Here is a movie which doesn’t really work as a whole, but is oddly fascinating if you take each piece by itself. The Black House was marketed as a thriller, but it’s really closer to one of Takashi Miike’s “thrillers”, where the workings of the plot take a backseat to outré examples of bizarre human behavior. I’m not sure I liked it, exactly, but I was never bored by it, and it earns a few extra points for being based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi (of The Crimson Labyrinth). The movie’s bizarre and striking enough to make you curious about the book, even if you’re not inspired to see the film itself more than once.
Most thrillers rarely have heroes—only victims or perpetrators. Wakatsuki, the protagonist of House, works in a small Kyoto life-insurance company but right from the start has VICTIM stamped on his forehead. He’s mousy, reticent, intimidated and twitchy. The only things in life that give him real peace are swimming and his girlfriend—when he’s in the water, and when he’s next to her, he’s a different man. He also knows his job well, and despite his meekness has a good nose for the fraud and double-dealing that are rampant. Things could be worse.
One day they get worse. He receives a phone call from a brassy, blowsy-sounding woman who wants to know about whether or not life insurance pays off if you kill yourself. Well, no, he admits; generally that sort of thing is null and void. She hangs up, and he’s left feeling doubly weird. Then he’s sent to investigate a case where a young boy is found dead in his parent’s house, hanging from a rafter. (Wakatsuki is practically invited to blunder across the body, and nearly has an apoplectic fit in the process.) The father’s a twitchy character who seems more upset that the payout’s slow in coming than in the fact that his own son hung himself.
Something’s not right with these people. The problem, especially in Japan, is that there’s nothing illegal about being a weirdo. Even when the father shows up at the insurance company’s office and becomes increasingly desperate, that’s still only cause (in the company’s eyes, anyway) for placating him. After all, he paid his premiums faithfully and on time, and who knows what kind of damage he could do the company’s reputation if he ran to the media? Wakatsuki nods and smiles and bows, but chokes on his uncertainty, and soon that’s driving him to do ethically questionable things. Like, for instance, write the wife an anonymous letter, purportedly from the police, where he insists she’s in trouble. What he doesn’t know is that she’s probably even more messed up than her husband is.
All of this is pretty intriguing in the abstract, and is also photographed and assembled in a creepy, nervous way that owes more to maverick directors like Shinya Tsukamoto than most journeyman Japanese filmmakers. Turns out the man at the helm was former pink-film director Yoshimitsu Morita, who gave us the movie adaptations of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and Natsume Soseki’s And Then, the thrillers Mohou-han and Keiho, the comedy Family Game, and the blockbuster love tragedy Lost Paradise (with Kōji Yakusho). House isn’t just shots of people talking to each other; Morita’s camera always seems to be looking at things slightly askew or out of focus. He also uses the soundtrack to set our nerves on edge: whenever the father of the dead boy appears on screen, there’s this weird, intermittent shearing sound that sounds like metal being cut … or maybe nerves being frayed.
As enjoyable as the film is while it’s unspooling, it’s also too easy to see right through it once it’s over. Many individual details are grabbers—the evil wife’s obsession with the color yellow, or bowling, is both funny and creepy—but the whole movie ends up being a mere aggregation of little details like that. It’s the sort of thing you watch and maybe enjoy, but then you want to learn more about the director and the novelist behind it, and move on to other, better work by them.