Springing up like the proverbial bamboo shoots after a rain storm in the postwar boom years, when they were hailed as ideal communities for the rising middle class, Japan’s danchi (public-housing projects) have since acquired a rather dark image as the older ones molder and decay and the original residents either move out or pass away. One of these, then, makes an unsurprising setting for horrormeister Hideo Nakata’s “Kuroyuri Danchi (The Complex),” his first film in his signature genre of J-horror since his 2007 “Kaidan” (though that film is more of a homage to traditional Japanese ghost-story films).
The titular danchi is the sort of dank, crumbling, under-populated dwelling familiar from Nakata’s “Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water),” a 2002 J-horror classic about a single mom and her 6-year-old daughter who take up residence in a creepy, waterlogged apartment building that turns out to be haunted. This time, the action centers on Asuka (Atsuko Maeda), a nursing student who moves into the Kuroyuri Danchi (Black Lily Complex) with her parents and cute little brother.
Before she is properly settled into her new home, however, she hears strange scratching noises from next door. Worried that her neighbor, an elderly man living alone, might be in trouble, she summons the courage to venture into his rat’s nest of an apartment and discovers that he is no longer among the living. The noises, however, do not stop, nor do other strange incidents.
Afraid that the spirit of the old man might be out for revenge, since she did not immediately respond to his signals of distress, Asuka goes to Sasahara (Hiroki Narimiya), a dishy professional house cleaner she encountered in the old man’s apartment. After telling her that the dead dwell in a realm where time has stopped and warning her to have no contact with them, he offers to help her.
Meanwhile, she finds solace in playing with a lonely little neighbor boy (Kanau Tanaka) who is about the same age as her brother, but the kid — as well as much else in her life — is not quite what she thinks.
Much of what transpires from this point will hardly surprise fans of “Dark Water” and other J-horror films that derive their scares not from jack-in-the-box shocks but a steady stream of jolts that undermine our confidence in the rational, material world, in which ghosts are only shadowy creations of our minds. It begins to leads us, in other words, into an alternate, ancient reality, where the unquiet dead invade the souls of the living.
In “The Complex” Nakata is not striking out for new territory, but rather returning to all-too familiar ground, where surface modernity masks a traditional belief structure that has proven remarkably durable. Asuka and Sasahara keep in touch by cellphone, but when an otherworldly force threatens to overwhelm her, he calls on a female shaman and her acolytes to exorcise it.
A decade and a half after “Ring,” the Nakata shocker that started the J-horror boom, this mix of old and new feels formulaic, while the various devices, both narrative and visual, that Nakata uses to keep pulses pounding begin by now to feel either cliched (a creepy kid with an idee fixe), confusing (is this scene illusion or reality?) or simply desperate (the best examples would be spoilers).
He has, however, found an ideal Asuka in Maeda, a former star of the AKB48 all-girl pop group who has become an in-demand film actress, starting with her turn as a troubled schoolgirl in Jun Ichikawa’s 2007 coming-of-age drama “Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata (How to Become Myself).” She delivers the expected pop-eyed screams, if with unusual conviction, but she also shows us that Asuka’s change from soft-hearted normality — she’s the kind of girl who flashes a bright-eyed smile at a spooky little boy on a deserted playground — to rigid catatonic fear is motivated by her character and her past, not just the demands of the plot.
That is, we can find signs of the latter lifeless wraith in her former chipper self, beginning with her strange attachment to an old watch that has long-since stopped.
Can anything or anyone, from a desperate Sasahara (who is wrestling with his own demons) to a hard-working exorcist, bring that former self back? In the film’s unforgiving world, you should never make a promise to a ghost you aren’t prepared to keep.
But fans hoping for Nakata’s promised return to J-horror form will have to wait for “The Complex II.”
Fun fact: Hideo Nakata quoted Wes Craven in a Hollywood Reporter interview, “When you get the offer to do your second horror film in a row, you have to say no or you’ll get labeled as a horror director.”