What’s a better way to kick off the start of October than a series of posts on Japanese horror? Now, if I was the cheeky, unoriginal sort, I’d do a joke post on K-On! and pretend as though it’s real horror. But no, I will actually try to watch and write a post on a film or anime every other day until Halloween comes and goes. This feature will focus more on films though, because I couldn’t really find a whole lot of horror anime that were actually scary or effective. I’m still taking suggestions, however, so feel free to recommend an anime in the comments.
In any case, the first movie I’m going to take a look at is Marebito. It’s a strange, little film for Director Takashi Shimizu, the same mind behind straightforward horror tales such as the Ju-on series and Tomie: Rebirth. Comparatively, Marebito feels downright surreal.
The story centers around the loner Masuoka and his obsession with fear. Unfortunately, any regular ol’ sense of fear just won’t suffice; Masuoka wants to observe absolute fear, and he will go to any lengths to accomplish this: “If the ultimate terror is to have your own mind and body destroyed by others… I’d go so far as to imitate a psychopath to record the terror of the victim on my retina and video tape.” This obsession somehow takes him deep into Tokyo’s underground tunnels. There, he finds a mute, naked girl in chains:
Masuoka somehow reasons that he should take the girl back to the surface world, but it’s not entirely clear what his motives are. The girl, now referred to as merely F, remains in chains, though now in the comfort of Masuoka’s apartment. At this point, the narrative slows down significantly as the man’s symbolic reality seemingly crumbles around him. Masuoka soon realizes that the girl can only sustain herself through blood, and naturally, she prefers human blood. At first, Masuoka brings home dead animals for her to eat, but he soon resorts to murder. In the end, he returns with F to the underground world where he finally discovers that true sense of fear he had been searching for all along.
So what are we to make of Masuoka’s descent into madness? In my mind, I see two compelling interpretations:
1. The psychoanalytic interpretation: “The feeling we know as terror is actually ancient wisdom that’s sealed in our subconscious mind.” — Kuroki
You can certainly interpret the film psychoanalytically. Very early on in the film, we see Masuoka discard a bottle of prozac right before descending into Tokyo’s underground tunnels. Right off the bat, we know that Masuoka has a history of mental illness. I’m not an expert on prozac or clinical depression, the condition that it is supposed to treat. Nevertheless, let’s speculate. Let’s say depression makes you inactive and lethargic. Might this explain Masuoka’s obsession with fear? To be accurate, Masuoka’s obsession started when he happened upon a man in the middle of committing suicide: “What did you see? When you poked your eye out in the subway tunnel, you looked as if you’d seen something most terrifying.”
I will suggest then that Masuoka simply wants to feel period. He wants to tap into a primal emotion, and perhaps nothing’s a better example of a primal emotion than absolute fear. As such, as soon as he discards his medication, Masuoka immediately descends into an unreal world: the extensive labyrinthine tunnels beneath Tokyo. In other words, his journey into the tunnels represents a trip into his subconscious mind now that it is “clear” of prozac. If we buy this premise, then the discovery of F begins to make sense. Imagine that prozac is just one example of society’s many ways to keep us functioning within the social construct. As such, locked away in our subconscious is the id, the one aspect of our nature “that contains [our] basic, instinctual drives” (Wiki). Hell, it’s never even explained how Masuoka manages to free F from her chains in order to take her back to the surface world. This thus lends even more credence to the idea that the underground world is metaphorical rather than literal.
F doesn’t utter a single word until the end of the movie. For the most part, she is mute and behaves like a childish animal. At first, Masuoka tries to communicate with her, but he eventually gives up and sees her as nothing more than a pet. Nevertheless, he is stalked by a woman who repeatedly claims that not only does Masuoka have a daughter, but that his daughter is missing. At one point, we are led to presume that the woman is Masuoka’s wife. Following that very notion, we are also led to believe that F might very well be Masuoka’s daughter. But can we take any of this literally?
To continue with our psychoanalytic interpretation of the film, perhaps the woman represents Masuoka’s superego. After all, in her desperation to rescue their daughter, she seems to be the only character in the film with a moral compass of any sort. Midway through the story, however, Masuoka kills her and feeds her blood to F. We know that the superego often serves as our conscience; it gives us our sense of guilt. Perhaps the woman thus represents an aspect of Masuoka that is attempting to pull him back from his pursuit of absolute fear. In order to give himself fully to his project, Masuoka thus has to eliminate his guilt. As such, he kills her; even better, he feeds his superego to his id.
