Halloween is today and I have found a real gem for some midnight viewing. Spoilers!
This serial killer film comes as something of a relief after two months of kaidan. Nightmare Detective was directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, he of Tetsuo (1988) fame, a film that instantly earned him comparisons with David Cronenberg due to its body horror. I first watched that film late at night as a teenager and was left dazed and disturbed. The comparison to Cronenberg is well deserved as Tetsuo is packed a visceral and psychic punch. I next watched Vital (2004) in a cinema and was left dazzled by the beauty but bemused at the modern dance sequences. Nightmare Detective is the first film Tsukamoto film that I have watched since Vital and I loved it.
Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda) is the titular nightmare detective. He can enter dreams, hear thoughts and read peoples’ subconscious. It is a gift that he hates having because the dreams he enters and the thoughts he read reveal “disgusting things”. He will be immersed in them as a killer stalks the streets. We get a sense of this when we join a woman who is on her mobile phone arranging her suicide with a mysterious man who stabs… himself. She ends up being chased by a “force” and torn to pieces. This is the first of a series of suspicious suicides that leave the police puzzled. A link surfaces when they find that the victims called a person named O (Shinya Tsukamoto). Keiko Kirishima (Hitomi) is a new member of the homicide squad and feels she has to prove herself. Her fellow veteran homicide detective Sekiya (Ren Osugi) is sceptical about her abilities but she has the support of a young detective named Wakamiya (Masanobu Ando). Kirishima becomes increasingly obsessed with the case increasingly convinced that the mysterious 0 can control minds but feels belittled when she’s asked to get the suicidal dream reader involved in her case.
I’m a sucker for these stories: explorations of dreams and the subconscious, detectives facing twisted psychologies, existentialist takes on modern life – Cure and Inception are two titles I love. Nightmare Detective joins them.
The first of a trilogy, this is much more accessible than Tsukamoto’s previous films despite exploring similar themes. His direction is confident, adopting J-horror conventions and marrying them to his sense of mise en scene and aural fireworks, finessing them into something new.
Our male hero is suicidal and at times infantile, he doesn’t drive the action but is as much a victim as others. He is driven by our heroine, Keiko, who is a high achiever (she has transferred from an elite position at the National Police Agency). However she is unstable and harbours uncertainties over her position since she believes she is “socially inept” and her gender is a barrier to getting on with work-mates even when there are no threats. She receives support from others, which was refreshing, but her conflict still resonates as does more abstract one for our detective and this is down to the visuals. Indeed, right from the get-go both characters are overwhelmed as shown by expressionist images.
Our hero finds his power too much to control, this is represented in a beautiful sequence of him plunging into a body of water and enduring a disturbing montage of murky, horrifying things that culminate upon entering and exiting a person’s dreams.
Our heroine is frequently framed in bleak urban settings that literally overwhelm her.
This isn’t just for show but serves a particular purpose that is revealed later in the story, but it’s all still striking imagery.
The killer, 0, is a disciplined, zen-like post-modern answer to an existential nightmare of urban living. Frequently given to saying things like “life is pointless,” and questioning the nature of existence, his dream world appearances are startling sequences where we can hear a terrible gamut of physical violence – the sound of meat being slapped and hacked, metal being trashed. He is wisely kept hidden by the film behind subjective camera angles so we don’t know what’s going on until this nightmarish thing, fresh from a stay in Silent Hill pops out and terrorises its victims.
A linear investigative narrative quickly adopts different layers of dream and reality and never signals the change which adds to the sense of mystery as we become just as puzzled as the police. This builds to a wonderful finale/battle where dreams are manipulated and multiple people’s subconscious’ are explored in a dreamlike set of images that are quite beautiful, poetic, and humanising and set to a beautiful melancholy piano piece. It is Terrence Malick boiled down to three minutes and punctuated with horror.
The visuals are smart. Tsukamoto manipulates the colour palette – when characters feel depressed, their surroundings are very dark indeed. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street there are a lot of clever visual tricks as dream worlds are manipulated – killer-subjective camera, cell-phones drooping, hand-held shaky-camera at great moments of panic. The soundtrack is one of industrial noise from Tsukamoto’s favourite composer Chu Ishikawa, founder of Japanese industrial metal percussion specialists, Der Eisenrost. It might have been draining but it was startling and highly atmospheric.
Casting wise everything is flawless. Pop idol Hitomi turns out to be more than a featherweight actress and manages to be compelling as a woman with something to prove in a male-dominated world. Her character arc made sense and the performance pulled me along. Ryuhei Matsuda is handsome and has a good line on deranged. Ren Osugi is hilarious as detective with a sense of black humour but it is Shinya Tsukamoto who steals the show as the psychopathic murderer.
This review has gone on long enough and I apologise if I have bored you but this is a genuine treat from a true legend of Japanese cinema, at once beautiful and terrifying, surreal and accessible, cerebral and simple, Nightmare Detective is a controlled story about the lack of control not just in dreams but life and our subconscious. I can’t wait to watch the sequel!
Romaji: Akumu Tantei
Release Date: January 16th, 2007 (Japan)
Running time: 106 mins.
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Hisakatsu Kuroki (Screenplay),
Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Hitomi, Masanobu Ando, Ren Osugi, Shinya Tsukamoto