Shinya Tsukamoto has long labored on the fringes of the Japanese film industry, not always by choice. The original cyberpunk bad boy of Japanese movies, Tsukamoto burst onto the scene in 1989 with “Tetsuo,” a film so extreme in its violence, sex and general insanity, including an interlude with a whirling penis drill, that it made most local attempts at transgression look tame. Written, directed, filmed and edited by Tsukamoto, with a score by Chu Ishikawa that was like a buzz saw ripping through a live, screaming skull, the film’s vision of man (and woman) merging with machine had a crude vitality reminiscent of punk rock at its brief peak and a startling originality that suggested genius and madness — or both.
Few would have been surprised if Tsukamoto, like so many of his punk progenitors, had flamed out after his initial brush with notoriety. Instead he persevered like one of his all-but-unkillable on-screen heroes, making films that were either uncompromisingly Tsukamoto (“Tetsuo 2,” “Tokyo Fist”) or nominally commercial (“Hiruko the Goblin,” “Gemini”). The latter did bad to indifferent business, while Tsukamoto’s widely reported plans to make a Hollywood film with fan Quentin Tarantino went nowhere, reinforcing the local industry consensus that he was too sui generis (or out of his gourd) to produce box-office winners.
His latest film, “Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective),” is his latest attempt to refute such perceptions. Screened at this year’s American Film Market in Los Angeles, as well as at the Pusan and Rome film festivals, this shocker about a detective who can enter dreams prompted a bidding war that was won by the Weinstein Company, which plans to release the film in North America and other territories. It is also getting a wide release in Japan, promoted by network TV ads — the infallible sign of Tsukamoto’s elevation to the mainstream.
So has Tsukamoto finally succeeded in selling out? Whatever the box office verdict, here or abroad, “Akumu Tantei” is hardly a formulaic play for mass appeal, despite its eminently remake-able — and remarkable — story line. If anything, Tsukamoto’s vision will probably be too dark and disturbing for the average punter expecting, from the title, something in the “X Files” line. A closer comparison would be the stranger imaginative flights of David Lynch, presented with Tsukamoto’s trademark straight-to-the-throat directness. Be prepared for not just the usual goosebumps, but a viral infection of your dream life. Sales of the DVD ought to come with a “do not view before bedtime” advisory label.
The detective referred to in the title is not the heroine. That role is Keiko Kirishima’s (Hitomi), a cop investigating two bizarre cases of unnatural death. In the first, a punk girl is found dead in her bed, her throat slit and the door locked, with no signs of an intruder. In the second, a pudgy salaryman cuts his own throat while lying on the futon, apparently asleep, next to his horrified wife.
Kirishima’s jaded middle-age partner, Sekiya (Ren Osugi), writes off both cases as suicides, however odd the circumstances. Kirishima, however, is not so sure. She notices that just before their deaths the two victims answered a call from somebody identified only as “0″ on their cellphone screens.
This caller may have said something that drove them to kill themselves — but what? She decides to find out, enlisting the support of the skeptical Sekiya and the younger, more sympathetic detective Wakamiya (Masanobu Ando).
What the audience already knows — and that Kirishima comes to realize — is that the perpetrator has somehow insinuated his way into his victims’ dreams. (He is played by Tsukamoto himself, in full psychotic flower.) To catch him she enlists the help of Kyoichi Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda), a troubled young man with unusual psychic powers — and the “nightmare detective” of the title.
This may sound like something out of Edogawa Rampo — an early 20th-century writer best known for Sherlock-Holmes-like puzzle mysteries, infused with the antic spirit of ero-guro (“eroticism and grotesquery”). Tsukamoto’s take on this story, however, is both unpuzzling and unironic. For Kagenuma, dreams are not arty essays in symbolism or wispy recyclings of daily life, forgotten immediately on awakening. Instead, they are alternative realities packed with meaning — and quite real danger.
Tsukamoto has long had a thing for unconventional beauties with strong personalities and smoldering presences — panthers instead of pussy cats — and in singer Hitomi, an acting neophyte, he has found an ideal embodiment of his erotic vision. Compared with the men around her, who mostly range from the ineffectual to the severely disturbed, her Kirishima is a beacon of determination and sanity, whose reactions to the strangeness she encounters may be limited in range, but are charged with natural emotion. When this woman’s eyes light up with fear, you want to believe.
In most horror pics, the female leads play ladies in peril, with their main acting requirement being a good scream. Tsukamoto not only reverses the usual sexual roles — his male “nightmare detective” is the one in gravest danger — but refuses to pander to genre expectations.
No jack-in-the-box monsters or freaks — just the creeping dread that evil dwells deep within — an implacable, alien presence ready to pounce as soon as the lights go out. Sweet dreams.