Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shinya Tsukamoto's Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (2006)

Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda) has two special abilities: he is able to enter into others' dreams and interact with the dream's characters and setting. He is also able to read others' minds and hear their thoughts and secrets. He is able to hear these thoughts from whomever, awake and on a crowded street, for example, or within a dream. One important character tells Kagenuma late into Shinya Tsukamoto's Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (2006) that he has a gift and he is not doing anything with it. This observation is mostly accurate: Kagenuma lives in squalor, dressed in tattered clothing, has unkempt hair, and above all, lives alone. He doesn't believe his abilities are a gift but more akin to a curse. The thoughts that he hears from others reveal often hidden beliefs and darker aspects of their being. When Kagenuma is near someone, their thoughts reveal greed, hatred, or anger, for example, while most people walk quietly on the street projecting another face and living life perhaps contrary to their innermost spirit. Kagenuma is reluctant to enter into others' dreams: it is an intensely emotional experience for him and it exacts a heavy toll on his psyche. As for the dreamer, his entrance is often dangerous, as his interactions could result in a nightmare upon waking for the dreamer from a dream.
As for Kagenuma's character and background, it is shrouded in mystery in Akumu Tantei. As for the plot of Akumu Tantei, Tsukamoto crafts a mystery, a thriller involving a killer who is murdering others who are on the brink of suicide. The police encounter two deaths, one of a twenty-year old woman and the other, a married salaryman with a fondness for junk food. Both deaths appear to be suicides: case closed. However, the link between the two deaths is a phone number on both victims' cell phones, noted only as the number "0." Believing that it is prudent to investigate this odd and suspicious link between the two victims, the police plan on calling the number to identify the holder of the "0" phone number. Maybe the two deaths were not suicides at all and perhaps the voice on the phone induced his victims into killing themselves. Or maybe something sicker and more sinister is occurring. Keiko (hitomi) has just become a police detective and the caller "0" case is her first. Keiko is put in charge of investigating whether dreams had anything to do with the killings and she is led to an encounter with Kagenuma.For a film maker who possesses a unique and powerful imagination, Akumu Tantei, at first blush, appears traditional and conventional, coming from a director whose previous works could rarely be labeled as such. This observation would be mostly correct. However, upon closer inspection (and perhaps subsequent viewings), this observation is proved wholly false as Akumu Tantei is much deeper and richer than its surface narrative would have its viewer believe. The film's creativity lies within its characters, primarily three, caller "0," Keiko, and of course, Kagenuma. As these three are drawn together in Tsukamoto's web, the complexity to their characters is revealed as the narrative mystery is also seamlessly revealed. The modus operandi of caller "0" is slick and creatively rendered: one who allegedly murders his victims on the brink of suicide. The interesting question is why: murder as an action, in these circumstances, would be redundant. Tsukamoto's imagination provides a very compelling and offbeat answer to this question. Keiko is not a typical newbie to the police force: she's not a rookie out of the academy, bright-eyed and green; but rather, Keiko has sought a demotion to detective from an elite position within the government's ministry. Again the most compelling question is why: what drives hitomi's Keiko to leave a prestigious job, with presumably more comfort, to engage in police investigation where the hours are long, the cases intense and bloody, and the prestige is almost non-existent. "You might not want to wear high heels," a colleague tells Keiko during her first crime scene investigation. "You might have to run." "Is that an order?" asks Keiko, not even looking at her colleague as she strolls up the stairs.The titular character of the film with a somewhat deceiving English-language title, Kagenuma, has the most mystery and is a completely torn character, reluctantly drawn into the action by the film's narrative. (A viewing of Akumu Tantei's sequel, Akumu Tantei 2 (2009), also directed by Tsukamoto, goes much deeper into his character. The two films richly play to each other, and the sequel seriously informs a viewing of the original. However, discussion of the sequel is for another day.) Tsukamoto does not give any exposition or overt background to his character: everything about Kagenuma is revealed through his character's interactions or through Tsukamoto's compositions. Both are very well done. The opening of the film is very creative and Kagenuma's appearance is effective. To describe it would be to ruin it, as the opening is so subtly crafted. Keiko's first meeting with Kagenuma is memorable: watching how Tsukamoto blocks his characters and frames them speaks louder than the characters' dialogue. Within the final act of Akumu Tantei, Tsukamoto blends both the imagery and what is hidden in his three primary characters powerfully.Visually, Akumu Tantei prefers the dark, and the "nightmare" alluded to in the English-language title is appropriate. Whenever Tsukamoto has the opportunity to paint his characters in the dark, he does. To say that light is used judiciously is an understatement and when light is used, it is effective. Some familiar and signature Tsukamoto visuals are present, such as the p.o.v. shot flying down corridors or alleys and shaking accompanying camerawork. When Tsukamoto's films take a turn into dreamland, the mise-en-scene rapidly changes: the odd close-up on something innocuous, the hyper-odd special effect or gore scene coming totally unexpected, and cross-cuts from the present into somewhere else, either the past or a time that doesn't exist. With Akumu Tantei, Tsukamoto delivers again with his visuals.Gorgeous hitomi as Keiko is electric, as it is hard for anyone to take their eyes off of her. Her performance is an excellent mix of mystery and defiance. The performer of the character, caller "0," is a familiar one and this performer is over-the-top, dark, and sinister. Matsuda as Kagenuma is appropriately quirky and eccentric, sympathetic and understandable, and scared and heroic. A film which has possibly flown under the radar or passed everyone by, Akumu Tantei is seriously good Tsukamoto cinema, always worth watching.

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