MarebitoOne of the more interesting products of the early-00’s J-Horror boom, a twisted and consistently unpredictable depiction of psychosis, vampirism and Lovecraftian dread.

Director Takashi Shimizu is best known for JU-ON/THE GRUDGE, in its original Japanese TV movie, feature remake and glitzy Hollywood versions, as well as the sequels to all three films. MAREBITO: THE STRANGER FROM AFAR was a low budget affair, shot in just eight days. It turned up in 2004, the same year as the Hollywood-ized GRUDGE, and despite its raggedy construction is far and away the better film.

Masuoka is an unemployed TV cameraman. After recording a terrified man committing suicide in a subway station, footage that is broadcast on all the major news networks, Masuoka becomes obsessed with finding out and documenting what it was that so terrified the guy.

Masuoka descends into the subway tunnels, camera in hand. This leads him into a bleak subterranean region where Masuoka runs into two men, one of whom, a bum, warns him of critters known as “Deros.” The other man Masuoka meets is in fact the guy who committed suicide and started Masuoka on his journey. Despite being dead the man is quite talkative, and fills Masuoka in further on Deros, or Detrimental Robots, beings that are believed to be fictional but in fact haunt the underworld. Masuoka attempts to get more information out of the man but he abruptly vanishes.

Descending further underground Masuoka enters a strange realm of mountains and forbidding temples. Here he discovers a chained-up naked woman.

Masuoka christens the woman “F” and takes her back to his apartment. There she quickly withers away, refusing to eat or drink anything. Masuoka receives a phone call from a deep voiced individual who informs Masuoka that he knows who he is and what he’s up to—and that he’s in “big trouble.”

Eventually Masuoka figures out F’s problem: she’s a vampire, and feeds only on blood. This he dutifully provides in both human and animal form. Inevitably, however, blood becomes increasingly difficult to procure, leading Masuoka to adopt some unsavory practices: he kills people and drains their blood, and comes to enjoy doing so a bit too much. Plus he’s still got the Deros, who’ve made their way up from the underworld, to worry about…

Unique though this film is, it reveals its influences quite blatantly. PEEPING TOM was an evident inspiration, as were THE COLLECTOR, RAW MEAT and AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS (which is referenced in the dialogue). The presence of cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto (of TETSUO and TOKYO FIST) in the lead role furthers the sense of movie-mad homage.

Director Takashi Shimizu, utilizing handheld digital camerawork, films in a quasi-documentary manner (notice the street extras staring directly into the camera) that directly recalls Tsukamoto’s films, yet MAREBITO also contains a highly fanciful, non-showy aura that favors wide shots and dissolves. The mix works due to Shimizu’s cinematic flair, and also the consistently intriguing narrative, which confounds expectation at every turn.

Tsukamoto is quite strong in the type of twisted everyman role in which he often casts himself in his own films. Another standout performance is delivered by the gorgeous Tomomi Miyashita as the vampire babe, who admittedly doesn’t have much to do but makes an enormous impression nonetheless.

Vital Statistics

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Director: Takashi Shimizu
Producer: Mikihiko Hirata
Screenplay: Chiaki Konaka
(Based on a novel by Chiaki Konaka)
Cinematography: Tsukasa Tanabe
Editing: Masahiro Ugajin
Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara, Miho Ninagawa, Shun Sugata