Based on a manga by Santa "Tokyo Tribes" Inoue and produced by Yoshinori Chiba, the man behind some of most attention-grabbing Japanese films of the 90s, among which Takashi Miike's Fudoh and Rokuro Mochizuki's superlative The Fire Within, The Neighbour #13 comes from quite a pedigree. It has two of the best young actors in Japan in the lead roles: kabuki dynasty scion Shido Nakamura (Ping Pong, Iden & Tity) and Hirofumi Arai of Go, Blue Spring and Blood and Bones fame, plus a cameo by Takashi Miike, who by now must surely be one of the archipelago's main cultural exports. At the helm of it all, however, stands a young director making his big screen debut. And he might well be the most eye-catching element of the entire package.
Juzo (Oguri) is a young introvert, the victim of a childhood reign of terror visited upon him by a bullying classmate named Akai. When he takes a job at a construction site, he discovers to his horror that his foreman is none other than his own former tormentor (Arai), now all grown and having lost none of his violent whims. These days it's the menial hands around the lot that Akai brutalises, seemingly with impunity. Not realising who the new guy is, Akai automatically subjects Juzo to the same treatment. When the young man finds out that Akai actually lives upstairs from him in the apartment block he just moved into, his traumas come to the surface and begin to manifest themselves in the shape of a split personality, #13 (Nakamura). The psychotic personification of years' worth of anger and frustrations, #13 - the kanji for the name Juzo can also be read as 'thirteen' - begins to coldbloodedly eliminate anything and anybody that causes Juzo the slightest amount of trouble, starting with a noisy next door neighbour (Miike). But by the time Juzo realises what has happened, he has already bonded with Akai's unexpectedly lovely wife (Yoshimura, of J-poppers Puffy) and cute son, and #13 isn't being too discriminate about his targets.
Comparisons with Miike's Ichi the Killer and its straight-to-video spin-off 1/Ichi spring to mind on the basis of The Neighbour #13's plotline. The same manga origins, the same bullying motif, the same schizophrenic reaction in the protagonist, the same suggestion of perpetuating and uncontrollable violence. The execution, however, is worlds apart from the record-breaking bloodletting of Miike's film, and instead closer in tone to what Toshiaki Toyoda did in his excellent Blue Spring. Debuting director Yasuo Inoue (no relation to Santa) opts for a colder, more detached and more observing style and it's exactly there that he reveals himself quite an idiosyncratic filmmaker.
The 32-year-old Inoue comes from a background of music videos and TV commercials, which begs an amount of scepticism. However, unlike his colleague Gen Sekiguchi - who also made his feature film debut recently with the zany but vapid Survive Style 5+ - Inoue commendably resists the temptation to use his first big screen outing as an occasion to open his entire bag of tricks and deliver a movie that is little more than a craftsman's showcase. Stylistically, The Neighbour #13 is a remarkably restrained film. There are isolated moments when Inoue lets rip with a hyperactive camera, but he limits these to the dream sequences that recur throughout the film, which symbolise the tug-of-war between Juzo and his demented Mr. Hyde.
The scenes of violence (it's difficult to call them action scenes) are shot almost uniformly with a fixed camera, set in a corner to observe the most certainly bloody goings-on with a detached eye. Even in the climactic confrontation between #13 and Akai, Inoue refuses to go for exhilaration and excitement, letting the crazed actions of the two characters play out without imposing judgment on how the viewer is supposed to experience them. The director professes to being a fan of Italian Mondo maestro Gaultiero Jacopetti and of true crime stories, and indeed it's the more realistic sections of The Neighbour #13 that represent the film's standout moments. The bullying sequences really hit home, but Inoue's talent also shows through in other, more unexpected areas. For instance in the way he employs the film's main location, the decrepit, two-storey apartment block in which the childhood antagonists find themselves adult neighbours.
Now that it seems a new generation of Japanese filmmakers is gradually moving up to take over the reins from the 'new new wave' of the 90s, Yasuo Inoue is definitely a director to watch over the next few years. The Neighbour #13 has already emerged as one of the pleasant surprises of 2005 and if he can steer clear of idol vehicles, CGI-heavy studio films and empty-headed style exercises, then I for one have good faith in where Inoue might be standing in a couple of years' time.