Shinya Tsukamoto is at a point in his career where I will see any movie with his name on it. Maybe not a wise thing, but there you go. After he created Tetsuo: The Iron Man, he pretty much put independent Japanese filmmaking into the pop-culture consciousness of the world. He has made plenty of movies at least as brilliant since then—Gemini, Vital, Tokyo Fist, A Snake of June—but also a number of others that rank more as interesting curiosities than essential work. E.g., Hiruko the Goblin, which felt curiously perfunctory—a work-for-hire instead of something really inspired.
And now we have Nightmare Detective, which while functional and competent—and a hell of a lot better than the run-of-the-mill J-horror product out there—is more like a taster for Tsukamoto’s talents than a real example of it. You watch this, and if you like it, you go on to watch one of the other movies I cited above. For that reason it also falls into a trap I’ve witnessed before: from any other director this movie would he phenomenal, but with Tsukamoto’s name on it, you automatically expect far more.
Detective opens with what by now ought to be a deeply familiar J-horror trope: death by cellphone. A slew of what could be either murders or suicides are all tied together by the fact that the victims dialed zero on their cellphones before they died. The female detective who takes on the case, Kirishima (newcomer “Hitomi”), enlists the help of an unorthodox source: the Nightmare Detective (ever-sulky Ryuhei Matsuda), who can dive into people’s dreams and unearth things only they would know. The problem is the Detective doesn’t have much will to live, himself, and so coming up against “Zero” (as they dub the killer) proves to be nearly fatal for him.
The first half of the film, where they enumerate the mechanics of the murders and get all the plot ducks in a row, is a bit of a slog. The second half of the movie is somewhat better, if only because it pays less attention to the nuts-and-bolts details of the plot and concentrates instead on the horrors of the nightmare world, and delivers one surreal jolt after another. One consistently good thing throughout is the cast: veteran Ren Osugi does a turn as Kirishima’s supervisor; Masanobu Ando figures in as Wakamiya, Kirishima’s partner, grizzled old Yoshio Harada shows up in the opening segment (which is a lot better than much of what follows, ironically enough), and Tsukamoto himself is great as Zero—at least until the movie reveals crucial details that undermine any of the mystery surrounding him.
That’s problem #1 with Detective: it attempts to explain too many things that don’t need an explanation, because they automatically become less frightening (and that much less interesting to boot). Problem #2 is the obverse: when the movie needs to be grounded in reality and plausible human behavior, it cops out. Example: If “Zero”’s number is on the victim’s cellphones, why don’t they try to, you know, trace the number and see where it goes, instead of going on the wild goose chase they do? I also wasn’t impressed with the movie’s attempts at characterization, which start off flimsy and become simply overheated. The whole rival-jealous-cops thing is also pretty stale—at one point Kirishima actually says “I can’t stand men who think they’re better than me.” Trust me, lady, it isn’t just you.
But for all the things the movie does indifferently or clumsily, it does at least one other thing incredibly well. The visuals are terrific—monochromatic, moody, and with camerawork that would be the envy of most any American horror flick. Several of the scenes here evoke dream-logic dread beautifully, the best of them being one where Kirishima traps herself in what looks like a tiny coal cellar and discovers again and again that she’s not safe.
And the movie also works in, however indirectly, one of Tsukamoto’s classic formulas: two men in competition (of a sort) over a woman. This time, though, they seek not her love or her company, but to murder or maybe also be murdered by her, which for both of them is what passes for being intimate. What’s missing from the whole film, though, is that last little spark of total fearlessness that sets all of Tsukamoto’s best movies ablaze. Detective plays it too safe.
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