Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

08 Nov 2013

(2004 Movie) Marebito directed by: Takashi Shimizu

(Reaction) The Unique One by: Jose Angelo Singson

Marebito is a horror-suspense movie directed by Takashi Shimizu of the Ju-On (The Grudge) series of films. Being the brainchild of Shimizu-sensei one can expect that the movie will be disturbing and on that note it does not fail to deliver. It is visually and thematically unsettling; in many cases deeply so. The film features a fair amount of gore and violence so this is not a movie for the weak-of-constitution. Marebito takes a non-linear approach to storytelling, making many events unfolding in the film more than just a little bit hard to draw a bead on.

The movie is largely devoid of dialogue and the sound track is provided by the ambient sounds and voice-over narration from Masuoka himself. What little background music there is however is highly effective at enhancing the overall mood of eerie loneliness present in the film. The film also switches from grainy shaky cam footage to more standard video, representing the switch from Masuoka’s point of view to the film at large as it progresses.

The movie revolves around a man named Masuoka, a freelance cameraman by trade and unsurprisingly a pathological snoop by nature. Masuoka takes his camera with him everywhere he goes and films just about everything he sets his eyes on.

It is implied from the beginning that Masuoka is not all there and his obliquely questioned sanity is an important element that colors how a viewer might interpret the proceedings in the movie.

Interestingly, his dubious reason also makes his choice of profession highly ironic. Masuoka, by virtue of his implied mental instability, is an unreliable narrator and by default, unreliable as cameraman. His judgment, his grip upon reality is suspect and the viewing audience, watching events unfold as seen and told by Masuoka, cannot take anything truly at face value. He is a cloudy lens. A camera set at an odd angle that skews the viewer’s perception.

Masuoka films a suicide in the subway and becomes obsessed with watching the film over and over. The process of unraveling this mystery takes our cameraman on a very strange journey involving occult theories of ancient subterranean societies, Lovecraft references, pulp-fiction monsters, a seriously messed-up discovery of self and a rather scathing social commentary about modern Japanese society.

Visually, there are many tell-tale signs of his tenuous grip on reality. We see him living in a run-down apartment which seems more like a messy editing room than someone’s living quarters. There are no personal effects, just a tangle cables and what looks to be a mural of monitors where we see him indulging in his all-consuming voyeuristic passion. Clearly he enjoys watching and recording - people, himself, daily events - a bit too much to be considered healthy.

On top of being a compulsive voyeur Masuoka also has an unhealthy fixation on the experience of fear. It is uncertain though whether this fixation with fear is a result of capturing the suicide footage or a longtime obsession. As a cameraman he has access to raw news footage, most of which are not aired on TV because of it is too gory or too violent. He views these clips with alarming regularity in order to better understand the concept of fear, and in effect, get a better clue on what went on in Kuroki’s (the suicide victim) mind.

There is a scene in the film that shows Masuoka viewing what looks to be footage from a snuff film. What’s most disturbing however is not that he is watching but rather what he says as he watches: The ultimate terror is to have your own mind and body destroyed by others… I’d go as far as to imitate a psychopath to record the terror of the victim on my retina and video tape… This speaks of the extent he would go to indulge his twisted mania on fear…something that I believe no one in their right frame of mind would consider.

It is also revealed that he is dependent on Prozac, which casts even more doubt on the sanity of the narrator. Later, in an attempt to more fully experience the terror the victim went through he decides to stop taking his medication; a decision that also affects how one would explain the series of events that unfold later in the film. This particular monologue is striking not just because it betrays the inner workings of an unsound mind but also because it reveals a deep sense of ennui that plagues the main character.

Although the film chronicles a dark voyage of self discovery for the main character I also see a definite, strong undercurrent of deep boredom, isolation and nihilism that plays throughout the film. These themes can also be seen in many of the characters; even those playing bit roles. Personally, I believe that these recurrent themes are observations on modern Japanese society that the film wishes to comment on.

In the first few minutes of the film we see Masuoka reviewing the footage he has collected from his daily camera walks. The footage is in truth little more than a hodgepodge of close-up shots of abandoned buildings, blurry human outlines and boarded up windows. It is puzzling however that Masuoka makes comments like I’m certain that he’s a substance abuser… then adds …or was it a woman? then makes another cryptic proclamation that he’s somehow saved her soul because he’s caught her/him on film. Like a child playing hero it seems that Masuoka has resorted to this game of pretend to give meaning to his obsessive filming of the painfully quotidian.

As the film progresses the audience can see increased signs of Masuoka’s societal withdrawal as well as a marked withdrawal from reality. Throughout the film he interacts almost exclusively via electronic mediums---a camera, his cell phone and later we see him being unable to see people’s faces, blurred out by a digital scrub, unless he uses his camera to view them. I take this surreal turn of events to mean a now complete rejection of his involvement in society at large---or a one-way trip to irredeemable insanity. Both plausible interpretations given the many layers the film operates on.

