Now available on DVD
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
With “Nightmare Detective,” maverick director Shinya Tsukamoto takes a conscious step away from the rough, independent features for which he is known (most notably his gritty, 16mm mindfuck of a debut, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”) and moves closer into the realm of Japanese pop cinema than ever before. Experimental visuals and fragile coherence give way to a more polished, straightforward, fast-paced film better suited for mass audiences. But while viewers weaned in the wake of films like “Ringu” and “Ju-On” may feel a little more at home here than in Tsukamoto’s cultish, industrial works, “Nightmare Detective” is anything but generic J-horror.
From the opening moments of “Nightmare Detective,” Tsukamoto makes clear his intent to not only invoke the commonalities of the genre, but to transcend them. As a somber businessman dines in his rotted dwelling, a hunk of long, stringy black hair hangs ominously in the corner like the shadow of Japan’s increasingly homogenized horror scene. Moments later, a serpentine creature seeps out from underneath a rug behind the elder gentleman and…unassumingly takes a seat beside him. The creature is actually no phantom remainder from a tragic past event, but Kyoichi Kagenuma (Ryuhei Masuda), a young man cursed with the ability to submerge himself in the dreams of others. He has been sent as an emissary of the older man’s children to draw him out of a comatose dream state which, he tells his Kyoichi, he has no desire to leave. It’s a scenario all-too-familiar to the Kyoichi who, draped in cloak of solitude and self-loathing, has long ago abandoned any hope for humanity.
Nonetheless, with his mystical talents, the morose brooder is the only hope local police have of solving a series of brutal slayings linked via a pair of cell phone calls to a cryptic being known only as “0.” Though most of the force dismisses the deaths as suicides, zealous rookie detective Keiko (portrayed by posh-attired Japanese pop singer Hitomi) feels the blood-soaked, deceptively simple crime scenes mask something much more arcane. She’s also hiding something — the driving need to prove herself to her condescending partners on the force. She attempts to recruit Kyoichiâ€˜s help, but ultimately must engage 0 herself in his nebulous realm.
Though Matsuda gets title billing as the Nightmare Detective, the story here is not as much a chronicle of his reluctant anti-heroics within the dream world as it is a contrast between his sullen sense of hopelessness and Keiko’s defiant will to live. She emerges early as the more dynamic of the two, struggling not only to stop 0 from killing but also to overcome the prejudice that pervades the homicide squad and her own anxieties. On a deeper level, buried within each of the characters, Tsukamoto offers a clouded thesis on humanity’s attraction to pain and discomfort that hints at some of his more cerebral thematic interests without entirely addressing them to a satisfactory end. 0 seduces his victims into taking their own lives, but there’s an overt implication that the desire to slice themselves to ribbons has been there all along, an inherent failure within people that’s echoed in Kyoichi’s world-weary indifference. One could argue there’s a statement within this surreal, visceral art, and Tsukamoto’s decision to play the eloquent madman behind the murders reinforces the notion that 0’s musings might reflect some of the director’s own, figuratively .
Yet in wrapping his somewhat polemic thoughts up in a more mainstream package, Tsukamoto leaves both sides wanting. Despite its graphic audacity, the pulpy mess of limbs and meat that assaults the screen, “Nightmare Detective” lacks the signature terror of its forerunners (both Tsukamoto’s own work and the more iconic horrors to come out of Japan over the last two decades). Its premise is neither as frightening nor as challenging. At one point after Keiko has succumbed to the dream world, her cell phone – a trademark of typical J-horror if there ever was one – disintegrates in her hand, as if “Nightmare Detective” has moved beyond the limitations of the genre. But what the film offers instead is really no more effective or groundbreaking; it just embodies a different voice — one that has something truly unnerving to share but is either incapable of doing so or chooses not to.
Still, you can’t fault a guy for trying, and while he may fall short of redefining a genre, Tsukamoto’s sense of style thrives in “Nightmare Detective.” His mastery of color, mood, and composition make the film as strikingly watchable as its subject is grim. To that end, the film is probably Tsukamoto’s most accessible work to date, if not his best, and bodes well for whatever strange horrors he has yet to spill.