Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nightmare Detective (2006) Movie Review

After a series of grotesque suicides linked by eerie cell phone calls confound newly transplanted detective Kirishima (hitomi), and her team, they are forced to resort to seek out the assistance of a tortured, unstable young man (Ryuhei Matsuda) capable of inhabiting the dreams of potential victims. Hindsight can be a brutal thing, even regarding those that continue to inspire us. Which is why indie icon Shinya Tsukamoto's first foray into the J-horror mainstream remains an incongruous mix.  For all the seemingly jackpot perfect material the premise of a dream-diving misfit at odds with a psychopath with similar abilities, Akumu Tantei, despite spawning a sequel, is something more akin to a style exercise wrapped in a half-formed story. While much of the same, often cold, frenetic beauty Tsukamoto's films have been known for remains intact, the story never feels ready to come out of second gear. 

Having become the only woman to join the city's violent crimes division, the often prickly Kirishima herself is something of a tormented character despite often being relegated by way of script to wearing heels to a murder scene, and at times seeming completely clueless as to her new position at the department. Even amongst her new peers, which include the skeptical elder, Sekiya (Ren Osugi), and younger, more supportive Wakamiya (Masanobu Ando) , her transition is potentially something that could easily be seen as a prime target for the film's thesis, but once the crew sets their sights on having Matsuda's character in Kagenuma assist them in stopping the killer, in come the requisite chase n slash, which could easily have been more effective had the story been given more consideration. Another major subplot of the film involves detective Kirishima's personal difficulties with sleeping, and perhaps the troubled past that haunts her constantly. There seems to be an attempt being made to help this mean something throughout the course of the story, but it ultimately never achieves such a goal. And given the fact that much of Tsukamoto's most powerful works have done so well in the exploration of urban life, and the inherent feeling of alienation it can engender, what happens here seems so much less personal, and more like a preview to the "Greatest Hits" compilations that were to come soon after.

The murders having been connected by way of each victim seemingly last calling "0" on their phones, come courtesy of yet another creepy turn by director Tsukamoto, who has essentially made a career of playing characters such as these, feels much less like an actual character or even threat, so much as an admission of his own complicity in a work that has much less agency. So when it comes time for him and crew to deliver some classic Kaijyu Theatre-style antics in the murder/chase sequences, they are as rough and occasionally exhilarating as ever. Truth be told, several moments and images courtesy of some truly surreal nightmare logic come to fruition. The problem of course comes back to the meat that is binding these scenes together. And despite all that is being done to remedy the holes inherent in the script, Tsukamoto's "0" character rarely gets any chance to become terribly compelling despite everything. And coming off of a much more disturbing role in Takashi Shimizu's Marebito(2004), this is almost seen as a customary expectation rather than a character.

But possibly the biggest stumbling block the film suffers from the near anemic casting of singer, hitomi in the role of Kirishima. We can again just blame the script for this, but when one spends additional time observing her, it becomes clear that even some acting could have risen a small notch over the material. A lot if not all of her scenes feel awkward, even by Tsukamoto standards. It was as if director and actor were simply having trouble making the dialogue and motivations work. After having seen the director utilize actresses to astonishing effect in other films, a turn like this is in many ways telling of why she did not return for the second film in this series. But again, to be fair, this script remains the most egregious issue with the film as everything else around the production borders on immaculate from the photography, editing and music that do their part to gloss over what simply isn't on the page. Which all the more makes the more commonly angelic presence of Ryuhei Matsuda seem all the more jarring in many ways. For a title character, he seems more like a dark parody of many a broody anti-hero, but never seems to become more than a chuckle-delivering one-note, which is also a bit of a letdown.

Now while all of this may seem to be very disparaging to someone who has grown as an ardent admirer of Tsukamoto's works, Akumu Tantei is also a technical marvel that retains much of the same independent spirit, despite obviously being flirted by colorless corporate interests. It feels much like a hijacking of yet another violent terebi-drama, but with only middling results. It also proves just how soulful the work of "the iron man" can actually be when unfiltered.

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