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Marebito (Shimizu Takashi 2004)


[A Stranger from Far Away]


Genre: Insanity Sci-Fi Horror

review in one breath

Videographer Masuoka is obsessed with capturing fringe psychological states on film, ranging from the quiet fear of the paranoid to the terror-filled eyes of the suicidal. Through footage he captured of the final moments of a horrified man's life, he finds clues which point him to the doorway into an underground labyrinth of madness and escape. There he finds a mysterious and beautiful being which gives him a renewed purpose for living while at the same time forces him to descend even deeper into the abyss of madness.


This is truly a strange mind-bender.

This film is based on the novel and screenplay by author (and director) Konaka Chiaki (小中千昭) who has been a very prolific source for Japanese film in a variety of genres ranging from youth-centric favorites such as Ultraman to classic J-Horror contributions to the Honto ni Atta series. The novel behind this film is also entitled Marebito and is a fascinating blend of early 20th century science-fiction and New Age religion.

This tale borrows heavily (and explicitly) from the works and life of Richard Sharpe Shaver (1907-1975). Shaver's 1943 work entitled A Warning to Future Man described his personal eight year abduction and confinement within a vast subterranean world built by an ancient and advanced civilization. Although this civilization eventually abandoned Earth for another planet, they left behind the impaired and genetically flawed, who eventually degenerated into a race of demented, cannibalistic brutes which Shaver called "Deros" or "detrimental robots". These Deros were said to occasionally climb to the surface world and kidnap human victims in order to consume their flesh and blood.

Shaver's work's became phenomenally popular when thousands of letters poured in by readers claiming to have been similarly abducted into this same underground nether realm. His writings were soon increasingly considered factual and prophetic rather than science fiction, resulting in a widespread movement known as the "Shaver Mystery".

Almost three decades after the fervor, Shaver's publisher confessed that rather than 8 years in a subterranean world, Richard Shaver had actually spent those years in a mental institution.

(I wish to talk a little more about this, but since doing so will possibly divulge spoilers, I will add my comments near the end of this review.)

Marebito is directed by Shimizu Takashi (清水崇) who is easily best known for being the director and screenplay writer of all the Ju-On (Grudge) films. Although in interviews Shimizu claims he would like to eventually direct (also) drama and comedy films, he has heretofore exclusively dedicated himself to the J-Horror genre in all twelve of his films, as well as the four upcoming films he has in the que.

The full Japanese title for this film is Horaa Bancho Shiriizu: Marebito (ホラ~番長シリーズ 稀人), referring to the fact that this film is one in the collection of four "Horror Bancho Series" films. The only relevance to mentioning this is in the fact that the Supervising Editor (監修) for the entire "Horror Bancho" series and director of the first film appearing therein (entitled Sodomu no Ichi / ソドムの市) is Takahashi Yo (高橋洋) who also served as Supervising Editor on three of the four original Ju-On films. Thus it would seem that Takahashi asked Shimizu to particpate in this series, the result being the current Marebito film.

And for the sake of accuracy, I should point out that Takahashi Yo is no small name amongst even the BEST of contemporary J-Horror. In addition to being intimately involved with the Ju-On films, if you look closely you'll notice that he is the screenplay writer of such films as Rasen, Ringu 2, Ringu 0, and Shin Sei Toire no Hanako-san. Given his extensive experience with some of the central directors and films in this genre, I would be personally VERY interested to see his directorial debut of Sodomu no Ichi, but alas (and of course) only Shimizu's film has (as of yet) been brought to the international fore.

And finally, I should note that the lead role here is played by director/actor Tsukamoto Shinya (塚本晋也). In many ways this particular role is precisely within Tsukamoto's characteristic niche of exploring the transformation of human nature. This was the modus operandi of several of Tsukamoto's directed films such as the two Tetsuo films, Bullet Ballet and Snake of June. Thus I think casting him for this role was a brilliant idea (though in interviews, Shimizu clearly admits this was someone else's idea.)


I think I've probably already divulged as much of the storyline as I should.


I have dual opinions regarding this film.

First, this can in fact be deemed a rather satisfying and complex psychological horror which thoroughly (and irrevocably) blurs the lines of insanity and Reality. The imaginative appeal of this narrative is obvious, given its near-realistic depiction of a vast subterranean realm below Tokyo. Indeed, as Masuoka descends through mechanized, cement-laden tunnels deeper into the earth, you will find yourself wondering just where the line between reality and fantasy should be drawn. Also highly palpable is the depicted psychological meltdown of the main character Masuoka whose reaction to his situation convincingly transcends rationality and morality. This central portion of the story undoubtedly succeeds as well as it does through the acting skill of Tsukamoto who is cast in the role.

