Fear is a powerful human emotion that many are reticent to embrace. Most artists seemingly would rather induce fear in his/her audience by exposing his/her own fears. Few would take fear as the subject matter of her/his art. Shinya Tsukamoto follows up Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (2006) with Akumu Tantei 2 (Nightmare Detective 2) (2008) with fear as his focus. From the director whose influential Tetsuo (1989) pushed the extremes of corporeal horror, one of Tsukamoto's latest films sees him returning to the ethereal to deliver one of his most human films.
Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda) is again alone and having a recurring dream of his childhood involving his mother Itsuko (Miwako Ichikawa), who killed herself when Kagenuma was a little boy. Kagenuma upon waking is prompted to visit his father, Takio (Ken Mitsuishi), from whom he has grown distant, to ask him about his mother about whom he presumably knows little. She was afraid of everything, his father tells Kagenuma. "She was afraid of life." As his dreams recur and gain intensity, a little more is revealed to Kagenuma of his memories of his mother. Kagenuma is visited at his home by Yukie (Yui Miura), a high-school student, who is being haunted in her dreams by a missing classmate, Kikugawa (Hanae Kan) on whom Yukie and her two friends played a cruel joke. Yukie begins to describe Kikugawa--she was an extremely sensitive young woman who was often fearful. "Once, at the cinema," says Yukie, "during a normal scene, she became terrified and tried to stab someone with a pencil." Kagenuma is reticent is to help Yukie, as he has his own problems, and pushes her away. Yukie does not give up on seeking Kagenuma's help as people around her begin dying. Kagenuma's dreams of his mother do not cease, and he believes confronting Kikugawa in a dream will help him understand his dead mother and help Yukie.
Kagenuma's withdrawal from life is tied closely to one of his two special abilities, hearing the thoughts of others. It is quite easy to imagine the affirmative aspect of this attribute--one could gain immense power by learning information, often secret, from others. However, one possessing a darker and more sensitive imagination, like Tsukamoto, is able to embrace how scary having this ability would be. At least three times from three different characters' perspective, a child or an adolescent is able to hear his/her parent's thoughts. These scenes are powerfully insightful and tragic as the parent's thoughts reveal things that most parents would shudder to say to his/her child. Tsukamoto imagines and renders the reactions of a small child or the adolescent hearing a parent's shame of a child or fear of the child's presence. Tsukamoto astutely is aware of the profound effect such thoughts would have upon a child or an adolescent, and what kind of person that child would become possessing such knowledge.
Tsukamoto presumes in Akumu Tantei 2 that each child innately loves his/her parent, and when a child witnesses or is the recipient of behavior from the parent seemingly not motivated by love, then the child becomes very torn emotionally: the child's love for the parent may or may not change but almost certainly, the desire to understand his/her parent greatly increases from the child's standpoint. Herein lies Kagenuma's dilemma and perhaps his complete withdrawal from life stems from his misunderstanding of his mother. In scenes of very real domestic life, whether rendered by Tsukamoto in characters' dreams or without, these emotions are felt by the viewer. Kagenuma, Yukie, and Kikugawa are all exposed, and it becomes very difficult not to grow closer to these three characters. Tsukamoto's handling of his characters is so organic that to not understand and sym/empthasize with these characters is impossible.
While this review has taken a trip into the heights of pontification, Akumu Tantei 2 does not. Tsukamoto prefers a sombre background for his canvas, as most scenes are natural light seeping through windows or open doors: whatever is revealed by this light is shown and whatever is covered in shadows is hidden. This style of cinema is currently the dominant one for most film makers, and Tsukamoto, like any other style he attempts to conquer, he makes it seem easy, organic, and seamless. His compositions are appropriate, as if the veteran film maker knows exactly when to capture a close-up shot of a character's expression, for example. While the narrative and characters are extremely strong (with equally strong performances by all), Tsukamoto does not hold back his visuals when Akumu Tantei 2 visits dreamland. The final act is characterized by almost a complete disorientation: it is wholly unknown when a particular sequence begins if its a dream or not; and if its a dream, then whose dream is it? Tsukamoto dispenses with easy scares: he's going for the uneasy feelings and exploring fear. The end result, totally satisfying, is a human film about fear stemming from the misunderstanding of others.