It’s been nearly two decades since Japanese maverick Shinya Tsukamoto set international tongues wagging with his amazing cyberpunk splatterfest Tetsuo: The Iron Man. A dark parable of man’s inability to control his taste for technology, the visionary work announced the first time feature filmmaker as an Asian force to be reckoned with. In the 19 years that have followed, he has consistently responded to his own unique muse, mounting films centering on demons (Hiruko), revenge (Bullet Ballet), and claustrophobic terror (Haze). Now comes Nightmare Detective, a left field flick for the noted auteur. Seemingly centered on a police investigation into a series of unexplained deaths, what we wind up with is a dread-inducing exploration into the correlation between nightmares and reality.
When female police officer Keiko Kirishima asks to be transferred from her cushy desk job with the Federal Bureau, she ends up on one of Japan’s most notorious current cases. It seems people are dying by their own hand, stabbing themselves in the throat, and yet all the deaths can be linked to a final cellphone call to someone named “O”. At first, the stogy males in the precinct don’t appreciate Keiko’s feminine ways. But they soon respect her, even as one of their own falls in the process. Desperate for help, the cops turn to the Nightmare Detective, a troubled young man with the ability to read minds and enter people’s dreams. At first he is reluctant to assist. But when Keiko falls under O’s spell, he decides to get to the metaphysical bottom of the killings, and the killer.
Into this diabolical domain walks Keiko, a fresh face following her own inner angst. Played by the noted J-Pop star Hitomi as a series of static, statuesque poses, our heroine is neither champion nor chump, equally unavoidable as fodder for the frighteners and catalyst for the divisive denouement. She is so much more important than the title character, a whiny little man who seems haunted by powers he is perfectly capable of controlling – at least somewhat. Thematically, Tsukamoto clearly wants to delve into the realm of human psychology, how issues from the past manifest themselves in the everyday patterns of the present. He uses visual cues to keep us connected – underwater sequences, splashes of blood, the physical acts of stabbing and choking – and as the film progresses, such hints settle in to cement the story.
But mood is just as important as clues in Nightmare Detective, and it’s clear from what we see here that our director is a master of ambiance. For a modern society, the Japan of this film looks dirty, ancient, soiled, and tainted. The supposedly pristine buildings become bland fixtures in the graying skies, and the typical neon nightlife is muted to the point of creepiness. As with Tetsuo before, Tsukamoto uses sound as an important part of his horror. During the opening murders, when victims are trying to run from an unseen force, the jagged camerawork and sonic cacophony create a genuinely disturbing chaos. But this is a filmmaker who also knows how to play quiet. When O takes on Keiko and the dream weaver in the last act confront, the absence of sound works wonderfully.
Watching the way the actors are framed, how this director references Japan’s past (O in full fright mode, blood dripping from his eyes and nose, is like a corrupt kabuki) while keeping things firmly in the post-Freudian future, allows even those unfamiliar with the mouth of madness to be intrigued. Nightmare Detective is a movie that plays with time, juxtaposing certain special elements with memories, flashbacks, and foreshadowing. It doesn’t quite all link up in the end, though Tsukamoto does a damn fine job in the effort. We get a great many “a-ha” moments as the story strides to its conclusion, connections barely visible before. They help make what many would see as a gore-soaked statement of standard serial killer cruelty into something more closely resembling art.
On the new DVD version of the film, unrated (meaning much more blood, for those who care), we get a clear indication that nothing in Nightmare Detective is by chance. Tsukamoto delivers a near hour long documentary on the making of the movie, explaining the premise and the various symbolic and subtextual aspects at play. We even get to see some amazing behind the scenes footage of the director working with his cast and setting up shots. Known for his unusual perspective both in front of and guiding the camera (Tsukamoto is a very accomplished actor, as his turn as O proves), these insights are special. They highlight the detail-oriented effort he puts into every project.
And the results really show in Nightmare Detective. While many may mistake this for just another juicy J-Horror romp (and envision the eventual Hollywood PG-13 bastardization of same), there is much more depth here than one initially expects. The psychological overtakes the standard superstition vs. the supernatural dynamic, and Tsukamoto transforms the celluloid canvas into a perverse pallet of his own unique design. It’s good to see that, after years of marching to his own individualist drummer, this Japanese legend has lost none of his stride. Nightmare Detective may not match its cover description or compliments, but in this case, that’s a very good thing indeed. We’d expect nothing less from Tsukamoto.