"Can I face the terror to which the only escape is to kill myself?" Shinya Tsukamoto, director of the cult films Tetsuo and A Snake of June plays Masuoka, a freelance TV cameraman with a finely honed proclivity for the morbid and macabre. Ever since capturing a gruesome suicide on video in which the victim skewers out his own eye with a knife while staring blindly into space at some unseen persecutor, he has become obsessed with the idea of facing fear head on.
His quest leads him deep into the catacombs of hidden tunnels that lie deep beneath Tokyo while avoiding the fearsome DERO or "detrimental robot", rumoured to prowl the subway passages spreading terror. Amongst the subterranean ruins of an ancient city lying far from the sun, he discovers a strange, feral young girl, blank-eyed and barely human in her movements, whom he names F. Taking her home to his dingy apartment, kept alit by the constant flicker of the video monitors that deck his walls, he attempts to bring her back to the land of the living by feeding her with his own blood, mindless of the effect another hungry mouth to feed at home will have on his own life.
In recent years, wunderkind horror director Takashi Shimizu has forged a rather envious reputation for himself as Japan's new Crown Prince of Horror. His first two straight-to-video Juon (2000) films for Toei Video neatly paved the way for his first theatrical feature Tomie: Rebirth (2001), the third entry in the series based on Junji Itoh's horror manga. But it was with the subsequent two theatrical versions of these video debuts that he caused the rest of the world to sit bolt upright. With the first cinematic incarnation of Juon, Shimizu proved that the simplest set-ups make for the most chilling terrors, and even though there may have been those among us who detected a slight element of the Emperor's New Clothes with this breakthrough title, it nevertheless proved impressive enough for US producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert to offer him a ticket to Tinseltown to helm the Hollywood remake The Grudge, starring Buffy's Sarah Michelle Gellar.
If the 31-year-old's lucky break has made him the envy of directors throughout the length and breadth of Japan, it nonetheless kept the attention of horror fans across the globe fixed on the country as the primary spawning ground for some of the most disconcerting, atmospheric and pessimistic horrors offerings for years. Against the rapidly diminishing returns of many of the formulaic post-Ring offerings, Juon boasted some truly standout scare moments and an unsettling aura that couldn't fail to get under your skin, even if script and characterisation did come across as rather an afterthought.
With each of his films proving even more successful than the last, Shimizu's career looks unstoppable, but one can't help but hold a few reservations as to which direction he will head in next. After all, Shimizu has effectively made a grand total of 5 films in the Juon series in as many years. Made almost concurrently alongside the US version of The Grudge, The Stranger from Afar should put pay to all thoughts that its director is a one trick pony. Even as The Grudge opened to indifferent reviews, word of mouth of his newest opus was already slowly spreading after its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival, followed up by the Golden Raven Award at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film. Not only is it his most interesting and accomplished work to date, it is also one of the finest horrors to come from Japan in a long time. Fear junkies certainly won't come away wanting.
The irony is that The Stranger from Afar represents something of a return to roots for Shimizu, in that it dispenses with the lavish sets and mammoth crew of his Hollywood debut for a more lightweight production. Shot on digicam, it was released in Japan in the autumn of 2004 as part of a series of modestly-budgeted digital features resulting from a collaboration between the Film School of Tokyo and the Eurospace cinema in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. This special "Bancho" series resulted in a total of 11 films that fell under three categories - Horror Bancho, Eros Bancho and Wara Bancho (comedy) - directed by a mixture of film students and established professionals. Standouts of the Eros Bancho quartet were Takahisa Zeze's Yuda, 70s pink legend Mamoru Watanabe's comeback film Katame Dake no Koi [One Eyed Love] and TV-director Shinya Nishimura's Love Kill Kill, while Mari Asato (Hideshi Hino Horror Theatre: The Boy From Hell) contributed Girls for Independence (Dokuritsu Shojo Guren Gai Tai) to the Comedy series and Hiroshi Takahashi, the screenwriter behind both the original Ring and Juon films, acted as directing supervisor for all the horror films in the series and also made his directing debut with the Dr Mabuse-inspired camp horror-comedy Town of Sodom (Sodom no Ichi).
Standing out head and shoulders above the other offerings in the series, Stranger from Afar at last proves that there is something concrete behind Shimizu's oft-touted directing talent when served by a decent script, and one only hopes he gets a chance to collaborate again with Chiaki Konaka, the brains behind this work, as well as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Door III and Hideo Nakata's The Sleeping Bride.
Taking his macabre vision one step further with this Lovecraftian voyage into the netherworld, Stranger from Afar proves that you don't need big bucks to create big chills, and that a supernatural horror movie shot on video doesn't have to look like The Blair Witch Project. All of which bodes well for his next project, with Shimizu scheduled to return to Japan to complete Rebirth (Rinne), the third film in producer Taka Ichise's recent J Horror Theatre series.