Sunday, August 26, 2007

DVD/Movie Review - The Neighbor No. 13 (Rinjin 13-go) starring Yumi Yoshimura

And now for something completely different. While PUFFY's obviously known for their music and maybe their cartoon "Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi", two years ago Yumi took a bit of a break from the group in order to test the waters of film, starring alongside Shido Nakamura, Shun Oguri, Hirofumi Arai as the principal actors in The Neighbor No. 13 (Rinjin 13-go). Available on DVD in the US, it's definitely a release I felt compelled to cover here for western fans.

The Neighbor No. 13 is part of a new wave of Asian horror films that combine elements of the thriller genre, splatter films, Hitchcockian suspense and a Kubrick-esque visual sensibility and deliberateness in pacing. These films and their filmmakers have formed a bonafide movement often labeled "new Asian horror" and led by the likes of directors Takashi Miike (who makes a cameo in this film), the Pang brothers, Takashi Shimizu, Hideo Nakata and Chan-wook Park. While these filmmakers all have their own unique style, what they have in common is a fresh new vision of the horror genre. Together, they're doing things with horror not seen before in the west.

This film is directed by first-timer Yasuo Inoue, previously known only for commercial work and music videos but chosen for his visual sensibility. It's based on a well-known Japanese manga by Santa Inoue (no relation), who personally vetted the director and approved of the final film. On the surface, it's a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde story about the long-term negative effects of grade-school bullying on the victims' psyche, and a quest for revenge. The climax, however, throws all that into doubt, and forces a different interpretation.

Yumi plays Nozomi Akai, wife of former school bully Toru Akai (Hirofumi Arai), who many years ago had literally scarred classmate Juzo Murasaki for life by throwing a vial of acid in his face. Nozomi and Toru are both former bōsōzoku (biker gang) members who have given up the life of hooliganism in favor of quiet family normality. They have a young son named Yuki, who they're raising in a small apartment that they've just moved into. Unbeknownst to them, Juzo Murasaki has also just moved into the apartment below theirs - and he's taken a construction job working under Toru.

What follows is a series of grizzly murders as Juzo's alter ego, inhabiting him since the acid incident many years ago, prepares for the main event: revenge on Toru. Meanwhile, Nozomi befriends Juzo, not realizing the history between him and her husband. She leaves their son in his care as she and her husband go out on their first date in years, with predictably tragic results. This in turn leads to the climactic confrontation between Juzo and Toru.

Since you're on a Puffy AmiYumi blog, you're probably most interested in whether or not Yumi's got any acting chops. She admits in the DVD special features that she is not an actor and that she can't compete with the other leads. I honestly think she's selling herself short. For the most part, her performance is naturalistic and believable. There is one exception - a scene in which Juzo's alter ego, played by Minoru Matsumoto, licks Nozomi's face as she stands unaware that he's there. In this scene, she never quite gets into character and almost seems on the verge of laughter - she even flinches a tiny bit when Matsumoto licks her face. This scene really could have used another take.

In other scenes, though, she completely inhabits Nozomi, and even manages to do what a lot of professional actors can't: cry on cue. If you didn't know she was a rock star, you'd never guess she was anything but an actress. Reading about this film on other English-language sites, it seems a lot of western critics don't realize she's not. Part of it may be that she is, by her own admission, playing a character pretty similar to herself. But it's in the scenes near the climax where her character starts to lose it a bit that she displays some real range. (She also does some things that pretty firmly remind her fans that she's not a kid anymore; I'll just leave it at that.)

The other actors have been alternatively either praised or criticized for under-acting. But I think the critics miss the point. The overall style of the film is hyper-realistic - it's not a Hollywood-style horror thriller where everything is over-dramatized, over-stylized and where booming music cues you in to when to pay attention. Everything about this film was purposely shot as you'd expect to see it in real life. That means the actors don't overtly emote (with the exception of a hysterical Nozomi) and it means the murder scenes are shot in a matter-of-fact style that's disturbing in its routine. We see the murders happen as a witness might, confused and without a clear view as regular life goes on in the background, and that somehow makes it scarier.

The climactic scene is shot in the same way. It's awkward - even a little funny - as the protagonist and antagonist chase each other around a science classroom. But again, the scene progresses into deadly seriousness that's made even moreso by the contrasting route that it took to get there. The actual ending of the film throws into doubt much of what's happened up to that point. But don't get it wrong - this is not unsatisfying, it's more of a Mulholland Dr. kinda thing.

The sense of realism extends to the cinematography as well. The visual style of the film captures "real" Japan in a way that I haven't seen many films manage. Even most Japanese films and TV shows are over-dramatized, with too-bright and too-even lighting, clean, big houses and rich-looking accessories. (Or alternatively, they go too far in the other direction and overdo a sense of squalor.) In The Neighbor No. 13, the lighting is fluorescent and harsh, tending towards green - as it is in most of Japan.

The apartment building that serves as the main setting is old and worn, with tiny apartments that are crammed with belongings.

One oddity that the actors actually bring up in the DVD special features is that all of them are covered in baby oil through most of the film. Director Yasuo Inoue explained that this was to prevent the actors' skin from absorbing the light, but the effect is that everybody just looks sweaty - even though the film is set during winter. Probably a first-time director's mistake.

Speaking of extras, there are a huge number of them on the two-disc US DVD release, many of which feature the principal actors in various ways. The extras include a Japanese "making of" documentary, an MTV Japan feature on the film, a documentary on the original manga, a series of interviews from the Japanese premiere, and more. These are really fantastic for Yumi fans - it's not often that we see interviews with her of any kind that include subtitles. It's nice to finally know what she's actually saying! (The film itself is obviously subtitled, but she didn't write her lines - it's not her speaking.) She comes across as humble and funny.

On its overall merits, this is an effective example of new Asian horror, although maybe an acquired taste due to its style and pace. It is quite creepy and disturbing, but slow and shot in a hyper-realistic visual style. For Yumi fans, though, it's really a must-have - there is a ton of her in this DVD set, and in ways you've never seen before. Yumi's been in other films, but only in bit parts, never as the leading lady. And never on a DVD with such an impressive amount of extras.

One caveat about the DVD is that, while it looks good for the most part, the picture is bordered on all sides. This probably seemed like a good idea to deal with the overscan problem on some TV's, but it is incredibly annoying for anyone using a digital set (like an LCD or plasma display). We're just losing resolution, and having to watch a movie inside a black box in the middle of our TV's. Keep that in mind - there's nothing wrong with your DVD player or TV.