The Indeterminate Terror of the Neighbor in Kurosawa's 'Creepy'

Teruyuki Kagawa as the Creepy guy.

The horror of the neighbor is not what is seen but what remains hidden.


Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yuko Takeuchi
Studio: Kimstim
Year: 2016
Release date: 2017-02-28

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud claims that there are few things less “natural” to the human species than the directive to “love thy neighbor”. After all, my love ought to be valuable to me (my most valuable gift) so why should I cast it off to some stranger merely because of physical proximity? We disperse such platitudes, not because we believe in them, but rather precisely because we do not. We tell ourselves we ought to love our neighbor because we know it is next to impossible to do so.

As I write this, my upstairs neighbors are throwing a rather rambunctious party for the third night in a row. One member of that family seems to pace the floors of the apartment (regardless of whether they are throwing a party or not) relentlessly back and forth like a caged and deranged tiger but with the footfalls of an insurgent army eager to pillage. Of course, during a party, everything is far worse -- particularly since they seem like they are somehow combining improvisational comedy theater with a burlesque show set to Lady Gaga and Beyoncé while one of them mimics the sound of a Banshee yodeling with an incessant but demented syncopation. Every sound makes me cringe, every imposition gives rise to homicidal lust.

Why do I have these feelings? Because I begrudge other human beings a bit of hedonistic joy? Of course not. When I cannot myself enjoy hedonism, I am comforted by the idea that others might. Rather, I resent them because they are indulging in their Epicurean delights while I am trying to do something else. My anger is territorial. They impede upon my space and my time. Not because they are inconsiderate, but simply because they are. They are there and thus in the way of the enjoyment I think I should have.

And yet we are deeply social animals. The notion of loving our neighbor is an attempt to vouchsafe our security by suppressing our natural instinct to shove other people out of our space. We rely on our neighbors for a sense of security. We develop the notion that there is an “us” involved in our relationship with our neighbors. Many thinkers feel that this is the cornerstone of our need for society. Fearing the distant Other, we band together with the more proximate (proximate in race or creed or simply location). The world is a frightening place and when in desperation we grab at the comrade of convenience.

Freud suggests that our need for security uncomfortably rubs against our instinctive desire for isolation, indeed, our instinct for aggression. We are a civilization of discontents. Knowing our capacity for violence, we construct a society that forces identification with our neighbors upon us so that we feel that attacking the neighbor is somehow against natural law and our natural interest. In other words, society inverts nature and convinces us to accept it as a sort of second nature.

This deeply ambivalent relationship that we have with our neighbors is the source of innumerable horror stories. The neighbor is the perfect specter. We are supposed to feel comfortable in our neighborhood insofar as it is an extension of our home. And yet a neighborhood, especially I think a suburban neighborhood, is an uncanny space. The word “uncanny” in German is, of course, “unheimlich”, which literally means “unhoused”. That is a rather telling term to employ with respect to the suburban neighborhood.

The neighborhood “houses” your house. Your house resides there. And yet to venture out into the neighborhood is to unhouse yourself, to remove yourself from the cocoon of your domicile and penetrate into the familiar and yet strange (another definition of the uncanny). You know your neighbors in the sense that they are familiar to you. You see their faces as they work in their front yard while you drive by on your way to work. But you have no idea what takes place in their lives. They seem familiar but you know them not at all.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Creepy explores the liminal standing of the neighbor between the familiar and the strange. A detective (Hidetoshi Nishijima) retires from the police force after a deadly encounter with a serial killer. He moves with his wife (Yuko Takeuchi) to the suburbs and he takes a job as a professor at the local university. The couple takes chocolates to the neighbors as a form of introduction; they are universally shunned.

Soon the wife begins to have strange encounters with one of the neighbors (Teruyuki Kagawa). The neighbor comes across as an oddball but not particularly fearsome or dangerous. And yet -- something is off about this fellow. Still, the wife cannot seem to completely sidestep the neighbor. He is not charming and not particularly interesting. Indeed, he doesn’t even have an air of mystery about him. He seems rather dull and peculiar. He is the kind of guy that one ought to get along with as a neighbor in a sort of dismissive and passive manner.

Meanwhile, the husband becomes embroiled in a mystery that has remained unsolved for years involving the disappearance of a married couple and their son who inexplicably abandoned their daughter. The more he investigates, the more he is convinced that there are similarities between the layout of the neighborhood from which the family disappeared and his own. This aspect of the story strikes me as rather preposterous and forced. Indeed, we might see it as something of a red herring, an attempt to create some kind of genre-conforming suspense plot to obscure the real concern of the film.

That concern, I would contend, involves the nondescript malevolence of the neighbor. He increasingly insinuates himself into the lives of the married couple. Neither of them has any interest in him. He lacks social grace, is not particularly intelligent or engaging. And yet he becomes an ever-looming presence in their lives.

We are never shown the technique he employs, the mechanism by which he is able to exert control over what we learn are his victims. This, perhaps, is the most haunting aspect of the film. One need not (as I will not here) give away much of the plot in order to get at what makes this film alluring, if not all that satisfying. Indeed its allurement derives from its inability to provide satisfaction.

The horror of the neighbor is not what is seen but what remains hidden. The neighbor is a specter in that he remains immaterial. His corporeal presence appears cowardly and pathetic. And yet he manifests some strange urgency that compels his victims. I wonder if this is his power in particular or if it is the nature of the neighbor in our age of estrangement.

We live with each other and we look as our neighbors pass by but we don’t see them, not really. They are ciphers to us, but comforting ones. We think to ourselves, “well, at least someone else is around”. But at the same time this person we fail to see haunts the edges of our comfort. Our neighbors impinge upon us; they threaten at the borders of our territoriality. To really see them would be in some sense to define them, to fix them in understanding.

The terrifying power of the neighbor resides in the fact that he remains undefined, indeterminate. He is the smiling face we nod to as we pull into our driveway. But what lies behind the smile? Is it inviting or menacing? The difference requires that we see, but the neighbor only allows us merely to look.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.