Masuoka, a cameraman, becomes obsessed with a film he made of a man committing suicide in Tokyo's underground; before the man plunged a knife into his eye, his terror is palpable, and Masuoka wants to find out what it is like to be that afraid. He goes down into the cavities beneath even the underground, where he bumps into what he presumes is the ghost of the suicide victim, as well as some strange creatures called Deros. Then Masuoka finds a naked girl who is chained up and looks malnourished. He unchains her and takes her home with him, calling her F. F is unable to talk or to move like a human and he soon discovers that she does not eat and drink like a human either. Will he be able to provide her with the sustenance she needs? And will he ever find out what it is like to be really afraid?
Although directed by Takashi Shimitzu, the man who directed The Grudge, this film is a bit of a departure from his usual work. It is still a horror, but mixed in with it are a couple of science fiction theories, including the Hollow Earth Theory, which believes there is human life going on beneath the earth and Richard Sharp Shaver's fictional Deros, or detrimental robots. Most of the time, it is hard to fathom exactly what is going on on the screen; nor are any of the viewer's questions answered by the end of the film. It's an interesting film, certainly one that I'm glad I've seen just because it is so original, but overall, I'm not sure the director has pulled it off.
Shinya Tsukamoto (director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man) plays the lead role of Masuoka. This is a character that is very difficult to fathom. He appears to be completely crazy, interested in finding out what it is like to be so afraid that death is the only way out. It becomes clear during the course of the film that he has cut out his dosage of Prozac, fearing that it is clouding his mind. And he appears to have a wife and daughter that are no longer part of his life. Yet, as he delves further into F's life, there are sparks of real human emotion and I started to wonder if it was everyone else around him that was mad. The actor does manage to pull the role off well - especially considering the weird plot - but I didn't engage with him as much as I could have, which left me feeling ambivalent about his survival. Tomomi Miyashita plays F - but as she barely speaks and does little but look ethereal, it is hard to comment on her acting skills. From what little I could see, she gave a convincing performance.
The film seems to take ages to get going. The first half an hour is made up of a series of shaky mini films, some of which are shot by Masuoka, some of which are possibly shot by others - it isn't exactly clear. The switching between films is far too quick - there's a feeling of being in a disco under flashing strobe lights, and I found it more annoying than anything else. The odd moment when we see what is really going on rather than through the grainy camera shots, it is a real relief. Even when the film does start getting interesting, these mini films are still occasionally intercut into the main film - I didn't mind when they were necessary, but more often than not, they weren't and it just made the film feel clumsy and awkward. The film was apparently put together in just eight days - that I can most certainly believe.
I did enjoy the middle third of the film. When Masuoka finds out how to feed F, things get a lot more interesting and the film seemed to be moving in a different direction. The plot also seemed to make more sense, particularly because Masuoka narrates his thoughts throughout. However, just as I thought I had it all worked out, everything changed again. What irritated me was that, after going to a lot of trouble to explain about the Hollow Earth Theory and the Deros, nothing really came of it. In fact, nothing really came of anything. I don't mind a film that doesn't have a tidy ending - in fact, I like being made to think - but in this case, the film didn't engage me enough to make me want to spend any more time on it after it had finished. It is probably a film that needs to be watched more than once, but frankly, I doubt I will ever bother.
There is a fair amount of violence in the film and so is not for anyone who doesn't mind murder and suicide scenes and beating. However, I think these concrete scenes of violence are actually less creepy than the scenes that are filmed underground. This Hollow Earth is made up of seemingly derelict buildings with strange beings creeping around - it is claustrophobic and full of dread - this I think the director did very well. I'm not sure where it was filmed, but the choice of location was excellent. The music is also very well matched to the plot - mostly, it is doom-ridden classical style, particularly when Masuoka goes underground.
The film is in Japanese with English subtitles. However, there really isn't all that much speech, so it will make little difference for those who don't like subtitles. I didn't always understand what was going on, but that was because of the bizarre plot rather than any fault of the subtitles.
The extras gallery is made up of three interviews with director Takashi Shimitzu, lead actor Shinya Tsukamoto and series supervisor (whatever that is) Hiroshi Takahasi. I skimmed through them - to be honest, they didn't really interest me. Finally, there's an original theatrical trailer. With the DVD comes some written film notes by Justin Bowyer, who writes a lot on Japanese and Korean cinema - personally I found his notes to be rather pretentious.
This film is most certainly original and I'm glad I've seen it, but I don't feel the need to ever watch it again. Had I a stronger interest in science fiction, I might have enjoyed it more, so if you do have such an interest, it's definitely worth giving the film a go - certainly there are a lot of people on imdb.com who seem to have enjoyed it. Otherwise, it is really only a film for those with a strong interest in Japanese horror. Three stars out of five.
The DVD is available from play.com for £14.99.
Running time: 92 minutes