The opening scenes of Neighbor #13 show us a young man whose traumas have given him an alter ego — but it’s shown in a way that is fresh and powerful enough to make us forget how this plot usually becomes a dead end in most movies that employ it. The rest of the film, courtesy of first-time director Yasuo Inoue, is equally engaging, too, thankfully. #13 approaches its story with a straight face, even when it contains elements of coincidence or happenstance that would sink a lesser film. It becomes both eerie and compelling as a result, and the end result is not even something you could call a horror story. It’s more akin to one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s better movies, where human psychology is like a defective machine that kills and maims others in defiance of its operator’s intentions.
#13 opens with Murasaki’s bullying — a fellow student burned his face with acid, among other things — and uses a clever visual metaphor to show how the young man has harbored a smoldering resentment of his tormentor ever since. Now a silent and reserved twenty-ish man, he gets a job at a construction company, and discovers that not only is his new boss his former tormentor, but they’ve moved into the empty apartment directly upstairs from his. And now, with no preamble or forewarning, Murasaki discovers he has a nascent alter ego — “Neighbor #13”, a bug-eyed thug with a scarred face — who emerges and “takes care” of things when Murasaki cannot. “#13” breaks into the other man’s apartment, wires the place for sound, and uses Murasaki’s own unassuming nature as a way to trap others.
The bizarre but engaging visual metaphor that opens Neighbor #13 shows the
tormented Murasaki's alter ego rising to the surface to deal with his problems.
The movie also devotes at least as much time to Murasaki’s tormentor, Akai (Hirofumi Arai), as it does to Murasaki himself. Akai hangs out with biker gangs and uses violence to keep his people in line, but he’s also gotten married to a sensible young woman and sired a happy-faced little child, so maybe he isn’t all that bad. But he’s also not above tormenting Murasaki while at work, and it isn’t until much later that he makes the connection that this Murasaki was indeed the kid whose life he made miserable. By that time his child has been kidnapped, one of his cronies murdered, and a man next door who complained about the noise has been eviscerated — so it might just be too late.
#13 has been described as Fight Club crossed with Oldboy, but in reality it’s nowhere nearly that grotesque a hybrid. It’s actually closer in spirit and concept to one of the novels of Japanese author Kobo Abe, who addressed questions about the mutability of identity in the face of modern life. One such novel was The Face of Another, itself made into a very fine movie that has yet to be seen here in the States, and if he had not died in 1993 he might have ended up writing something like this. The real source material for the movie is in fact a manga, one which felt far more lurid and confrontational than the film is. The movie also evokes something I always find fascinating in a movie: the grit of Japan’s working-class world, where people cram themselves cheek-by-jowl into one-and-a-half room apartments and eke by one day at a time.
Murasaki's childhood tormentor is now his adult tormentor, and he soon discovers that
his own real-world personality isn't enough to do anything about him.
The movie sees violence, but is smart enough not to revel in it, and even uses absurdly violent situations to make points about its characters (as Takeshi Kitano might). At one point late in the film there is a face-off between a man with a shotgun and another man with a sword; the latter simply reaches over and yanks the gun away from the former, despite being at pointblank range, and chases him into a corner. At first it looks silly, but then we realize it has meaning: Without the gun the other man’s a coward, and his dependence on situations being in his favor has been the entire source of his strength. When he has no doors to slam on someone’s hand, or two-by-fours to trip people with, or cronies to do his dirty work, he’s helpless.
#13 is filmed in a very odd, detached way, but for a reason. Scenes go on longer than our instincts would tell us they need to be. Shots are held and held until they call attention to themselves, but in a strangely muted fashion. We are outside the action, looking in. Sometimes the shots are framed in a way that a voyeur might see them — through an outside window, or at a great distance through a telephoto lens that makes it difficult for the camera to track in accurately. At other times the camera is more flamboyant (as with a surprise animated sequence), but always to enhance the existing feelings and never distractingly so. The best special effects are, after all, the ones that we don’t realize are special effects, and there is one such moment here that is actually used in the service of the story — when Murasaki begins morphing into “#13” during an act of violence, but without much attention called to it, and over the space of several seconds.
Akai, the tormentor, may now be a family man, but in Murasaki / "#13"'s eyes he hasn't changed,
and "#13" launches a campaign of counter-torment and terror designed to ruin the other man.
There are other equally subtle but effective visual elements. When Murasaki becomes “#13”, the movie shows him as “#13” (i.e., played by the other actor) in all circumstances — in mirrors, even on video — although the film also wisely never has the characters themselves call attention to this discrepancy. Luis Buñuel used the same trick in one of his movies: he had different actresses portray the same character throughout a film, without having anyone call attention to it, all for the sake of achieving a given effect. Granted, #13 is a bit more middlebrow than The Obscure Object of Desire, but the strategy works here; fits into the overall structure of things without becoming an indulgent distraction.
A good deal of the strength of the film comes not only from its images and approach but from its acting and directing. The most impressive performance in the film is actually Shido Nakamura, as “#13”, who comes off as being akin to one of those spacy, not-quite-with-it damage cases that we instinctively avoid. He gets his most impressive stint of screen time near the end of the movie, when he finally has his tormentor right where he wants him but finds revenge more difficult in practice than in theory. Shun Oguri, as the real Murasaki, is equally impressive, able to suggest someone who has torment welling up inside of him without resorting to the usual clichés. He bottles up instead of acting out, because “#13” is the one who does all the acting out.
What makes the film ultimately work best is its style and approach, which lets
us navigate the material it presents without making it feel lurid or unintelligent.
Sometimes the success or failure of a movie really does come down to approach and style. I tried to think about what made Neighbor #13 work when many other movies did not, and I kept coming back to the same aesthetic choices made by the director. The movie doesn’t treat its subject like a thrill ride, because it’s not, and the fact that it knows better about that one thing puts it out in front. It is also one of the few genuinely creepy movies I’ve seen recently that doesn’t rely on the supernatural as an escape or an explanation, which also counts for something.