“Nightmare Detective” – A.J. Hakari

Shinya Tsukamoto and I have an understanding. He gets to make all the critically-lauded cult favorites that he wants, and I get to sit back and wonder what both he and his fans have been smoking. In short, I’ve never been one of the Japanese filmmaker’s biggest fans, as his films have tended to range from the dreadfully slow (Vital) to the overwhelmingly stylistic (Tetsuo: The Iron Man). Tsukamoto’s style is, as I noted in my Tetsuo review, all madness and no method. Thus, it comes as a great and pleasant surprise to see that the man finally seems to have gotten his act together for his latest picture, Nightmare Detective. This is a film that takes Tsukamoto’s rather grim view of society, spiced up with the sort of imagery David Lynch would come up with after a few hits of LSD, and molds it into an easy-to-swallow package, creating a thriller that’s fairly accessible to Western audiences without betraying his thematic vision.

Keiko (Hitomi — yep, just one name) is a gifted police analyst taking her first steps into the world as a full-fledged detective. However, her first investigation may very well turn out to be the most bizarre one of her entire career. It seems like a cut-and-dry suicide when a young woman is found having stabbed herself to death, but Keiko senses that something fishy is at work. Her suspicions are confirmed not long afterwards, when a man apparently takes his own life in the same gruesome fashion. The common thread between the two deaths is that not only were both victims asleep, beforehand they had spoken to a mysterious caller known only as “0″ (played by Tsukamoto himself). After being relegated to approaching the case from a more paranormal angle, Keiko seeks the assistance of Kagenuma (Ryuhei Matsuda), a sullen young man with the ability to read peoples’ minds, as well as enter their dreams. Although extremely hesitant to use his abilities at first, Kagenuma reluctantly joins the hunt to track down 0 after his influence starts to reach Keiko’s colleagues.

I’m always a little leery of films that have to do with the world of dreams, for a good chunk of the time, they end up using this an excuse to cheat their way through the entire story. Lucky for us, Nightmare Detective treats this premise not so much as a gimmicky crutch as it does a backdrop against which more thought-provoking themes are set. Though it is at heart a combination detective drama and gore-soaked horror flick, Nightmare Detective finds room for some intriguing commentary on human nature, specifically on life in Japan. The story deals quite a bit with repressed memories and cast-aside feelings, as well as the consequences of revisiting them. With 0’s first two victims being a lonely twentysomething and a pudgy salaryman, both of whom come in contact with 0 due to a shared desire to commit suicide, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Tsukamoto sees society in Japan as being more than a little stifling. Tsukamoto hypothesizes that after we take a good, long look at our inner selves, we’re not going to be happy with what we see, an idea that results in the thematic floodgates opening wide.

Ruminations on our tormented psyches aside, Nightmare Detective comes across as a pretty solid thriller. The characters are stocked with familiar archetypes, from the female cop with something to prove to the sexist superior who thinks she’s hardly capable of opening a door. Still, though these personalities are more than a little dusty, the performances at least make them a little more bearable. Hitomi is about ten tons of adorable and handles herself well as the increasingly determined Keiko. Tsukamoto himself offers up a moody turn as the enigmatic 0, whose background may not be as black-and-white as the authorities hunting him may expect. I wasn’t so impressed, however, by Matsuda’s performance as the eponymous sleuth, which goes for being wounded yet badass at the same time yet comes across with all the sensitivity and sympathy of a whiny six-year-old whose ice cream fell on the sidewalk. Also, I’d be lying if I said the jerky cinematography wasn’t a little irksome at times (although it is quite effective in hiding the detailed appearance of a monster that rears its ugly head a couple times throughout the story).

I may not be one of those singing Tsukamoto’s praises, but I can’t deny that as a filmmaker, he has the drive and energy to dive headfirst into shifty territory and come out with something worth watching at least once. In the case of Nightmare Detective, though, this something goes beyond being a morbid curiosity and emerges as a pretty fleshed-out freak-fest.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, Terror Tube, and Screen Spotlight.

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