Japanese horror once struck a lot of fans in the West as fresh because it was less about fantastical creatures — say, flesh-eating zombies — than everyday dread. Instead of popping up out of nowhere, fear crept up like sinister fog from apparently mundane places and things — a moldy apartment, a videotape, shadows on the computer screen — on perfectly sane, average people.
Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s new film, “Makiguri No Ana (Peeping Tom),” takes a different tack, if one familiar from an older tradition of horror, in which the scares come from a fragmenting mind that can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion — or from a world in which boundaries (between life and death, the present and the past) have dissolved.
It has more in common, in other words, with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” or, reaching farther back, the work of Edogawa Rampo — Japan’s premiere author of the erotic and bizarre, who wrote his most famous stories and novels in the 1920s and 1930s, long before anyone thought of the “Ring” series.
Based on a novel by Akiko Yamamoto, “Makiguri no Ana” undercuts standard J-horror genre expectations in another way. It begins as a lubricious black comedy about a failing writer, Ben Makiguri (Hidetoshi Nishijima), living in a tumble-down rooming house ready for the wrecker’s ball.
Throwing all dignity aside, he takes (or rather snatches) a soft-porn serial commission from a sleazy weekly magazine. After thrashing about desperately for inspiration, he finds his fictional subjects in the residents of adjoining apartments, whom he spies on through holes in the walls. When an attractive young female editor, Narumi Asaka (Ayumi Kinoshita) catches him in the act of peeping, his eye glued to an opening above the floorboard and one leg raised absurdly in the air, the film seems ready to dissolve into farce.
But Fukagawa, who made a deft transition from the slapsticky comic to the dramatic in his 2005 debut feature “Okami Shojo (When The Show Tent Came To My Town),” does something similar in “Makiguri no Ana,” segueing from an everyday world in which the hero’s biggest concern is pleasing a powerful (to him) magazine to a border land where the extraordinary becomes ordinary and his very sanity is under threat.
As in so many old-school scary stories, Rampo’s included, there is a twist at the end, but it’s not forced or arbitrary. Instead, the plot follows a logic that makes nightmarish sense.
It all starts simply enough. Soon after getting the commission, Makiguri, a nervous type who spends far too much time inside his own head, discovers the aforementioned peepholes in the paper-thin walls of his tiny room. Through one he spies a goofy-looking amateur boxer punching a bag and making noisy love to his tarty girlfriend.
The other room is vacant, until a woman named Saori Mizuno (Urara Awata), whom Makiguri memorably encountered on a nearby street, moves in. Though her dress and demeanor are modest, Saori exudes an allure that, with its suggestion of lonely purity ready to be defiled, drives Makiguri wild with desire.
Excited, he starts scribbling, as the editor anxiously monitors him. When she is away, he returns to the peephole next to Saori’s room for fresh inspiration, which she and her male visitors obligingly provide. His other, usually brief and testy, human encounters include a lonely middle-age woman who boldly beds Makiguri one fateful night, a nerdy salesman who supplies him with badly needed headache medicine and a delivery man who drops his name tag in Makiguri’s room.
These seemingly random strangers, we see, have their own important roles to play in the psychodrama of Makiguri’s life, as his peeping becomes an all-consuming obsession and he slowly, inexorably declines toward madness and death.
As in Edogawa’s stories, this devolution is not shocking in the standard genre sense — there are no gag-on-your- popcorn moments.
Instead, Fukagawa is more concerned with creating a realistic but phantasmagorical atmosphere in which the inner and outer worlds mix and mingle and time seems to have come to a stop.
Ostensibly living in the here-and-now, Makiguri finds himself in a strange universe that could have been Rampo’s, right down to Saori herself, who is less a standard-issue ghost than a goddess of erotic fantasies that can be privately indulged but never fulfilled, a goddess whose worshippers waste away from desire — or delusion.