Genre: Slasher Horror
review in one breath
Akiko's first day on the job soon turns out to be the most hazardous day of her life as she inadvertently discovers the murderous activities of a recently hired security guard. This early film by director Kurosawa Kiyoshi pays tribute to the era's slasher genre and already demonstrates his fascination with societal relationships and psychological horror.
Director Kurosawa Kiyoshi has nearly become a household name among Western fans of Japanese horror due to the international success of such films as Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse (2001), and many more. The film under review is one of his earliest horror films, directed a full five years prior to his first widely received film, Cure.
Unlike these others, The Guard from Underground is a rather straight-forward slasher with, of course, a Japanese slant. It has been described as Kurosawa's "tribute" or "parody" of the slasher genre, by which is meant that rather than redraw the genre in Japanese sensibilities, he instead molds a Japanese situation into the sensibilities of the genre, with perhaps a slight exception or two.
If you are familiar with Kurosawa's films, you know that he is fascinated with tense juxtaposition of the individual with its social context. In nearly all of his later horror films, the narratival trajectory boils down to the (bizarre) manner in which a main character's individuality or personal morality is shaped in highly unexpected ways through strange, even horrific circumstances. In this early film, Kurosawa forgoes the evolution or process of such change and focuses instead upon a clash between fully demented and (fully) developed individualities. In this, you can see the germ of Kurosawa's enduring interest in psychological horror, yet in an undeveloped state which he will only later bring to full fruition.
The evil character here strongly reminded me of the hypnotic antagonist in Cure. Both seem at the end of a long progression toward a state of complete moral apathy, where moral conscience no longer blinks at even the most heinous acts. As in Cure, we are not told how the killer has reached this point. All we know is that he has reached it and he is acting upon it. Unlike Cure, however, the main character here is likewise fully developed in her sense of individuality, and is not moved nor stretched by her encounter with this evil nemesis. Instead, this amounts to a "battle of individuals" (amidst a WHOLE LOTTA bloodshed) with neither backing down. (Compare this, for example, with the transformation the main character of Cure ultimately undergoes.)
Permeating this storyline is a highly nuanced, almost comedic, depiction of traditional social structures found in even contemporary work places and gender relations. The over-arching story here follows Akiko, an educated and thoughtful art critic, on her first day at a new job. Within the office setting, stereotypical roles quickly are enforced, with males either secretly fantasizing about her or over-protecting her. However, when faced with the prospects of a fearless uber-killer, such pitiful stereotypes quickly break down and personal strengths and qualities come to the fore.
Thus again, in contrast to his later films which depict the individual being transformed by circumstance, here we see resolute individuals (Akiko and the killer) around whom social structures (the stereotypes) give way and collapse. This is indeed an interesting and thought-provoking early project by Kurosawa which toys with many of his favorite topics, but, alas, does not come across nearly as forcibly or memorably as his later films in these regards.
Today is Akiko Narushima's (Kuno Makiko) first day on the job as an art consultant for the Akebono Corporation. Her responsibilities include deciding reasonable prices for high-end paintings being sold and purchased by the firm's clients. Her office is populated with a diverse array of personalities, including an overly demanding and slightly perverted manager Kurume (Ren Osugi), the seemingly composed and adept female co-worker Harue, and the manly-man workaholic Hyodo (Hasegawa Hatsunori).
While struggling to adapt to her new surroundings, Akiko quickly becomes suspicious of the new security guard Fujimaru (Matsuhige Yutaka), whose stature is immense and who has taken a fancy to wearing the earring Akiko accidentally dropped in a panicked escape from an earlier, indirect encounter with him. Despite the local news being filled with the story of the recent release of a former Sumo wrestler who was arrested for brutally killing his lover (and her lover) and then acquitted on grounds of insanity, the Akebono staff prove either unable or unwilling to put the pieces together once rumors begin to fly that the giant Fujimaru was once a Sumo wrestler.
Only Akiko's clear head seems able to see the possible horrific truth. But how, in this office hierarchy, where she is the newest female employee, can she possibly juggle her work responsibilities and her growing suspicion regarding Fujimaru, BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!!?
I must admit that the further we step away from history or traditional superstition, the less able I am to intuit the directorial subtleties or thematic implications of a film like this, and the more likely I am to judge it based primarily on the impact it has upon me personally (and you know it's all about me). This was indeed a fun film (if not simply to see Ren Osugi with his pants around his ankles... again) and definitely a requirement for those who have seen this director's other major films. But the slasher genre is just not a personal favorite of mine and unless the story has some camp value, its hard for me to laud its virtues. For this reason I had a terrible time trying to write a decent review for Tokyo Psycho despite the undeniable importance of the film historically and directorially, and I even went on a rant while trying to discuss a B-grade slasher like Akuma ga Sumu Ie 2001.
Thus, in the end, I will remember this film more for its impression on me than for its role in Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "evolutionary development toward perfecting his unique brand of psychological horror". And just perhaps it will be the same for you. IN WHICH CASE let me say the following...
First, this film was rather fun regarding its basic special effects, but seemed far too (cinematically) dark throughout most of the film. No doubt this was "intentional" due to the drama taking place in the dead of night in a building in which the electricity has been disabled -- which I can WHOLLY understand. But unless this is intended to be a radio thriller (which are WAY COOL by the way), please let me SEE something!! By far the saddest example here is actually the coolest B-grade effect in the entire film -- and I'm talking about the craptastically melted face which is absolutely indiscernible in the darkness. Why, oh Why? It is precisely these smirk-worthy scenes which endear themselves to audiences and help a film rise from mediocre to camp. But here you will be left squinting into the screen, wishing for better lighting.
Second, in perhaps true slasher genre form, even the smartest of characters will make dumb decisions which result in more violent mayhem (which normal people in the real world could easily avoid). And here our heroine finds herself on the wrong side of locked doors closing behind her (even the SAME locked door) so often that it nearly induces giggles. Of course this is a tool whereby a character can be forced in certain directions or down dark hallways, but her propensity to lock herself in/out so often really stood in contrast with the film's portrayal of her as perhaps the most intelligent and quick-witted of the characters.
All in all this was a decent slasher film, though it certainly comes across as dated compared to more recent (Western) films in the genre such as Saw or Wolf Creek. There are plenty of scenes involving dripping blood, breaking bones and steel pipes to the head accompanied with chilling thud, so don't misunderstand that this is necessarily tame. In fact, the modus operandi of this murderous Sumo wrestler is quite unique indeed. But (alas) there is very little true suspense or "horror", as the film almost immediately declares who the killer is, and then simply follows him around as he kills one after another of the unfortunate employees. Thus, in the end, this does come across as an exercise in the genre and is therefore quite distinct from Kurosawa's later films wherein he spookily redefines themes and explores new directions.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD with English subtitles. Available via all mainstream venues.
|Early Kurosawa Kiyoshi film hinting at prominent themes within his later films.||MAJOR Sumo-Induced Carnage!! Snapped limbs, pulverized heads, crumpled cuties, and pervert pretzels!!||Nada, unless you consider Ren Osugi in boxers sexy...||Early Kurosawa experiment with slasher horror. Plenty here for genre buffs. Not quite as much for non-buffs.|