Rare is the child who hasn’t lain awake at night, terrified by the monster they imagine is lurking beneath their bed. But in a country where many people grow up sleeping on futons, such fears are perhaps less deeply rooted. That would explain why, in “Under Your Bed,” nobody ever thinks to look in the vicinity indicated by the film’s title.
If they did, they’d immediately notice Naoto Mitsui (Kengo Kora). When we first meet this introverted loner, he’s taken up residence beneath the mattress of an old university acquaintance in her minimalist suburban home, where there isn’t nearly enough clutter to convincingly conceal his presence.
The object of his affection — if that’s really the right word for it — is Chihiro (Kanako Nishikawa), whose one-off coffee date with him 11 years earlier has since taken on enormous significance in his mind. Seized by a sudden desire to see her again, he tracks her down and starts spying on her from a rented property across the street.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||98 mins.|
When playing paparazzi with a telephoto lens is no longer enough, he conceals a hidden microphone in her bedroom. Moving in is a logical next step.
Based on a novel by Kei Ohishi, “Under Your Bed” complicates its standard-issue stalker narrative by making Mitsui only the second most-threatening man in Chihiro’s life. It turns out that she’s married to an abusive tyrant (Kenichi Abe), and her peeping Tom soon finds himself privy to some appalling domestic violence.
These scenes are tough to watch, and Nishikawa gives an incredibly committed performance in a role that requires her to spend much of the time in various states of undress and scared out of her wits. She brings depth to a character who’s too often forced to play the passive victim, at the mercy of the men — seen and unseen — around her.
Director Mari Asato’s background in horror movies serves her well in managing the film’s shocks, but she misses a chance to make a broader point about voyeurism by implicating the viewer in the unpleasantness. Michael Haneke this ain’t.
The closest the film comes to wrong-footing its audience is in the casting of Kora, an actor hitherto best known for playing nice-guy roles. It’s a little like when Robin Williams went dark in Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” (2002) — a stalker drama with which the film has much in common — and it may leave viewers more inclined to sympathize with Mitsui than they would otherwise. Kora doesn’t have the same range as Williams, but he’s actually quite good in the role.
Mitsui’s voiceover narration keeps circling back to his unfortunate childhood: neglected at home, and so forgotten at school that nobody notices he isn’t in the end-of-year class photo. He’s fond of comparing himself to the creepy-crawlies that lurk under rocks, their existence never given any thought by others. Yet as he returns to key details in his biography, the picture gradually changes, especially in regard to his relationship with Chihiro.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the film’s resolution, which felt too tidy after all the messiness that had preceded it. Asato is always clear about where her sympathies lie, but the story’s mild catharsis could easily have been reached by a less gratuitous route. Still, it’s compulsive viewing. Like its voyeur protagonist, “Under Your Bed” won’t let you look away.