Near the end of the film, however, Masuoka frustrates himself with the fact that he still hasn’t reached true madness: “I longed to be mad. I just hoped to be mad [so] that I could someday witness the terror. As a result, I killed my wife and treated my daughter like an animal. … All of that was not enough to drive me truly insane.” But what is he saying! Surely, killing your wife and locking up your daughter are insane acts all by themselves. If Masuoka isn’t mad by now, then what? To complete the psychoanalytic picture, it seems that his final step is to offer himself (the ego) to F (the id).
Throughout the film, we’ve seen examples of Masuoka’s suicidal tendencies. Early in the story, he looks over the edge of a bridge overlooking a highway as if he’s contemplating jumping to his death. Here, we can see some recognizable marks on his wrist:
Masuoka has repeatedly offered up his blood to F many times over the course of the story. Near the end of the film, he cuts a corner of his mouth and practically makes out with the girl. It is at this point that F seems liberated; she even utters a few words to him right before she drinks his blood as if she knew his sacrifice to her was inevitable. They then return to the underground tunnels of Tokyo, and if my interpretation holds up, the id is now unrestrained, free to show Masuoka that primal sense of fear he had been looking for.
Fittingly enough, Masuoka thinks to himself, “From now on, I’ll never speak, because I need no human words now.” Language is part of what establishes our symbolic order. In other words, we use language to make sense of and structure the world around us. In conceding control to his id, Masuoka no longer needs language. What is thus the fear that he sees? Not only is it something that we cannot see, it is something that cannot be put into words. This primal fear thus exists beyond the realm of the symbolic order. In Lacanian terms, it is the Real: “…the real may only be experienced as traumatic gaps in the symbolic order.”
Some other things to consider:
• The word ‘marebito’ can be directly translated into English as ‘rare person.’ The ‘rare person’ here is likely F, but why? Imagine if modern society has locked our id away behind a layer of social control and medicine. In a sense, Masuoka takes a pilgrimage into his subconscious to find a ‘rare person.’ He begins the journey by throwing away his prozac.
• What am I to make of the Deros, the strange creatures that supposedly inhabit the underground tunnels of Tokyo? Well, Masuoka begins to see them on the surface near the end of the film. Perhaps they are just signs of his symbolic reality breaking down. As such, what is normally confined to the subconscious world starts to appear everywhere. In effect, his delusions are leaking out.
• What about the other literary references, i.e. Lovecraft? I don’t know. It wasn’t the angle I felt like pursuing. In my mind, they felt more like red herrings than anything else, but if someone can provide a compelling analysis that says otherwise, I’d mostly likely be interested in reading it. I have seen others use the Elder Gods as a way to explain the concept of The Real, so there’s one avenue. Still, I’m not particularly keen on this strategy, because I find the Elder Gods a little too understandable by our human words and language, if you get my drift.
• What about the mysterious man in black? Why does he keep calling Masuoka about F? He plays such a small role that it’s hard to attribute much to him, but perhaps he’s the devil in the details in the most literal sense of the idiom.
Despite all that I’ve written above, I find that the psychoanalytic theory isn’t complete in addressing all of the film’s mysteries. For instance, isn’t it peculiar that the movie seems to direct most of its violence towards women? If and when a man does shed blood, it is often by his own doing. I thus offer up my second interpretation of the film.
2. The feminist interpretation: “The underground development was a reminder of the second World War.” — Masuoka
A scene that I find particularly striking appears near the start of the story. Masuoka had just filmed a man committing suicide by stabbing himself through the eye. Masuoka doesn’t just rewatch this footage over and over; he compares it to the version on the daily news. Naturally, the news has the suicide victim’s face blurred. Masuoka, however, rewatches his version where there isn’t any censoring. We’ve already discussed the man’s obsession with fear. Now, let’s discuss how the obsession borders upon the pornographic. In a way, the film is comparing the two footage, but since the only difference is the small bit of censorship, that small bit is thus significant. It’s as if Masuoka’s flouting his country’s own obscenity laws. At another early point in the film, we even see him watch some sort of snuff film. Like all of the other instances of violence in Marebito, the snuff film seems to portray a man brutally torturing a woman. Masuoka, however, finds the film wholly unsatisfying: “The terror on her face doesn’t seem quite real.”
