Viewers be warned; Marebito is NOT a horror film in the traditional sense, but more of a serious psychological drama, one which uses the conventions of horror cinema to mask the more unsavoury elements of the plot. Those turning in for the deft shock tactics of films like The Ring or The Grudge, or even those looking for the menacing violence of Audition and Abnormal Beauty will no doubt be incredibly disappointed by this quiet, almost ambient offering from director Takashi Shimizu, in which the actual horror of the story cannot be truly comprehended until it has been digested, dissected and decoded at the end of the film's abstract, dreamlike climax.
I feel it important to stress this, as the back cover of the Tartan DVD leads the viewer to expect a characteristic classic of the J-Horror/Asian Horror sub-genre, with an innocent character drawn into a series of unbelievable supernatural events becoming haunted by some form of forgotten evil - and then having to battle to save themselves and the ones they love - whilst simultaneously trying to solve this central, ghostly mystery. We can see this set up in many of the best Asian horror films, from the two benchmarks aforementioned (The Ring and Grudge series, for starters) to other fantastic films like The Eye, Infection, Premonition and Resurrection. This, however, isn't the case, with Marebito remaining fairly vague and minimal in both it's writing and design, whilst spending at least 99% of the running time in the company of the central character, who wanders from scene to scene with a detached, noir-ish melancholy, delivering long monologues in broken voiceover to subtly give clues as to what is REALLY happening between the layers of abstracted reality.
The voice-over is a big clue here that the film shouldn't be treated as a horror along the same lines as some of the films previously mentioned, and instead, should be seen as a character studying the existentialist tradition of Kafka and Camus. There's nothing in this film that will really horrify you; though there are some moments that will disturb... perhaps even more so after you've seen the film through to the end and begin piecing the action back together.
The film for me weaves together a number of strands that hint at alienation, mental disintegration and the desensitisation to real life horror through the continuing sophistication of video surveillance equipment and the narcissistic cultural trend for people to film, photograph and document their entire lives for the benefit of no one but themselves. With this in mind, the obvious reference points would include Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the Coen Brother's Barton Fink, Darren Aronofsky's Pi, Miike Takashi's Visitor Q and the early films of Shinya Tsukamoto, the visionary director of works like the Tetsuo films, A Snake of June, Tokyo Fist, and indeed, the lead actor of this very film (Coincidence? I don't think so). Like the films that Tsukamoto has directed himself, Marebito has a sinister and brooding quality; unfolding in a series of dimly lit, claustrophobic interiors littered with electronic equipment and the distant hum of ambient technology acting as constant reminder of the central character's all too obvious human frailty. To add to this, the film is shot entirely on video, rather than film. This gives the picture a very cheap, grainy and constantly mobile quality, which, when edited together alongside the actual footage of Tsukamoto's camera-man character, helps to further blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Like I said, it's a fascinating film on both a creative and intellectual level; but if you're looking for a great HORROR film, then this isn't it. The film employs dream logic and the notion of an unreliable narrator, and very much exists in the same psychological universe as the films of David Lynch, in particular his loose trilogy of existential works, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, in the way that a more elaborate story is created by the central character and viewed by the audience in an attempt to mask the real-life horror at the heart of the story.