His increased alienation from the world now opens up for him new vistas of strangeness. After being attacked by a passerby, angered by what he believed to be an unwanted intrusion of his privacy, he returns to his apartment wounded. Here, he manages to unlock one of the secrets of the suicide. Earlier in the film Masuoka returns to the victim’s death site and discovers what he believes to be a rift between the world of the living and the dead located in the subway system, revealed to be an immense network of well-lit subterranean caves which he calls the Mountains of Madness, a clear reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s novel of the same title. There, he manages to get a hold of an enigmatic female character he names F.

F is mute and wholly alien in her movements and reactions. She is seemingly incapable of ingesting human food and is wasting away locked up in Masuoka’s apartment. Upon seeing his bloody finger, F proceeds to lap up the blood with obvious zeal.

Here we see the theme of nihilism once more as the lead character continues to feed his otherworldly discovery declaring I want to keep feeding her until she’s totally satisfied. Of course what it means is my own death. I don’t care if I died but… what would happen to her if I died? Unmindful of his death he is more concerned about getting answers concerning F and even his concern for her is driven by an intense curiosity rather than altruism.

F’s presence in the film is a mystery, again, considering how vague the film is she could be a read as a representation of his desire for higher purpose, his anima made manifest or a possible darker, more grim interpretation is that F might actually be Masuoka’s daughter driven into a maddened animalistic state of existence from implied mental and physical abuse inflicted by Masuoka himself.

Marebito though, despite all its strangeness, is a deep, truly thought provoking piece of work. It is an interesting but twisted presentation of the human mind and it is a refreshingly honest critique of modern Japanese society. The characters in the film are united by common denominators: they are all profoundly messed up people living profoundly lonely, profoundly boring lives.

The suicide victim, Arei Kuroki, was one of the many homeless residing in the area. In life he was ignored by the citizenry, treated as part of the landscape. Even in his dying moments he was truly alone: so deeply immersed in a fear that no one could understand. The lead character, Masuoka, is so bored with his life that expresses envy at the terror experienced by Kuroki.

The nameless student who was killed to provide blood for the mysterious F was so jaded that she is completely unfazed by the fact that a complete stranger was filming her every step. She even casually asks if Masuoka was a pervert but thinks nothing of allowing him to have his way with her in exchange for some money. She even agrees to have sex with him in a public restroom despite her dislike for it so long as she’d get paid for it.

Personally, I feel that this is just one of the pointed social questions that the film maker throws at his viewers: when a society develops to the point of ease and comfort does necessarily follow that its’ citizens will pursue the development of higher ideals like patronizing the arts or self-development? Or will they degenerate into self-absorbed, callous individuals living only for the next thrill-du-jour?

The film ends strangely with our camera man descending the spiral staircase into uncertainty. This leaves more questions unanswered. Is he actually going down a staircase or is it a visual metaphor for his slow descent into madness? Was it all a crazy hallucination caused by a chemical imbalance? Did he really kill his wife and drive his daughter mad by chaining her up? Or was it all real and humanity at large is unaware that beneath their feet lies an immense underground civilization that has existed alongside us? The burden of making sense of it all is now tossed unto the collective laps of the audience as the credits roll…

Review:

The word marebito is an archaic Japanese compound word that has no direct English equivalent. Mare can mean rare or unique. Bito can mean both human or spirit, so put together marebito may be translated into the rare one or the unique one.

The term is often used to refer to divine or supernatural beings that come from far away places bringing wise counsel, special insight or encouragement, such as sea-spirits visiting fishing villages to give them weather reports or forest spirits telling mountain communities of the whereabouts of a missing child.

Having said all that perhaps they should have chosen another title for this movie because there is absolutely nothing in the film that smacks of anything divine or spiritual or bearing good tidings.

Marebito through and through is an unnerving rollercoaster ride into the darkness of man’s soul and after much pondering the film actually posits an equally unnerving question: does meaning just lie in the pursuit of “higher ideals” like philanthropy or can a man find just as much meaning by engaging in the vilest, most perverse of activities? Can man actually find himself by discarding traditional notions of what it means to be human?

The film seems to think so.

The lead character Masuoka, even when he was taking his medication gravitated towards finding fulfillment and meaning via experiencing “ultimate terror” through his destruction or someone else’s destruction. It seemed that he couldn’t find importance in the giving of himself to others; rather meaning was to be found in his annihilation or the total rejection of his humanity by engaging in inhuman acts of violence.

So who was the unique one?

My take on the matter is that it is a reference to Masuoka himself who, in order to more fully understand what it meant to be human, totally and absolutely dehumanized himself and a number of other people around him.

Given the rather fluid interpretation of events and images in Marebito, this for me would be the most apt analysis; especially of the ending scene where the lead character descends the spiral staircase into yawning darkness and a juxtaposed image of F smiling (?) waiting for Masuoka to cast off whatever vestiges of humanity he is still clinging to.

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