Genre: Gloomy Psychic Crime Horror
Director: Tsukamoto Shinya (2006)
review in one breath
Tokyo police are baffled by a series of grisly deaths which at first glance appear to be obvious suicides but after further investigation have all the earmarks of homicide. Eyewitnesses to some of the cases report that the victims violently killed themselves in their sleep while screaming for help. When it is discovered that each of the victims had phoned a mysterious individual known only as "0", a detective calls the number only to soon thereafter die a gruesome self-inflicted death in his sleep. At their wits end, the cops ask the help of a bedraggled psychic said to possess the ability to enter people's dreams.
In all honesty, this is a fairly intriguing story. Something about it comes across as both unique and noteworthy. As the English title indicates, this is at core a tale of horrors taking place within the victim's dream state, where the world of nightmare fatally overlaps with Reality. This in itself is nothing new to Western audiences, as evidenced by the gazillion versions of Freddy Krueger and his non-ending Nightmare on Elm Street. But unlike Freddy's Western scenario in which a begrudged departed ghoulie haunts the dreams of random kids just to kick their kiddie-butts, Nightmare Detective depicts an existential quagmire upon which every aspect of the story -- the victims' demise, the villain's actions, the detective's tenacity, and the dark hero's participation -- is grounded. I guess you can consider this a philosophical slasher film.
The director here is Shinya Tsukamoto whose name ought to be familiar to many of you. He literally burst onto the international scene after only his third film Tetsuo (1989) and has since then continued to make some very remarkable and innovative films such as Bullet Ballet (1998) and A Snake of June (2002). In all of these films, including Nightmare Detective, director Tsukamoto offers audiences a storyline whose main characters find themselves on the brink of existential, often suicidal disaster. Often, this dismal state is where we find the characters at the beginning of the film which proceeds from there down even darker trajectories. Director Tsukamoto seems quite comfortable placing his camera's tripod on the nihilistic edge, focusing on more dismal, raw and self-destructive human emotion.
I have been impressed with each of Tsukamoto's films which follow this existential path and this favorable impression carries over into Nightmare Detective though with a few qualifications. In each of his earlier nihilistic films, Tsukamoto dealt primarily with a sole main character's struggles with the darker side of his or her life. Here, however, he attempts to portray a broad and widespread social phenomenon. Although I can see where Tsukamoto intended to go with this and allow myself to follow along, at core I always find myself doubting whether "existential angst", even by definition, can be attributed to a social phenomenon (as opposed to a purely individual/subjective one). In other words, I am never quite able to suspend my disbelief and wholly buy into a depiction of society brimming with existential nihilism. It is the same quandary faced while watching Sono Sion's Suicide Circle (2002), another film in which broad segments of the population seem to be lining up just to do themselves in.
But Suicide Circle aided audiences in finding the film's dismal depiction of the human condition by focusing on a creative, external and non-natural cause for the self-inflicted mayhem. In other words, Suicide Circle is a film about how such a social phenomenon can arise through an external influence. In contrast, Nightmare Detective deals primarily with the nightmarish results of widespread and deep-seated suicidal resignation. The film offers little in the way of explaining why this dismal state is gripping nearly everyone depicted in the film other than flashbacks in some cases of an overly traumatic experience in this or that character's past. This of course brings us back to the original question of whether "individual angst" could ever plausibly become so widespread as to constitute a "social" phenomenon. It may in fact be theoretically possible, but I find it highly unlikely and for that reason found myself scratching my head a bit at this core element of the film's central, permeating premise.
So that's one qualification I have, which I see as a slight drawback from considering this film of wholly equal footing with Tsukamoto's earlier, similarly themed films. The second qualification stems from the rather flat and sometimes annoying acting ineptitude of the film's central character, the newbie police detective Keiko Kirishima played by J-Pop singer Hitomi (and yes, that's her entire stage name). As a whole, Nightmare Detective has a very impressive and effective cast. As in many of his own films, Tsukamoto Shinya is himself cast in a part, here as the central antagonist known only as "0" (Zero) intent on bringing society to a bloody halt, one horrified victim at a time. Tsukamoto is in fact a very good actor, especially in roles where he plays someone on the chaotic brink of self-destruction. For this reason, no doubt, renowned director Shimizu Takashi cast him as the lead in his similarly deranged Marebito (2004). Playing opposite Tsukamoto as the principle protagonist, the "Nightmare Detective", is Ryuhei Matsuda whom you'll recognize from Love Ghost (2000), Blue Spring (2001), 9 Souls (2003), and Demon Pond (2005), etc. Playing effective supplemental roles here are Masanobu Ando and the ubiquitous and always entertaining Ren Osugi.
