About five minutes into Takashi Shimizu's quickie horror film Marebito, a freelance videographer played by Shinya Tsukamoto watches some footage he shot in the subway of a man holding a knife to his own face. Suddenly, the man plunges the blade into his eye with a sickening squish. Tsukamoto freezes the image of the man with a knife in his eye socket, studies it for a few seconds, then rewinds. And the audience, naturally, squeals. Is Shimizu going to make us watch that again?
It's a bit of crowd-baiting worthy of Michael Haneke, but the scene also conveys much of what Grudge creator Shimizu means to say about the soul-sucking voyeurism of horror fans: that we crave the unimaginably awful, and will watch until it no longer shocks us. Shimizu and TV writer Chiaki Konaka—erstwhile scribe for Ultraman, Digimon, and Astro Boy—build on that scene, concocting an unsettling dream-narrative. Tsukamoto descends into the subway to find the eye-gouger's ghost, and instead finds naked vampire Tomomi Miyashita. He brings her to his wired-up apartment, feeds her a little of his blood, and starts looking for human fruit to squeeze.
Marebito is dotted with striking images that speak to the way a video-addicted culture becomes isolated from reality. Tsukamoto keeps tabs on his captive vampire lady by checking in via videophone, and at one point he sees the faces of passersby on the street as blurry blobs, until he looks through his viewfinder. Shimizu frequently films scenes of confrontation through Tsukamoto's camera, including one memorable moment when we know he's killed a woman because her blood splatters the lens.
But unlike the elliptical, often explanation-free The Grudge, Marebito is wordy to the extreme. Konaka's near-constant narration underlines every point the movie is trying to make, ruminating bluntly on the meaning of fear, and how we suck on media violence like, yep, vampires. Maybe the jabber is intended to dull the J-horror tingle, or maybe it's just that a certain amount of navel-gazing is inevitable when a man looks at himself without taking the camera from his eye.