This most recent effort from director Takashi Shimizu (creator of the JU-ON and GRUDGE movies) is not up to the standard of his previous work, but it is an oddball effort that is in some ways even more experimental. Shimizu’s JU-ON films rather boldly experimented with structure to good effect, tossing out conventional narrative in favor of a puzzle-like mosaic of episodes, but he always offered easy audience identification with the helpless victims. This time, working from a script he did not write, the director abandons even this connection to the audience, pushing his film even further into unconventional territory. It is far from a completely successful experiment, but it does create something with a unique enough identity to be worth exploring.
The story follows an amoral, free-lance cameraman (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, who gave us the TETSUO films), who happens to capture footage of a man committing suicide near a subway by stabbing out his eye. Convinced that the man had seen something terrifying, and obsessed with the thought of capturing that terror on camera — and experiencing it personally — the cameraman explores the subway tunnels beneath Tokyo, descending deeper and deeper into the underground labyrinth, until he discovers the “Mountains of Madness” (a nice Lovecraft reference) hidden inside Inner Earth. There he comes upon a naked young woman chained into a tiny grotto, whom he somehow or other frees and takes home.
Basically, this story sounds like a cornball kids fantasy; however, the movie is anything but. The script and the visual style employ several techniques to distance us from events, providing a strange first-person sort of cinema in which the point-of-view makes us less likely (rather than more likely) to identify with our audience identification figure. Shot on video, most of the movie seems to take place inside the cameraman’s head. There are only a minimum of dialogue scenes and not much real drama; instead, we watch him filming his footage and obsessively watching it alone in his apartment, on several screens simultaneously, with only his nearly continuous voice over narration to provide the majority of the words on the soundtrack. The film alternates between his blurry self-shot video footage and “objective camera angles, but then undermines the distinction by adding occasional video glitches to the images that are supposed to represent “reality,” undermining our certainty about what we’re seeing.
Back home, the cameraman dubs the nameless woman “F.” He seems to think that, despite her appearance, she is not human (the only visual clue to support this is her impressive set of fangs, suggesting some anti-Darwinian de-evolution back into savagery). She crawls around on all fours like an animal, doesn’t speak, and refuses to eat or drink any of the food he provides. Finally, long after we’ve guessed the truth, the cameraman cuts his finger, and “F” laps up the blood like a kitten licking cream.
Meanwhile, the cameraman has been receiving mysterious phone calls and noticing shadowy figures following him, presumably denizens of the underground world, who want “F” returned to her home. However, one of them claims to be the cameraman’s ex-wife, who accuses him of having kidnapped and imprisoned their daughter. Eventually, the cameraman kills her and another victim, in order to provide blood for “F.” But is she really the “marebito” (i.e., stranger) from afar that he imagines, or is she in fact his daughter, whom he has abused in his madness. The script’s ambiguity on his point is fairly predictable in the usual “maybe-maybe-not” kind of way, but it does provide an extra level to the already perverse tension of the relationship between the cameraman and “F.” (Blood-drinking as a metaphor for oral sex is almost de rigueur nowadays, but it has a different kind of kick when the vampire is not a supernatural seductress but an inarticulate animal.)
Shimizu only rarely employs his patented supernatural touches (the cameraman believes that terror opens his doors of perception to a netherworld, providing a few glimpses of ghost-like apparitions). Instead, he layers the video-oriented visuals, relying on dissolves, hand-held cameras, and multiple angles to convey the fractured worldview of his isolated protagonist, a man who seems to have only professional contact with the outside world and no personal relationships at all except for the one he forms with “F,” whom he ultimately decides to treat as a pet, not a fellow human.
The end result is a rather unpleasant little movie that is definitely an art-house effort, not just because it’s a subtitled foreign film but because it asks us to watch and experience events that are frankly sordid in their implications, without offering any sense of redemption, assuming that the bizarre story and unconventional stylistic approach are enough to make the film a fascinating exploration of human behavior (rather like David Cronenberg’s CRASH). The effect is nowhere near as profound and fascinating as Michael Powell’s classic PEEPING TOM (also about a cameraman filming murders he commits), but despite a dreary pace, enough genuinely disturbing moments arise to make MAREBITO a fitfully disturbing little horror movie that is interesting and even occasionally fascinating on its own terms.