J-horror is over. The moment for the ghostly ladies with the long black hair has passed. But people still want to be scared at the movies — and among the Japanese films doing it most successfully now are the hybrids of the horror, mystery and thriller genres that treat murder as a game.
The trend started with Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” (2000), in which a repressive government in a near-future Japan forced a selected group of teens to play a deadly “survival game” on an uninhabited island. Propelled by its extreme violence and attractive cast, the film became a big, controversial, worldwide hit.
The 2003 followup by Fukasaku’s son Kenta was a dud, but the 2006 smash “Death Note,” based on a popular manga, revived the genre with an ingenious gimmick — a death-dealing notebook — and a tense contest of wits between the notebook’s soul-sick owner and a sweet-addicted detective. A spate of films with similar themes has followed, including 2009’s “Kaiji: Jinsei Gyakuten Gemu (Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler)” and “Liar Game — The Final Stage” (2010).
Now Hideo Nakata, whose 1998 shocker “Ringu (Ring)” sparked the J-horror boom, has made his own murder game movie, “Inshite Miru: 7-kakan no Desu Gemu” (“The Incite Mill -7 Day Death Game-“). Based on a 2008 novel by Honobu Yonezawa, the film is like a cinematic game of Clue, with fatal consequences for the losers.
It contains a critique about the sick state of Japanese society, including the online blurring between game and reality, but one rather trite and perfunctory. Instead the focus is on a sinister, sealed-off “game house” and the desperate stratagems of the players to emerge from it alive.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||107 minutes|
|Opens||Opens Oct. 16, 2010|
Nakata and scriptwriter Satoshi Suzuki try to make these players more than game pieces — they have back stories and personalities as well as weaponry and tactics. But “Inshite Miru” is also bound by certain commercial genre rules. No. 1: The hero — a “freeter” (temp worker) played by Tatsuya Fujiwara — must stay true to his nice, decent, pacifist self from beginning to predictable end. That is, he must be more victim than stay-alive- at-all-costs fighter.
In fact, all the “good” characters share his distaste for violence and dirty tricks, which may make them more sympathetic to the local audience, but drains the movie of heart-of-darkness tension. Somehow I don’t think David Fincher will be directing the remake; as least not with the current script.
The freeter, down on his luck and looking for a job, encounters a doe-eyed “OL” (office lady, played by Haruka Ayase) who has news of a seven-day psych experiment paying an incredible ¥112,000 per hour to volunteers.
Despite the lack of details, he jumps at the chance — and soon finds himself with nine strangers, including the OL, in a mountainous middle of nowhere, filing into a faceless domed building and descending deep down to a lavishly appointed (but somehow creepy) bunker.
Here, while dining uneasily on gourmet food, the 10 volunteers are told, via an evilly grinning (and offensive) American Indian figurine, the rules of their experiment. Basically, they are to kill each other until only two are left at the end of seven days. Each has a different murder weapon in their room, though the means of dealing death are up to them. Ready, set, go!
It’s not quite that simple, of course. A gray-metal robot suspended from ceiling rails, with arms that look disturbingly lethal, patrols the corridors. And the very first morning of their stay, the players find the bullet-riddled body of a fellow contestant on the floor. The game, they realize, is no joke — and the freeter’s pleas for mutual peace and harmony run up against a wall of fear and calculating self-interest.
Here the plot summary must stop, though anyone who has seen a horror movie can easily guess the identities of the “finalists.” I was mentally checking off the first victims as they walked through the bunker doors.
There are surprises, however, as the game’s finer points reveal themselves. There are also several heart-in-throat scenes that end with a gruesome death or narrow escape. But the attempts to humanize the characters — a smokily sexy, pouty-lipped girl (Satomi Ishihara) turns out to be a struggling single mom, while a middle-aged businessman (Kinya Kitaoji) with hawk eyes and an expensive haircut confesses himself a bankrupt and a lush — are hardly original.
Also, the game itself is rigged in ways that undercut the kill-or-be-killed setup. It’s as if the greedy, scheming treasure hunters in John Huston’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” — a 1948 prototype of the murder game movie — were to be knocked off one by one by lightning bolts. Not nearly as revelatory of character — nor as cynically entertaining.
But who in the Japanese entertainment business today would back a movie with a hero like Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs — a fascinating character, but one with the morals and sex appeal of a lizard? Better Fujiwara’s fawn-caught- in-the-headlights freeter, at least for the box office. Which is the movie game’s real prize, isn’t it?