Marebito Review

The problem with Takashi Shimizu, and perhaps the true horror of his own situation, is that he is in danger of being consumed by the creation he is best known for in Japan and in the West, doomed to endlessly creating versions, sequels, remakes and derivations of Ju-on: The Grudge. This would be a pity, because on the strength of Marebito, a low-budget horror film that the director made in only eight days between Ju-on: The Grudge 2 and The Grudge US Remake, he has a lot more to offer as a director.

A cameraman for documentary and news crews, Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto, real-life director of Tetsuo and Vital) is fascinated by some of the images of horror he has collected - video recordings of death, tortures and suicides that he has captured on the camera he carries with him everywhere. He reviews the footage constantly, attempting to understand the nature of true fear and terror. Of all the gruesome images he has filmed, the one that fascinates him most is the footage of a man committing suicide in the Tokyo underground by driving a knife through his eye. Believing that the key to understanding the terror at the moment of the man’s death lies underneath the Tokyo underground itself, he revisits the scene and delves deep into the underworld, guided by the suicide Mr. Kuroki himself. There he discovers a strange creature, a naked girl in chains, who he brings back to his apartment. The creature, who he calls F., does not speak or eat, but has a voracious appetite for fresh blood.

Although there are certainly some scenes of quite gory and gruesome acts, as the above description might suggest, there is a very real underlying horror of obsession and madness underlying the disturbing trajectory that Marebito follows – a psychological depth that is reminiscent of David Cronenburg or David Lynch. That effect is heightened by the immediacy of the DV filming method and the fact that the film was shot in only eight days. Shots are frequently seen from the POV of Masuoka’s camera, using its inherent shadows and jump cuts as well as the low resolution to create an aura of unease in the familiar locations – an apartment viewed from a surveillance camera, tower blocks, lifts, empty corridors, the underground – all the anonymous areas of urban alienation and desolation that Takashi Shimizu has explored in the Ju-on series of films.

What Shimizu adds to the mix this time is another variation on the traditional ghost stories of the Ju-on films, drawing on a much wider range of references from science-fiction, mythology, urban legends, pop culture and current affairs. In the mix here you’ll find references to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, The Little Shop of Horrors as well as H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ and the Robert Shaver mystery, with Morlocks, Deros (Detrimental Robots) and vampires slipping across into our own world, and dark figures that are fleetingly glimpsed lurking in the shadows. Masuoka’s otaku-like obsession with horror video images and his locking up of a chained girl moreover recall real-life Japanese news stories of kidnappings and tortures of young girls, a fact that becomes more prominent as the extent of his madness becomes clear and gives what is already an effective horror film an unexpected depth and level of social relevance.

Marebito is released in the UK by Tartan as part of their Asia Extreme line. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.

As you might expect by now from a Tartan DVD release of Asian cinema, Marebito has all the hallmarks of being converted from an NTSC source. The image is grainy, full of artefacts, lines break-up and have jagged edges, the image jumps and shifts around with macro-blocking artefacts and edge enhancement is evident in rather noticeable haloing. Filmed on DV and with a large part of the film being viewed through the lens of a video viewfinder or on a TV monitor, the flaws don’t really matter that much and in normal playback few of them are really evident. If anything they only add further to the dark, shadowy, grungy feel of the film. Colours are slightly oversaturated, but there is adequate detail nonetheless, even in those dark underground scenes.

With Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS mixes, Tartan as usual go overboard on the sound mixes for a film that doesn’t really extend beyond the front speakers. The sound is however clear and effective in whichever format you choose, accurately conveying the tone of the film, with little in the way of background noise or distortion.

English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional.

The Interview with director Takashi Shimizu (22:53) is interesting, delving into Shimizu’s background, his early interest in horror and his approach to it in his own films. There are specific questions relating to the imagery and themes of Marebito. In the Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto (12:59), the actor/director talks about working with Shimizu on the film and the difficulties in interpreting the role of Masuoka. Producer of Marebito and the influential Horror Bancho series, the Hiroshi Takahashi (16:28) talks about how he became involved on Marebito, bringing together screenwriter Chiaki Konaka with director Takashi Shimizu, the challenges of putting the film together on a very low budget and his thoughts on J-Horror in general. The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:00) is excellent, setting the tone of the film effectively.

A clever fusing of myth and madness, what Marebito lacks in budget and effects, it more than makes up for in its edgy subject matter and the immediacy of its DV photography. Tartan’s DVD has all the usual failings of their PAL conversions of Asian cinema, but in this case with the film’s low-fi filming techniques it doesn’t matter too much.

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