J-horror master Yoshihiro Nakamura returns to form

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Special To The Japan Times

Yoshihiro Nakamura entered the film world on a well-trodden path. After making 8 mm films while studying at Tokyo’s Seijo University and winning a prize at the 1993 Pia Film Festival — a famous incubator for young Japanese filmmakers — he worked as an assistant director for Juzo Itami, Yoichi Sai and other prominent directors. He made his directorial debut with the 1999 comedy “Local News.”

After that typical beginning, however, Nakamura took something of a left turn by scripting and directing films in the then-hot horror genre. One was the hit 2002 film “Dark Water” (“Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara”), which Nakamura scripted from Koji Suzuki’s best-seller of the same title. Another was “Booth” (“Zettai Kyofu Busu”), a 2005 indie shocker that Nakamura scripted and directed.

Unlike director Hideo Nakata and his other J-horror colleagues, Nakamura made a successful exit — or rather, an “escape” — from the genre and began directing sci-fi and mystery films, usually based on popular fiction and featuring tricky sleight-of-hand plots with a brilliant reveal at the end. Many have been screened at festivals abroad, including “Fish Story” (2009), “Golden Slumber” (2010) and the 2014 mystery “The Snow White Murder Case” (“Shiroyukihime Satsujin Jiken”). I selected all of the above for the Udine Far East Film Festival, with Nakamura coming as our guest in 2014.

So when I met him last October at the Tokyo International Film Festival, we were already well acquainted — though I was curious as to why, after such a long interval, he was returning to horror with his new film, “The Inerasable” (“Zan’e: Sunde wa Ikenai Heya”), which screened in the TIFF competition.

Before this film you hadn’t made any horror for a while.

Right, nothing.

But back in the day you were making little else [laughs].

From the very start I felt I wasn’t cut out for it [laughs]. About 10 years ago there was a horror boom — horror was all they were making.

But this film strikes me as different from a standard J-horror film. It’s more of a mystery — that seems to be a favorite theme of yours.

That feeling of being swept up (by a mystery) and chasing one clue after another came from the novel. I wanted to capture that feeling in the film. I added a bit here and there, that’s all. The novel actually covers a lot more ground, but if I had filmed everything, the movie would be five hours long.

Did you think the novel would make a good movie when you first read it?

The novelist approached me. She really liked something I directed about 10 years ago and asked me to look (at her novel).

Did you decide to do it right away?

I decided right away, yes. (The novel) really scared me. I couldn’t read it at night. It really read like nonfiction — it was amazing.

To make this sort of horror properly, do you have to actually believe in the supernatural to some extent?

The author and I don’t actually believe in it at all. But when watching or reading horror, I like to think, “What if this really happened or existed?”

The novel really drew me in, so I thought it was all right not to change too much, even though there’s no happy ending. The films I’ve been making up till now have tended to have happy endings, but when I read the novel, I wanted to go all out and make a film that wouldn’t hold out hope.

Also, Kubo (Ai Hashimoto) hears strange sounds in “The Inerasable” but doesn’t think it’s a ghost right away. Everyone is rather rational [laughs]. The film is different from past J-horror films in that way.

That may be so. In (J-horror) films up till now, characters believe in that stuff right away. If the story had developed like the usual J-horror, with (the heroine) believing in ghosts from the first time she hears a strange noise, in the end you’d feel alienated from the characters — as if what had happened to them had nothing to do with you.

But when you read the novel you identify with the characters. You think that if you’re hearing and seeing these things, something bad is going to happen to you. Something bad will happen just because you’re reading the novel — it’s scary. I wanted to put that kind of feeling into the film.

It’s not always a question of believing or not believing. You have a scene of a boy walking down a dark corridor at night and being scared out of his wits. That seems to be a universal human instinct. Were you that way when you were a kid?

I was scared of a lot of things. That lasted until I was about 30.

What changed you?

From the time I started making horror, my fear totally went away [laughs].

Is this your last one, then?

I want to do one more. Nothing is decided yet, so it’s still off in the future. Horror is a lot tougher than an ordinary film. The filmmaker has to be in complete control. The actors, the lighting, the music and the atmosphere have to be just right. You can’t leave it up to the actors — stuff like the pauses in conversations or the reactions to what they see.

You have to have a clear image in your mind of what you’re looking for.

That’s right. It’s all about technique. With an ordinary film you can let (actors) do what they want. You’re not telling them, “Hold that expression for three seconds.”