But central to the film's choice of storytelling is Hitomi's newbie detective character. It is primarily through her eyes and conundrums we see the narrative unfold and so her face and dialogue remain a constant throughout the entire film. I admit, she is very pretty to look at and fits into a pattern of Tsukamoto's earlier film which tend to always have a beautiful, often seductive female playing a lead role alongside the protagonist, but WHY OH WHY this particular cute female? Her acting skills (or lack thereof) clearly set her apart from everyone else appearing herein and even her physical appearance often causes a comedic distraction at otherwise serious moments. Consider the fact that Detective Keiko is supposed to be a tough-minded, thoroughly competitive female detective in a male's world and whose primary wardrobe characteristic are the high heeled shoes she is determined to wear on the job. At the very least, you'd want to select an actress who can walk in such shoes while emitting the character's sense of professional confidence and determination. But as Hitomi consistently wobbles across the screen, she seems to lack even the confidence that she will not suddenly topple from her high-heeled perch and land sprawling on the set with cameras rolling. This inability to walk in a straight line without grabbing a handrail, coupled with her limited acting skills (which seem to include only blank stares or hysterical shrieking), caused more than a little eye-rolling as I watched this.
Seemingly random suicides throughout the Tokyo area soon appear to be linked to a mysterious individual known only as "0" whom each of the victims had called and entered a suicide pact with. Such pacts are not unheard of, but "0" apparently remains alive and eye-witnesses to some of the suicides claim the victims were actually asleep and screaming for help when they viciously cut themselves to pieces. Traditional police investigations are coming up empty-handed, so they break their methodology into two directions: the normal routine and the more unorthodox paranormal/supernatural investigation. On the "normal" side, the cops decide to call the mysterious "0" with a young detective posing as a potential suicide partner. But things go badly for Team Normal when the detective decoy promptly does away with himself in a very violent manner during his sleep.
Meanwhile, the Paranormal Team, led by the newly recruited knock-out Keiko Kirishima locates a disheveled and glum young man with a reputation for his ability to enter people's dreams. After some convincing, the young man agrees to cooperate with the investigation. During an intrusion into one victim's dream, the Nightmare Detective comes face to face with a hideous monster responsible for the mysterious deaths. Elsewhere, the impatient and depressed Keiko takes things into her own hands and calls "0" to confront the villain.
With the Goopy Nightmare Monster in hot pursuit of both the Nightmare Detective and Keiko, time is running out. Our Dreamy Duo must somehow do away with the killer before Keiko falls asleep and there meet her grisly demise.
Apart from the shortcomings I mentioned earlier, this is a pretty good (creepy) slasher/horror film. A sequel (Nightmare Detective 2), also by director Tsukamoto and starring Ryuhei Matsuda (but NOT Hitomi! Woo Hoo!) is being released this year (2008) in Japan. The Japanese take on monsters or evil men who can transition between Reality and Nightmares is far more entertaining and meaningful than the rehashed Nightmare on Elm Street modus operandi. And the core of this film, an unwilling, troubled hero with an ability to enter a person's nightmares and his nihilistic apathy to confront any demon, opens up some really cool potential for this and future films involving the "Nightmare Detective".
The special effects appear to be decent, though they are often obscured by an overly wrought shaky-cam technique. But the premise is a good one with some interesting twists. The bad guy is formidable indeed, the girls are pretty, and the bedraggled and despondent hero is willing to enter Hell itself. That, along with the skills of director Tsukamoto makes this film worth seeing. Its certainly not earth-shattering, but it does lead the viewer in a couple new and creative directions.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (with subtitles)
|Interesting addition to the Nightmare vs. Reality genre.||Plenty of slashing and blood squirting, often self-inflicted. Talk of doom, gloom and suicide permeate the narrative.||Despite what the US Release DVD cover implies, there is NO half-naked chick (with or without a massive knife) in this film.||A slightly effective existential moral wrapped in a creative tale which overlaps the world of Nightmare with Reality.|