: The Grudge, Shimizu Takashi gave us a typical J-horror offering, with a succession of increasingly incomprehensible scare scenes amounting to a film that was less than the sum of its parts - yet still managed to be terrifying. Legend has it that Marebito was filmed in eight days, prior to Takashi helming the surprisingly decent (and much more coherent) American remake of The Grudge, and as such the result can be seen as a flexing of his artistic muscles before entering the maw of the Hollywood machine.

Tsukamoto Shinya (the director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man) plays Takyoshi Masuoka, a freelance videographer who scours the city filming scenes of everyday life. One day on the underground, Masuoka manages to film the suicide of a terrified man who sticks a knife into his own eye. He becomes fascinated by this footage - as well as a clip of a supposedly real-life torture and murder - and obsesses about seeing the terror in people's faces before they die. He comes to the conclusion that these people are terrified because of something they see before death, and not because of the approach of death itself.

What follows is a series of intensely creepy scenes showing Masuoka exploring underground tunnels with his camera, and entering empty shafts that seem to penetrate deep beneath the surface of the city. We are offered glimpses of pale, naked figures that move on all-fours, scuttling like spiders, but are never sure if these creatures exist only inside Masuoka's head or if they are the living inhabitants of this subterranean lair. Eschewing the usual trappings of the horror genre in favour of a more complex character study, Takashi takes us deep into the madness of his lead character, and eventually - much like Masuoka - we are unable to separate what is real from what is imaginary.

After being told by a hobo that the underworld is inhabited by 'deros', a race of robotic blood-drinkers (a direct reference to the infamous Shaver Mystery from Amazing Stories magazine), Masuoka discovers the nude figure of a young girl (beautifully played by the ethereal Myashita Tomomi) cowering in a recess in the city's foundations. He takes the girl home, and keeps her like a pet, examining and filming her long claw-like nails and huge teeth. When she refuses to eat or drink whatever he places in front of her, he finally realises that she subsists on blood. Masuoka opens a vein and allows her to drink, but when her insatiable hunger becomes too much for him he starts procuring blood from other sources - like the strange woman who accosts him and tells him that she is his wife. Before she is drained of blood, this woman hints at a missing daughter, but Masuoka is too far-gone to listen and has perhaps repressed his own recent past.

Is he simply insane, and blocking out something he's done to his family, or is everyone else mad and he the only one able to see the truth of what lives under the city?

The film is shot using digital techniques, which reflects the way Masuoka sees the world - through the grainy lens of his own digital camera. People's faces bleach out to static, entire scenes jump as if the film stock is damaged. Masuoka's world is indistinguishable from the one he films. The locations used in the film are superb: empty tunnels, weird underground chambers, subways and empty plots of ground surrounded by, yet oddly detached from, the bustle of the city. The final image of the film is quietly devastating, and is held just long enough to resonate. Still, we are offered no easy solution to what we have seen, and in Masuoka's terror-filled face we find only more questions whose answers remain buried.

Deeply unsettling, ambiguous, edgy and ultimately depressing, this film is not for everyone, but if you like films that abandon a linear narrative and refuse to give easy answers, then Marebito could be for you.
Marebito

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