“Tomie” – A.J. Hakari

Remember when the arrival of a new Asian horror title was a good thing? When films of atmospheric and thematic merit were released, rather than assembly-line thrillers that got as derivative as the American flicks they were supposed to better? Those were the days, a time when something like Tomie could come out and still be considered a little original. Based upon a popular manga and the first in its own sprawling franchise, this film focuses on underlying issues as much as, if not more than, scaring its viewers. That’s not to say its plans go smoothly, but in the face of a scattershot script and inert pacing, those few signs of life Tomie does show are better than none.

Our story centers on Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura), a young woman with some issues to work out. Following a traffic accident, our girl finds herself fighting to recover memories that her subconscious has given the heave-ho. But during her hypnotherapy sessions, Tsukiko comes to chant the name “Tomie,” that of an old high school classmate. Little does she know that her former pal has returned to start a new life — literally. A sullen young man discovers Tomie’s detached noggin and raises her from scratch, watching her bloom into a beauty (played by Miho Kanno) all over again. But Tomie has unfinished business to square away, and with her ability to whip the men she meets into a violent frenzy, she’s bent on righting the dark wrong that Tsukiko’s blocked out.

Tomie hit screens the same year as Memento Mori, the second and most daring chapter of Korea’s Ghost School series. Both are unrelated and were put into production for different reasons, but each has a go at conveying adolescent angst with a supernatural touch. Tomie is the more outright horror film of the pair, but it too makes a stab at subtlety. From the flashing lights and eerie synth-pop ballad that accompany the opening credits, you know something’s amiss but not what exactly. Even when some dude starts feeding yogurt to a head in a bag, you’re at a loss. It’s all pins and needles, until a cop (Tetsuo’s Tomorowo Taguchi) saunters in to spill the title character’s beans. So much suspense is lost (and at a fairly early time) that the film never makes up for it. I suppose there’s still mystery behind Tomie’s grand scheme, but little is done to make the time before her plans come to light anymore bearable.

At least when Tomie fails to hook you as a thriller, its commentary does offer something for the mind to ingest. You’re never as emotionally invested as with Memento Mori, but it is fun watching parallels form between the leads. Tomie may be a heartless harlot, driving guys to do her bidding (and onto murder after that), but Tsukiko has manipulative traits of her own, as in a scene where she demands affection from her beau (Kouta Kusano). But even when a sinister past is suggested, Nakamura’s performance stays sympathetic. Kanno leaves a nice impression as Tomie herself; her face obscured most of the time, she creeps you out so often without ever actually doing anything. The simple approach does work, unless the film is confronted with a sizable chunk of downtime. It’s then that you can only wait until characters stop indulging in whiny melodrama long enough to let the plot do its thing.

It’s so odd to see Tomie defy its cheap exterior at certain moments, only to succumb to it during others. The film really could’ve done with a second draft, another chance to really do justice to a rather clever premise. Maybe one of the sequels remedies these issues, but it is nice knowing that Tomie thought enough to set out in the right direction.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

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

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