Sunday 26 February 2017

On a Thousand Walls #4: Marebito (The Stranger from Afar) (2004)

I went through a phase about fifteen years ago where I watched as many Japanese horror movies as I could find – I'd started with Ring, and moved to Uzumaki, Pulse (Kairo), Audition, The Grudge – and then that phase ended, as phases do. And I moved on to other fads. So I think I saw a review of Marebito somewhere and thought, hmm, looks interesting, and then forgot about it, which, as you'll probably have realised if you're a regular reader, something I do. It was a regular reader of this blog who, when I announced I was doing an urban wyrd series, asked what I thought about Marebito.

So I went and looked, and it's that film that Shimizu Takashi did after doing the English language remake of his breakout hit The Grudge (Ju-On) and so I picked up a copy of Marebito because I'd liked The Grudge, and I watched it and... this is the sort of film that has me knitting my brows and taking in a deep breath through my teeth when you ask me what I think of it.

Note that nudity in one of the screenshots below makes this post NSFW. 
Filmmaker playing filmmaker.
Apparently, in Japanese legend a marebito is a supernatural visitor who brings good fortune. This is not quite how the film pitches it.

Meet Masuoka, a fortysomething news cameraman, a freelancer. He's a bit creepy, a bit intense. He records everything, spies on his neighbours. He wants to know why people are scared. Right from the beginning, you know his interests aren't healthy. He is a creepy man.

Sometimes casting matters more than in other films. Here, it really matters because Masuoka is played by Tsukamoto Shinya, who is himself a director, best known for the Tetsuo movies, which are body horror ur-texts. Having Tsukamoto in a movie feels like when David Cronenberg used to pop up in the occasional movie role: just like you don't cast Cronenberg unless you want to make a specific statement, if you cast Tsukamoto you're inviting the audience to expect certain dots to be joined. Especially when he's playing a creepy filmmaker. 
And... pause.
Masuoka is obsessive, lonely and very weird. As the film begins, he's filming for some job or another and ends up coming across a man in a subway tunnel who is about to kill himself with a knife, about to plunge it into his own eye, in fact, and Masuoka gets it all on film, right up to the plunging into the eye and the blood spurting out, and you see him watch his tape and then rewind to just before it happens, and stop, as if he's daring himself (and by extension you) to want to watch it again. But Masuoka isn't interested in what the man did, and we never wind back to the moment where the knife sinks in. He's interested in what the man was looking at. Because whatever it was he saw, no one else can see it, and it was frightening enough that the man was prepared to ram a knife through his eyeball and deep into his forebrain rather than look at it any longer.
So after musing on what the man saw, Masuoka heads down to where the man was standing and follows his line of sight, and follows the subway tunnels down, down, down, down impossibly far under the city into older and older underground tunnels, and then beyond. On his way down, he meets the ghost of the man he filmed killing himself, Furoki (Nakahara Kazuhiro). The ghost tells him about the underground realm of Agharti, and namechecks Blavatsky and then brings in the Shaver Mystery, and the deros, those malevolent subhuman creatures who work to ruin our lives with their psychic machines, and these are things that I know enough about to know that Furoki's facts are slightly wonky, but that's sort of irrelevant, because these things are basically the mythological window dressing to the story that unfolds, and while Shimizu might not have given us the details exactly right, he understands the spirit of the story.

Masuoka finds a luminescent underworld of bright caverns, and chained in a cave, he finds a naked young woman (Miyashita Tomomi).
In the next scene he has her in his flat on the surface. He calls her "F". That's the first act of the movie, the first half hour, and the rest of the film is the outworking of that, exploring two questions: who and what the girl is (largely centred around her thirst for blood and what Masuoka does to sate that, which goes pretty much how you'd expect, given what sort of film this is) and who and what Masuoka is.