A lot of pornography’s detractors aren’t merely prudes. There’s a palpable fear that pornography desensitizes its viewers. Like with a drug, pornography delivers a high. For some people, however, the high eventually becomes boring and mundane. As such, a new high must be attained. In either drug usage or pornography, this can push some of us toward the more extreme end of the spectrum. Although Masuoka will claim that his obsession is only with fear, perhaps he’s not being entirely honest with himself. We’ve already discussed how Masuoka’s journey into the underground world can represent his descent into madness, but let’s look at it from a societal standpoint. What if it is metaphor of a man descending into Tokyo’s sordid underbelly, specifically a world of female exploitation? After all, he doesn’t just find a girl underground — he finds a naked, chained girl. Sure, Masuoka does nothing overtly sexual with F (other than a bizarre make-out/feeding session), but I am now reminded of another victim in the film:
After killing his “wife,” Masuoka lures a high schooler into making a gonzo porno. I can’t help but link this poor girl’s fate to his wife’s claims that their daughter has disappeared. Hidden underneath all the glitz and glamour of Tokyo (or any other metropolis) is a darker underbelly where young girls (and to a certain extent, boys as well) are preyed upon daily by those looking to make a quick buck. Girls aren’t merely convinced to do pornographic films, which might at least be regulated by some sort of governing body (I actually don’t know; this is just speculation). There are many girls like Masuoka’s second victim. These girls are often tricked by the promises of money to engage in amateur pornography, where there is perhaps less oversight, and enjo kosai.
We know that Masuoka has been watching snuff films — and who knows for how long — so what if he had reached a point where he needs a new high? At two different moments in the film, Masuoka finds himself talking to Kuroki, the ghost of the man who committed suicide. But how likely is this? Is it possible that Masuoka’s merely talking to himself? In that case, do the conversations take on a whole new meaning? In their second talk, Kuroki says, “[You want to feel my terror] because it’s something unknown.” There’s almost a sense that the fear that we commonly know and speak of is mundane to men like Masuoka. Like I’ve said above, he’s looking for a new high, but whatever that high is, it caused a man like Kuroki to stab his one of his own eyes. To that same effect, Masuoka becomes a murderer, then commits self-harm just to feel something unknown.
With F, Masuoka tries to save and nurture a mute, defenseless girl, but in the end, he exploits her anyway. Even when he isn’t home, he keeps an eye on her through the many cameras he has set up throughout his home. As such, F is an unwitting star of her own voyeuristic pornography. Masuoka tries to talk to her, but they literally cannot communicate. Does this perhaps suggest at the unassailable gulf between those who feed money into an industry of systematic exploitation and the girls exploited by said industry? He wants to clothe and feed her, but in order to do so, he has to hurt other women, which includes his wife and a high school girl perhaps around F’s age. And as an ironic twist to top it all off, F may actually be Masuoka’s own daughter. Nevertheless, Masuoka finds himself feeding F with blood from his own mouth, and we are treated to a quasi-incestuous scene between the two.
So why did I include the quote above about the tunnels dating back to the second World War? Japan has had a long history of violence towards woman. Of course, every society does, but for the purposes of understanding this film, I’m reminded of the comfort women of Korea, and how they were mistreated by the Japanese army during the country’s occupation of the Korean peninsula. All of this seems to tie into Tokyo and thus Japan’s darker side, implicating the society for its long history of crimes against women. Is this a stretch? Possibly, but I find the interpretation compelling.
Director Takashi Shimizu has made a lot of films about female victims returning from the grave to wreak vengeance on her (typically) male abusers. Is there an actual oeuvre here to which Marebito belongs? I’ll be watching more of his films over the next coming weeks, so it’ll be interesting to see what interpretations we can tease out of his overall filmography. One more thing: in presenting the two interpretations above, I’m not in anyway attempting to find any one true meaning to the film.