12/30/2009

MAREBITO (A STRANGER FROM AFAR) (2004)

Country: Japan

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 92'

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara


GHOUL RATING: *** (3)


Story: Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto) is a freelance cameraman craving to understand fear. He obsesses over his footage of a subway suicide and wants to understand the reasons that made one man poke out his eye facing some invisible horror. His investigation leads him to a cavernous underworld beneath Tokyo, where he discovers a beautiful mute girl. He takes her to his home and starts tending to her needs, including her unusual diet, suspecting that she might lead him to the discovery he craves for so much...

Review: For some strange reason, the best Lovecraftian movies are those which are not directly based on his stories and which do not even use his name in advertizing their titles. Remember ALIEN or Carpenter's THE THING? Now, that was some real cosmic terror merged with extravagant creatures and body horror. MAREBITO, equally Lovecraftian in an equally indirect way, offers a different aspect of this author's themes. It is a low key mood piece about an obsessed, alienated individual on an irreversible downward spiral towards doom. It is a mood piece rather than plot-based movie, centered on an alienated psyche rather than on action involving alien beings. If ALIEN and THE THING can be compared to Lovecraft's novellas like 'The Dunwich Horror' or 'The Call of Cthulhu' in their scope and amount of sheer terror, then MAREBITO is more akin to short sharp shocks of stories like 'From Beyond' or 'The Music of Erich Zann'.

At one point our protagonist on his quest ends up way below the city and discovers buildings which he immediately labels 'Mountains of Madness'! But wait, aren't those supposed to be on the South Pole? And isn't it quite a distance from Tokyo? Yes, your geography is right. But, the point is that Lovecraft's inventions have become inseparable parts of the geography of the mind, and their influence on the XX century's pop culture – including Japan's! – is measureless. One of the key reasons that his horror stories could travel so well and so far, especially to Japan, was the psychology and philosophy behind them. Alienation, self-loathing, body-horror, mutation, alien influences, decay of traditional culture, loneliness, perverted sexuality... all those and many other Lovecraft's obsessions are shared by the contemporary Japanese culture. In many regards Lovecraft is more at home in today's Japan than he is in his native America.

And who better to embody an alienated, solitary obsessive than Shinya Tsukamoto, a great director who also happens to be a very good actor. With a nuanced understatement, in a seemingly effortless role, he plays Masuoka as a man detached from the world and its mundane reality, completely devoted to finding ultimate truths in the darkest, nethermost regions of human experience. The nude girl that he discovers in the subterranean world is obviously not 'normal', maybe not even human. Yet he brings her to his apartment, films her with his camera and feeds her blood (in an inspired, darkly humorous touch, from a baby bottle!) and eagerly awaits the final terror whose avatar she is. This is a pure example of Lovecraftian self-destructive, masochistic desire to know, even when the knowledge is that of the darkest reality. For his characters, just like for Masuoka, there is no turning back. The only way is – down, into the abyss.

Filmed on video, in just eight days, with only a couple of actors, on limited, unambitious sets, with very few special effects, MAREBITO achieves a lot by carefully creating the unique mood of a creepy obsession and inevitable doom. Video technique, especially in the shots of Masuoka's camera, adds to the gritty feel of being immersed in a psychotic mind, and once you're there, you do not need elaborate big budget special effects, since 'the mind is a terrible thing to taste'. This does not mean that MAREBITO is without problems. After a stunning first half hour, it becomes somewhat slower once the girl is in the apartment, and numerous great promises are not fulfilled by the end. But, could anyone fulfill them? MAREBITO is at its best with teases and suggestions: it is not about set-pieces, nor is it about stunning vistas of extravagant alien landscapes or about complex transformations of the flesh. It is, more than anything, about the landscape of a very peculiar mind that may have imagined the bulk of what he shared with us as 'reality'. Admittedly, it is disappointing to learn that instead of the Elder Gods perhaps it was mere domestic problems lying behind it all. In any case, be warned: if you expect 'explanations', reason, logic and motivation in their everyday sense, MAREBITO may disappoint you. If you come to it for mood and a trippy experience unlike any other, you'll get your share of existential dread and in-your-skull claustrophobia.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : Tartan delivers, again! For a film shot on digital video, the image (in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1) is sharp and crisp, and the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes provide a perfect soundscape for a memorable experience. There are very good English and Spanish subtitles, trailers for Tartan's new releases and great extra material: three interviews, clocking at approx. 15 minutes each, with Tsukamoto, Shimizu and Hiroshi Takahashi (the producer). Shimizu is not exactly man of words, and tends to repeat himself a lot. Tsukamoto is obviously the most analytical, and provides most intelligent insights into the plot, character, ideas etc. He is also most considerate: it's so endearing to see him worried that he may not have given sufficient answers. It must be said that the (invisible) interviewers could've done a better job, and the interviews footage is awkwardly raw, unedited, including some gaps and pauses or preparatory and ending comments that should've been cut. All in all, if you're intrigued by this film, this is the DVD to have.

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