Marebito's opening act shapes and frames the film. What might otherwise be a grim one-note exploitation horror or a fairly standard serial killer film becomes grounded in a sense of perverse distance. Part of that is that the majority of the first half hour takes place in Masuoka's cavelike flat, mediated through the viewfinder of his camera, or underground. In a film that takes on some of the same ideas like, say, The Land that Time Forgot, or one of the adaptations of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or First Men in the Moon, you have a journey from a rational, everyday world to an otherworld, and the setup establishes our world as a real world we recognise. So the otherworld with its monsters and aliens and whatever is only extant in the context of the world we know. Marebito, on the other hand, goes pretty much directly down, down, down into older and older tunnels until it reaches an alien realm and then, with an inaudible pop, puts us right back on the surface, in the real world, or a world that we at least recognise, and that, rather than place the otherworld in the context of the everyday, puts the everyday world in the context of the otherworld. While a more traditional fantasy begins with the mundane, travels to the otherworld and ends with a journey home, Marebito seems to start with the otherworld, comes home, and ends with a final return to the depths.

Or at least that's one way you can read it. Because the way it's presented, he's there, and then he's in his flat with the silent girl, and you don't see anything in the middle. And that's sort of a convenient narrative shorthand; I think the default position is that you're supposed to just assume that he got her free somehow and took her up through the tunnels, and back home. But I don't think you are.
Riveted to the cave wall.
For one, how exactly does he free her? She's imprisoned with a heavy, rough-forged shackle, on a thick chain, riveted to the stone, and even gives you a full ten seconds of closeup on the chain, panning from her ankle to the wall, so you can say to yourself, yes, that's definitely a chain. How exactly does a middle-aged man whose lifestyle supports the assumption that he's not in the best of shape manage, with no other tools than a video camera and the stuff you'd assume a man like that has in his pockets, to circumvent it?

As Marebito progresses into its final act, that question raises itself, in the sense that Masuoka's experiences aren't "real". A woman follows him, and then confronts him, claiming to know him. He receives phone calls from a deep-voice caller who knows about the vampire girl in his flat. He glimpses the deros themselves, from far away, for the briefest of moments. Furoki comes back. And then Masuoka does some horrible things. But what's real anyway? A film like this has only the illusion of a wider world, and we would be well not to trust the largely spoken – spoken, spoken in voice over – narrative of a filmmaker played by a filmmaker.

Masuoka talks a great deal about "madness" in the final act, and of course, there's not really any such thing as madness, that's a construct that people without mental illnesses create to make sense of people with delusions. Masuoka isn't mad, he says, he's just trying to create a narrative for himself as if he were; but of course if you're delusional, you would protest hard against how "mad" you are. He's not mad, because no one is "mad" like they are in classic horror stories, but he clearly isn't healthy.
Dental hygiene alert.
Which is why he keeps a naked girl chained up in his flat (and if that's creepy, when you find out who she might actually be it's positively repellent), and there's no reading of this where that isn't supremely creepy.

And I suppose that this, framed with the myth of the deros, itself a narrative framing of a relatively common network of diagnosable delusions, is where the film stands or falls. Marebito garbles the details of the Shaver myth, but it nails the point of it, creating a metaphor for urban delusions and paranoia, in that it's not that Masuoka leaves the real world and comes back only to return to the depths, nor that he brings a horror from the underworld and then takes her back, but that in a number of narrativistically satisfying ways, he travels to the depths and never actually leaves.

It just takes him and us most of the film to realise it. He engages in a psychological descent, and when he finally confronts it, it consumes him.
I usually leave out the subtitles but this was too perfect.
Is Marebito any good? Well, it's definitely interesting and is firmly, solidly urban wyrd. It holds up to rewatching (which isn't something you can say about The Grudge) and Tsukamoto's performance carries the film, even in the slow middle bit when not much seems to happen. But then, it has this slow middle bit when not much seems to happen and I sort of wonder if that stuff about "madness" is actually because Shimizu isn't very clued about delusion. And all of the misogynistic acts in the film are perpetrated by Masuoka (murders, imprisonment, abuse, and I haven't even got into who he murders, imprisons and abuses, because that's the creepiest of all), and not condoned or celebrated, but they're there, acts of violence with victims who aren't really characters in any meaningful sense, just subjects for Masuoka's crimes.
The return.
And that doesn't stop me giving it the most charitable reading I can, since Marebito easily has enough fascinating stuff going on to make it worth a proper look, and charitable readings are what I do, but there's a point where all the violence against women and the misrepresentation of mental illness starts to become something that, when you ask me what I think of Marebito, makes me knit my brows and take a long, deep breath through my teeth.