‘Akumu Tantei 2’

Spirited away into another's dreams

by Mark Schilling

Shinya Tsukamoto’s crazed, bizarre, utterly original early films, beginning with “Tetsuo” (1989), which won him a devoted cult following abroad. In the Japanese film industry, though, he was regarded as a pariah.

These films also trapped him in a “cyberpunk” persona, like a 1970s-era punk band whose fans still expect an energy and anger that long ago dissipated in a heroin haze.

Tsukamoto never crashed and burned, but he has changed, while remaining true to his demons. He has made stabs at broadening his audience, such as 2006’s “Akumu Tantei” (“Nightmare Detective”), a horror-mystery that featured a hot young male star, Ryuhei Matsuda, as the title character, a sullen psychic who is gifted (or, as he believes, cursed) with the power to enter other people’s dreams.

The story mixed standard J-horror tropes — the mad killer (played by Tsukamoto himself) uses cell phones to insinuate himself into the minds of his victims — with ero-guro (“erotic and grotesque”) atmospherics that recalled the work of pioneering Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965). The film, however, was heavier on Tsukamoto-esque strangeness than shocks — and did indifferent business.

Akumu Tantei 2
Director Shinya Tsukamoto
Run Time 100 minutes
Language Japanese

Now Tsukamoto is back with “Akumu Tantei 2” (“Nightmare Detective 2”), a sort of prequel, since it explains how the “detective,” Kyoichi Kagenuma (Matsuda), came to have his unusual talent.

The film also confirms the ongoing shift in Tsukamoto’s focus from punkish excesses and outrages — whirling mechanical phalluses menacing writhing female flesh — to a wider exploration of the human psyche, from childish night terrors to adult tears. Some fans will no doubt regard this shift as a sellout: The king of the cyberpunks is going commercial!

I prefer to see it as a maturing and a sign of integrity. Instead of trying to recycle stale, if marketable, attitudes, Tsukamoto is following the evolution of his own psyche. Despite its genre elements, “Akumu Tantei 2” is still as much a Tsukamoto film as “Tetsuo” was two decades ago.

As the story begins, Kagenuma is living in a shabby rooming house and fending off an importunate teenage girl, Yukie (Yui Miura), who says her dreams are being invaded by a disturbed classmate, Yuko Kikugawa (Hanae Kan). Yukie and two of her pals locked Kikugawa into a closet as a prank and she has since suffered a mental breakdown. Can’t Kagenuma, Yukie asks, stop Kikugawa from haunting them? An irritable Kagenuma gives her the brush off.

Then one of Kikugawa’s tormentors dies in horrific circumstances and a desperate Yukie once again begs Kagenuma for help. Reluctantly, he agrees. Meanwhile, Kagenuma is thinking and dreaming more about his mother (Miwako Ichikawa) — a sensitive type who could read the minds of others and regarded the world as a house of horror. She ended up taking her own life, leaving Kagenuma cursed with her gift, obsessed with her memory, and visited by her ghost in his dreams.

Tsukamoto and coscriptwriter Hisakatsu Kuroki draw parallels between the stories of Kikugawa and Kagenuma’s mother, but the most important action takes place inside Kagenuma’s head. While trying to restore Kikugawa’s sanity, Kagenuma sees that his real task is to confront his mother’s unquiet spirit.

“Akumu Tantei 2” is less of a scare-fest than its predecessor, though Tsukamoto relentlessly shakes the audience out of its objectivity and into his phantasmagorical world. Using flashbacks to Kagenuma’s troubled childhood, he brings us closer to an understanding of — and sympathy for — his hero’s fears. Many children have night terrors, but not many wet themselves as their mother’s ghost hovers over their head and lowers a dead hand to stroke their cheek.

With his artfully tousled hair and stylishly ragged clothes, Matsuda’s Kagenuma may not look like everyone’s idea of a detective, but Matsuda’s mix of stoicism and sensitivity, as well as those piercing eyes in that pale, short-of-sleep face, fit a gumshoe who tracks his suspects through other people’s nightmares and yet is forever being jolted awake by his own.

Not to give away the surprisingly tender ending, but Matsuda nails his reaction perfectly, with tears that flow from love, not relief.

Tears at a Tsukamoto film? For some fans, the ultimate outrage.