There are few things worse than discovering a talented director whose first film is a gem in the rough, only to see him fade back into obscurity. Yasou Inoue burst onto the scene with The Neighbor No. 13 [Rinjin 13-go] some 10 years ago, raking up international accolades and even landing his film broad international distribution. I remember loving it back then, but had forgotten most of the details since, so of course I was looking forward to revisiting Inoue's single blip on the cinematic radar.
The Neighbor No. 13 is one of those film that happily rode the Asian horror wave, but didn't quite belong. While the world was scrambling to see the umpteenth copy of The Ring and Ju-On, distributors locked down whatever film they could tie to both Japan and the horror genre and dumped it onto the masses. The response was rarely positive, but fans of weirder genre cinema were living a dream back then. Looking at it from that angle, it's maybe not all that surprising that Inoue never made his second feature.
Inoue's film is more of mystery/thriller, with very minor yet unmistakeable nods to the horror genre. While the film wouldn't feel out of place in the warming-up section of a Halloween marathon, approaching it like a full-on horror movie is just going to end in disappointment. Instead you can expect a somewhat harrowing, bizarre and twisted revenge flick built around a suppressed childhood trauma. That and one of the meanest, bad-ass characters of the past 20 years.
The film revolves around Juzo, a young boy living by himself and trying to make ends meet by taking on a construction site job. Akai is Juzo's supervisor and lives in the same building as him, but he's a bullying jerk who loves to pray on the weak. Juzo appears harmless and Akai sees him as an easy target, but whenever things get too dire Juzo calls in the help from a mysterious friend. No 13 is an impressive and mean-looking guy who takes care of Juzo's problems whenever Juzo can't handle the situation.
Visually the film shows two faces. The more dramatic parts are a little lifeless and drab, sporting an overly digital look and lacking color. The camera work is still pretty good, but can't offset the rather murky impression it leaves. But when the genre elements surface the visuals become considerably more playfull and whenever Inoue goes into overdrive (the scenes in the abandoned cottage) The Neighbor No. 13 looks pretty damn cool. The contrast feels deliberate, even so it's a shame the overall effect isn't a bit more consistent.
The soundtrack is equally confusing. At times it fades into the background, not drawing too much attention to itself, but once Ihoue shifts gears it suddenly becomes an asset, proud to make a statement while adding tons of atmosphere in the process. Again it feels like this was done deliberately and again I'm not sure if the contrast needed to be this obvious and in your face. It's not a bad score in the sense that it never irritates or detracts from the film, but I was left with the feeling that it Inoue could've done more.
Shun Oguri (Juzo) and Hirofumi Arai (Akai) are doing a fine job capturing their respective characters. The Neighbor No. 13 is based on a manga so the slightly exaggerated portrayal of their personalities comes with the territory and is easily forgiven. But if you're going to remember one actor here it's Shido Nakamura. His rendition of No 13 is beyond legendary, both physically as emotionally, transforming his character into one of the biggest psychos to have ever graced a feature film. His part became absolutely essential to the success of the film.
The Neighbor No. 13 doesn't really put too much effort into hiding its twist. There might be some slight confusion at the start of the film, but attentive watchers are sure to catch on pretty quickly. There is no big reveal, nor is there a surprise finale. Instead the film draws its strength from the strong performances, the gruesome and harsh paybacks and the duality of its main character. It's a rather tough film to categorize as it largely exists in a plain of its own, but that only adds appeal to an already strong film.
Yasuo Inoue showed immense potential when he directed The Neighbor No. 13. There are so many things right with this film that it's easy to forgive its few shortcomings. There are moments of sheer genius here, hidden away in a film that comes off just a little to modest for its own good. But if you're in the mood for a superb mix of revenge and psychological terror, Inoue has you covered. The Neighbor No. 13 has lost little of its shine over the years and still comes warmly recommended.