But then, on the other hand, the following comes to mind:


This narrative explicitly invokes the name of Richard Shaver (although the Japanese dialogue mistakenly refers to him as "Frank Shaver") and the "Deros" of his cavern nightmares. What audiences are NOT told is the degree to which the life trajectory of the film's main character, Masuoka, is similarly based upon that of Richard Shaver.

In essence Marebito is a tale regarding the descent into Masuoka's sadistic, murderous insanity. Although the tale is told exclusively from the POV (point of view) of the lead character, and thus portrays the whole of his fantastical, delusional visions, he nevertheless reveals the narrative's otherwise hidden reality when he admits he killed his wife and treated his daughter as an animal.

Thus despite the visual detours via the depicted mental states of Masuoka, there exists a very clear parallel to the reputed scenario of Richard Shaver. Shaver wrote memoirs regarding his years within the subterranean world populated by Deros and blood thirsty mutants, years which later proved to be time spent in an insane asylum. Similarly, the film Marebito claims, through Masuoka's POV, to depict his experiences within the subterranean world and his heartfelt concern over the survival of one of the realm's de-evolved species. Yet in the end, audiences learn that his cavernous memories in fact consist of insanity-fueled murderous rampages and the utter animalistic degradation of his daughter. (Via his own brief confession.)

Upon reflection, I recognize that I too feel alot like Masuoka, seeking to experience the terror contained in the eyes of his filmed subjects. Unless I too am falling into the abyss of madness, I personally found this film's rather amazing degree of narratival dependence upon existing sources to be quite a buzz kill.

Of course I don't object to (quasi) fact-based Japanese films, but I personally REGRET promising contemporary Japanese films which simply rehash old Euro-American motifs. Some of us "Japanese Film Purists" hold quite a bit of repulsion toward similarly QUASI Western-made "Japanese" films, such as the Cruise-masturbatory Last Samurai or the Chinese-cast Memoirs of a Geisha. Neither of these films contain enough actual "japanese influence" to merit their review on SaruDama. (And most likely they are both quite happy not to appear here.)

Although of course Marebito does not transgress this cultural confusion to the degree of these other films, I confess (and warn) that its proximity to my line of conscientious discretion is alarming. In other words, in less than generous estimations, this is a Japanese rehash of purely Western motifs, unique ONLY in the imagination that rather than abiding his time in a mental institution, the main character (Shaver/Masuoka) was in fact quasi-homeless, wandering the deep tunnels of the modern subway system, and committing insanity-motivated murder.

Thus the key question here is: Once/If you know of the writings of Richard Shaver and the "Shaver Mystery", what degree of uniquely Japanese "insight" or "horror" will you gain here?

My suggested answer is: far too little.

One final observation should probably be added. The conceptual aftermath of this tale within the contemplative viewer is very dark indeed.

Consider the following.

We know that Masuoka's "netherworld" experiences were in fact treks through utility tunnels beneath Tokyo's streets. We also know that his murder and bloodletting of two females were actually committed (and not simply hallucinatory). Think, then, regarding the actual condition of his daughter implied here.

Masuoka himself admits that he reduced her to an animal. How then are we to interpret the chains and the nudity? Or far more disturbing still, what of her forced diet restricted to raw dead animals and the blood drained from dead humans? Are viewers expected to assume that the blood was in actuality strawberry milk and the corpse of the cat a large burrito? I think not. And similarly, in the final moments of the film, who in fact leads whom back into the dark tunnels? Masuoka's delusion sees the smiling creature gently leading him by the hand down to the cave. What, do you think, might have been the reality?

Thus whereas this tale is depicted exclusively through the eyes of the delusional Masuoka, the Reality the narrative points toward is disturbing indeed. And given the heinous degradation of a young girl taking place here, I count myself lucky that director Shimizu decided not to lift the curtain of delusion here and display Reality. Had he done so, this tale would inevitably rank among the most perverse and extreme schlock-gore films of the decade. And yet I remain increasingly uneasy over the way this narrative quietly sweeps the real daughter under the stylistic rug, a literal human sacrifice to the gods of narratival twists, seemingly without a tear of remorse -- For she is depicted as contentedly smiling upon Masuoka in the end.

Version reviewed: Region 1 Subtitled DVD available at all mainstream venues

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Nada. Although far from graphic, there are several 'matter of fact' brutalities. Very brief and carefully depicted nudity. The overwhelming references to early 20th century science fiction almost make this film obsolete!!

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