Greetings, readers. H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of Mankind is fear…and the oldest and strongest form of fear, is fear of the unknown.” I mention this because it is relevant to today’s film. Japanese horror cinema, these days, is largely known to western audiences through films such as RINGU (THE RING) and JU-ON (THE GRUDGE). Some significantly more twisted films have slipped under the radar, MAREBITO (THE STRANGER FROM AFAR), by JU-ON director Takashi Shimizu, being one such. It stands as one of the only films I’ve had the fortune of seeing that I felt truly evoked the ringing cosmic dread of Lovecraft’s fiction. Of similar noteworthiness, at least to my eclectic interests, is MAREBITO’s connection to one of the strangest conspiracy theories to have ever been born of the mind of Man.
Having thus introduced the film, it is time to discuss it. Spoilers ensue.
Masuoka, a freelance camera man living in Tokyo (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, himself a director, best known for TETSUO THE IRON MAN), has stumbled upon a mystery. By — luck? accident? — he happens to be on hand with his camera rolling as Furoki, a man driven to insanity by fear, drives a knife through his eye and into his brain, killing himself. Masuoka broods upon this; was the man on drugs? Trapped in a marriage to a paranoiac? Or did he see something that truly terrified him to his very core, some horror so unspeakable that he chose to embrace death rather than live with the knowledge of its existence?
The answer, Masuoka decides, can only be found underground, either in the subway tunnels…or below them. Declining to continue taking his Prozac, Masuoka descends, lighting his path with the night vision setting on his camcorder. He finds an entire labyrinth of tunnels and bolt-holes, some recently made, others dating back to the Second World War or earlier. And more disconcertingly, he finds this labyrinth to be occupied. Something sickly-pale and vaguely humanoid crawls at the edge of his sight, lurking, ready to hide if Masuoka turns his head. Similarly, an encounter with a derelict, shaking with fear and muttering of the “Deros” leaves Masuoka with more questions than answers.
Fortunately, Masuoka finds answers. Or, more specifically, he is met by the ghost of Furoki, the man who killed himself in the subway. Furoki sheds a little bit of light on things, discoursing at length on the subject of The Hollow Earth Hypothesis, explaining to Masuoka that he has entered the Hollow Earth. The “Deros,” likewise, are a race of humanoid creatures that inhabit the Hollow Earth. They originated in a piece of “fiction” from the pen of Richard Shaver, an American in the 1940s. However, fiction seems to have become prophecy; the Dero are very real, and represent a very real danger.
Continuing on, Masuoka makes a final astonishing discovery; a beautiful naked woman, apparently in her early 20s, chained up in an alcove carved into a cavern wall. Freeing her, Masuoka takes her home. Dubbing her “F,” he makes something of a pet out of her. Dressing her, setting up a remote camera to be able to observe her when he’s out of the apartment…the only problem is in feeding her. She refuses all food, and Masuoka can do little but watch her weaken until by accident he finds the answer. Blood. “F” feeds on blood.
Soon, Masuoka finds himself committing murder to feed his new pet; and what’s worse, a strange man, dressed all in black and wearing a hat that shadows his eyes, is following Masuoka around, speaking cryptically and threateningly about Masuoka’s efforts at making a pet out of a creature of the underworld. Despite his best efforts to elevate “F” to the human level, it seems she is instead dragging him down to hers…or is any of this even happening? Is Masuoka losing his mind or reaching a new state of awareness?
Before I go into the film itself, I’d like to briefly discuss the Shaver Mystery. In the 1940s, Richard Sharpe Shaver sent a letter to Ray Palmer, editor of pulp science fiction magazine Amazing Stories. In this letter, Shaver explained his discovery of “Mantong,” a prehuman language from which all modern languages are descended. When asked to elaborate on this discovery, Shaver sent Palmer what was essentially a manuscript detailing the secret history of the Earth — that millions of years ago, a godlike alien race colonized Earth, building elaborate cities across the globe. Eventually, they found that some element in sunlight was poisonous to them, causing them to regress into savage, sadistic creatures. They tried hiding from these rays inside the Hollow Earth, but were eventually forced to abandon the planet entirely, leaving it to those among them too twisted and insane to take along, the Dero, and to a burgeoning new species — Humanity.
Shaver learned all this from the Dero, who spoke to him through the arc welder he used at work. The Dero were responsible, he claimed, for all human suffering and misfortune, and at times Dero would even ascend to the surface world to torment, torture, and rape human beings. While Shaver asserted that every word of “the Shaver Mystery” was true, Palmer had a duty to sell magazines. As such, he revised and expanded on Shaver’s original manuscript, gave it the punch-up title “I Remember Lemuria!” and ran it in Astounding Stories. The response was tremendous. Soon letters were pouring in from individuals claiming to have been contacted by, seen, or even tortured by Dero.
Richard Shaver, I should note, was likely a paranoid schizophrenic, the “Shaver Mystery” bearing some of the hallmark hallucinations of the condition, combined with elements likely half-remembered from Lovecraft’s fiction. Shaver passed away in 1975, maintaining to the last that everything he’d written was true.
Shimizu, then, in filming MAREBITO has taken the basic germ of the Shaver Mystery, and given it new life. Gone is the punch-up thrill stories of flying saucers, death rays, space battles, and huge-breasted alien love-goddesses. No, Shimizu has cut to the heart of the Shaver Mystery. That somewhere there are beings completely alien to our own sphere of existence, and their one joy is in your suffering. They will tease you, torment you, torture you, and even murder you, strictly for their own amusement. They will twist your senses and corrupt your memory and perceptions of the world around you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
I don’t know about you, but I find that thought pretty disconcerting. And this is something that Shimizu plays with; at no point is the viewer allowed a comfortable point of reference. It is left to the viewer to decide if Masuoka is actually being toyed with by a nightmarish race of subterranean beings or if everything that is happening is a hallucination brought on by his decision to stop taking his medication. Either perspective is horrifying; because if Masuoka is not being tormented by underground monsters, it means he’s chained up his own daughter, treating her like an animal, and has murdered her mother and another woman in order to feed “F.” I’ve watched MAREBITO three times now, and I can honestly say that I feel as though Shimizu never even decided for himself which perspective was “right.” The story is filmed just perfectly to keep the viewer teetering on the razor’s edge between perspectives.
In the final analysis, MAREBITO is perhaps the film that most closely captures Lovecraft’s bleak vision of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Even if you aren’t a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, I think you’ll likely find MAREBITO to be one of the darkest, most chilling examples of psychological horror out there. I strongly recommend it.