Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in  visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.

Reincarnation (2005) by Takashi Shimizu

Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) is auditioning for a role in a film adaptation of a real-life murder story. Many years before a man killed eleven people at a hotel in Gunma, including his own son and daughter. Nagisa is cast to play the young 10-year old daughter who was murdered, but things soon take a sinister turn when she begins to see visions of this girl and starts to wonder if there is something supernatural going on. Another actress, Yuka (Marika Matsumoto), a firm believer in reincarnation tells her this could be a possible explanation, something hinted at throughout. As work begins on the film the director Matsumura (Kippei Shiina) takes the cast and crew to the hotel where this horrific incident took place and Nagisa begins to spiral into a nightmare somewhere between memory and hallucination.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge, Marebito) from a screenplay by Shimizu and Masaki Adachi. “Reincarnation” is a chilling experience, mixing a haunted hotel mystery with psychological horror. By setting up the film within a film, the writers create doubt about what is going on that continues until the final moments. We are never sure how much of what we are seeing is real, or whether Nagisa is hallucinating. This sense of unease is pervasive, particularly later in the film, as it is not only the characters but the audience themselves whose sense of reality is being toyed with. Whereas many horror films offer an easy escape, the villain of this piece is not easily identifiable, and so impossible to counter. This sense of an unstable reality is heightened with great use of practical effects, such as the appearance of the young girl who was murdered at various moments. The editing also plays with the sense of space, by having the camera move from the real world of Nagisa, into her imagination, through the memories and old footage of the incident, and the constructed set of the film. This perfectly captures her increasingly warped psyche as she tries to establish what is happening to her. The music by Kenji Kawai (Dark Water) creates a dark atmosphere with echoing strings and synth providing an ominous backdrop to the action. The use of creaks and knocks and later the whirring of an old-fashioned camera help to build a soundscape that is terrifying without the need for bombast. The film builds a quiet dread throughout, rarely relying on gore or shock moments, but a creeping terror that draws you in and has you on the edge of your seat. The simplest of effects are done with finesse, such as the child’s doll that comes to life, or the sudden traumatic flashes of murder victims that assault Nagisa when they visit the hotel. Much of this imagery gets under the skin and troubles you long after it has passed, creating that feeling of an ineffable darkness waiting beyond this world. The terror of the unknown is brought to the fore. There are moments that don’t make strict logical sense, such as Nagisa’s casting as a 10-year old girl. However, this matters very little in the overall scheme of things, as we get the full psychological and emotional weight of what Nagisa is going through in a way that may have been diluted if everything was neatly explained. Yuka gives a great performance as the haunted and terrified Nagisa, capturing her descent into fear and panic as she struggles to untangle the strange web of unfamiliar memories she is caught in.

“Reincarnation” relies on familiar tropes, such as restless spirits and revenge, but does everything so well that it is a model of how these stories should be told. The idea of ghosts returning to life to seek vengeance plays on the primal fear of the unknown. Death is the great boundary that people can only cross in one direction and the thought that there may be two-way traffic is disturbing. It also ties into notions of guilt and shame about tragic events that have happened and the inability of people to change them. Nagisa is deeply troubled by the events of the past. We also witness her feelings being dismissed or disbelieved by those around her, again offering a deeper layer of horror to events. Not only is she beginning to lose any solid foundation for her reality, she increasingly has nobody to turn to for reassurance. “Reincarnation” is an excellent example of a film with great scares born of the concept and characters, truly terrifying in parts, with a dark twist.

Marebito (2004)

When a freelance cameraman witness an unusual suicide in an underground passage he begins a dark journey to find the source of that man’s terror. His journey takes him to a strange subterranean tunnel system, which he believes is the netherworld. There he finds a young woman, or what looks like a woman, whom he takes back to his apartment. As he tries to take care of her things get stranger: she only drinks blood; he is followed by mysterious strangers, and it seems his sanity is crashing around him.

The film is all about creating an unsettling atmosphere. It is not particularly terrifying, but it is certainly an interesting blend of fantasy and psychological horror. There are references to Richard Shaver and deros which might be unfamiliar to some, but I think this adds to the film’s charm. Following the success of Ju-on, director Takashi Shimizu takes a step away from the traditional ghost story to attempt something different. For the most part it’s successful, though it provokes more curiosity than fear. Very simply shot with lots of handheld camerawork, and a suitably ominous sound.

The film is an exploration of fear and madness reminiscent of early twentieth century science fiction and horror novels, with something unusual lurking just beneath the surface.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

Home-carer Rika is assigned to an old lady, Sachie, in suburban Tokyo. On arriving at the house she finds the lady motionless and soon becomes aware of an evil presence in the house. She finds a deathly pale young boy, Toshio and later witnesses a dark figure hovering above Sachie. The film then cuts back to show the events of Sachie’s son and his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a curse on this house brought about by an earlier murder of a mother at the hands of her husband. The house is now haunted by the ghosts of Kayako, the mother, and Toshio, her young son who went missing and those who enter are destined to be haunted and killed by the curse. The detective who investigated the original case, Toyama, is brought back to try to explain. And his daughter Izumi who sneaked into the house with her classmates also becomes a victim.

The story unfolds through a number of chapters detailing the various experiences of the characters, Rika, Hitomi (Sachie’s daughter), Toyama and Izumi as well as other minor characters. This chaptered approach keeps the film moving along, feeling more like a compilation of short stories building on a central idea. It can be hard to work out who is who and what order the stories are taking place as the time-line is non-linear. The film is not as scary as it’s reputation might lead you to believe, instead building an air of quiet unease and growing terror. The scares are largely one of a kind, i.e. either Kayako or Toshio being glimpsed in the background, or appearing suddenly.  It is very well shot and the music really adds to the sense of creeping dread. It is a great example of how to direct low-budget horror, as most of the fear is produced through very simple camera movements or positioning.

This film is a cinematographic representation of an old-fashioned ghost story. From the look of Kayako and her son -pale white, lank black hair and white-less eyes -to scenes which are reminiscent of old Kabuki theatre (people being pulled backwards off-stage) it is  interesting as a glimpse at a traditional ghost story being modernised and set in a claustrophobic suburban house.