AKA: Shi no Otome
Review By: David Austin
Kiyoshi Kurosawa is putting us on. Screwing around. Having a laugh. It’s not at the audience’s expense – there are enough hints throughout his latest thriller, Loft, to gradually let the audience in on the joke. At the screening I attended, at first there were a few titters, then a full-blown chuckle, and, by the end, giggling was rampant.
Loft (the original Japanese translates more aptly into something along the lines of “The Dead Maiden”), a yarn filled with ghosts and mummies, starts off earnestly enough and, unlike Doppelganger, sustains at least an intermittently serious tone. The problem with Loft is that Kurosawa is starting to spin his wheels. His heart is no longer in J-Horror. Always more of an explicitly intellectual filmmaker than his genre colleagues Hideo Nakata (Ring, Chaos) and Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on: The Grudge), Kurosawa has specialized in the existential, supernatural thriller, gaining international attention with the brooding Cure and Charisma. Kurosawa’s career in horror reached its apogee with the brilliant, apocalyptic Kairo (aka Pulse), a masterpiece of mood, isolation and existentialist dread. His next film, Bright Future, eased out of genre and into new territory, successfully transferring his mood, themes and techniques into a more explicit critique of modern society as a whole.
Since then, Kurosawa has unfortunately seemed to be moving backward. With Doppelganger, and to a lesser extent, with this film, Kurosawa has blended the slapstick techniques of his earlier efforts in low budget direct-to-video cinema like Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself: The Hero aka Katte ni shiyagare! Eiyû-keikaku (which felt more like a Sabu film than a Kurosawa piece), with the atmospheric horror of his Cure/Séance/Kairo days. The results have been mixed. Doppelganger started off as a straight existential horror film, and veered wildly into full-blown comedy mode at the 1/3rd mark. It’s a clever movie, and has its good moments (many of them), but never approaches the heights of Kairo and Bright Future. Unfortunately, Loft continues this trend.
At its heart, Loft is a classic ghost story. Reiko Haruna (Miki Nakatani, star of Ring 2) is a prize-winning novelist in the process of selling out. She is under contract to write a popular romance novel in order to make a quick buck. However, Reiko is tormented by racking coughs, and eerily hacks up gobs of a black, mud-like substance. With the help of her creepy editor Kijima (I never trust a character who doesn’t blink), she sets herself up in a two-story rental house in the boonies in order to focus on her novel. The previous occupant disappeared under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
It’s not long before her attention is drawn to her neighbor Yoshioka Minoru (Etsushi Toyokawa), an archaeologist (in the handsome Indiana Jones tradition) who is conducting unspecified experiments on the 1,000-year-old mud-filled mummy of a girl found in the local swamp. This mummy more resembles the 2,000-year-old Lindow Man of the British Museum than the bandage-wrapped, Egyptian creatures featured in so many Universal films, and has a tendency to lose its covering tarp when left alone for too long. Yoshioka is a deeply haunted man, and his approach to the mummy seems to have left the scientific method far behind. Before too long, the de rigeur long-haired girl-ghost of J-Horror fame is hanging around, bothering Reiko and Yoshioka.
To the extent that Loft is about anything, it is about Kurosawa playing with form and technique, and at that, he is an acknowledged master. Even in a throwaway film like this, and using hoary techniques, Kurosawa demonstrates in one scene of Reiko exploring a dark house why the old techniques are the best, and that he can still make the hair stand up on the back of your neck if he wants to.
Kurosawa applies all the techniques that made him a master of J-Horror to Loft. More than anything, Kurosawa is a craftsman of dread. Actual violence is relatively rare in a Kurosawa movie (though he does not shy away from it), but a brooding feeling of menace and dread is omnipresent. In Loft, Kurosawa applies the techniques of older thrillers like The Haunting and Diabolique. Lighting, sound design, shadows, music and its absence – all are used to good effect, along with such classics as creaking stairs, flashing lightning, abandoned houses, and that old standby, the power outage.
Kurosawa’s trademark visual obsessions are all present. The movie is filled with long, slow takes and abrupt transitions (though some are too abrupt, deadening the impact of scenes). While the split-screen does not make an appearance (as it did in both Bright Future and Doppelganger), several scenes are nonetheless composed as if they were split, with characters occupying opposite ends of the screen, blocked off by internal framing. Kurosawa constantly isolates Reiko in the frame. She is frequently shown in mirrors, or framed by windows. Even in shots with others, Reiko stands apart. When sitting on a bench with a friend, the two are separated by a noticeable gap. In a bustling news room, Reiko is present front and center – all the activity is behind and above her, but not impinging on her space.
Sadly, Loft is amusing, and well-crafted, but not much more than that. This is the first Kurosawa film I have walked out of without a feeling that there was a deeper point that I needed to ponder, or that further mysteries awaited a second viewing. Kurosawa also undercuts the main storyline by dropping plot threads, and including scenes and dialogue that clearly signpost that the film shouldn’t be taken seriously. I think the problem is that Kurosawa has gone back to the well one too many times. He needs to get back on the road to his Bright Future.
Recommended? Obviously, no Kurosawa fan will want to miss this one, if for no other reason than to see the pattern of his development as he hopefully continues to move in the direction suggested by Bright Future. For others, J-Horror fans may want to give it a try, but it’s not essential viewing. Still, if you appreciate technique for its own sake, Loft can be a rewarding experience.
If you like this, you might like: The Devil’s Backbone, The Haunting, Kairo, Bright Future, Audition, The Ghost of Kasane Swamp, Jigoku, Matango, Ring, Adaptation
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and Rating: Average ★★ and People: Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Contributors: David and People: Miki Nakatani