I've never been a major fan of the Japanese less-is-more wave of horror films that swept over us around the turn of the century, but there are some interesting films that rode that particular wave while not being explicitly part of it. Takashi Shimizu is one of the pioneers of the style, which is probably why The Stranger from Afar [Marebito] got picked up in the West. I've been meaning to rewatch the film for quite a while now but was a little scared it wouldn't hold up now that the hype is well behind us. I'm happy to say I was mistaken, The Stranger from Afar is a film that still stands proud and deserves its place in the Japanese horror canon.
Ringu was the film that kicked off the Asian suspense wave in the West, but it was far from the first Japanese film to nail its signature elements. The Honto ni Atta Jowia series was released in the early 90s and featured names like Norio Tsuruta, Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, doing their thing with long-haired ghosts and creepy sound effects. When the whole niche blew up internationally they kept producing these films mostly as fan service (Shimizu made sure he kept himself involved in the Ju-On franchise for example), but they also branched out into other niches of the horror genre.
That's how he ended up making The Stranger from Afar, a film regularly described as Lovecraftian. It's not a horror niche that's often explored by Japanese directors (they are more Poe-minded, no doubt due to the popularity of Edogawa Rampo), but in the hands of Shimizu and with Shinya Tsukamoto taking up the lead role, the results are pretty interesting, to say the least. As long as you are able to deal with the film's documentary-inspired presentation (which really works in the film's favor, but isn't that pretty to look at), you're in for quite a treat.
When a cameraman takes the metro on his way home, he catches a grueling suicide on camera. Back home, he revisits the footage, where he notices the victim is seemingly frightened by a presence off-camera. The cameraman returns to the place where he shot the footage and notices a small door that leads into a maze of tunnels that run underneath Tokyo. While exploring the underground passages, he bumps into a shifty-looking guy who tells him about how some people believe the Earth is hollow and houses a huge subterranean city. The cameraman travels deeper underground and finds proof that this story is more than just a mad fairytale.
This is a film that dates from that short period in time when DV was the hottest new thing in cinema, but the quality wasn't really there yet. Shimizu makes good use of its added capabilities though. The treks through the underground tunnels are very tense and having the camera close to Tsukamoto when he scowers around Tokyo adds to his manic character. The CG is pretty drab (but limited to when it was absolutely needed) and the quality of the recordings is pretty poor, still, Shimizu finds some decent angles and manages to crank out a few memorable shots. It may not look pretty, but at least some thought went into the cinematography.
The soundtrack is pretty typical, but also extremely efficient and well-executed. Dark ambient and grizzly soundscapes work very well for this type of film, the good thing is that Shimizu isn't afraid to commit. Film soundtracks tend to be a bit timid and hesitant, certainly when it involves electronic-based music, but there's none of that here. Not that The Stranger from Afar sports an extremely experimental or harsh soundtrack, but it gets dirty and gritty where it needs to be and it adds tons of flavor, slyly compensating for the somewhat lacking cinematography. This is how to make proper use of a score.
Having Tsukamoto in the lead was a real stroke of genius. He certainly isn't the best or most enigmatic actor in Japan, but he has a pleasant voice (which helps with the voice-overs) and he's had ample experience portraying this type of spiraling character. Tomomi Miyashita also puts in a strong performance, but without any dialogue and with a very limited character, she's just not that memorable. The rest of the cast is okay, but nothing special, which is normal considering their very limited screen time. This really is a Tsukamoto one-man show, and it's a good thing he delivers.
The start of the film is pretty gripping, the descent into the tunnels underneath Tokyo and the reveal of the background lore sets the stage for the rest of the film. I did need some time adjusting to the second half, the transition between the two parts could've been a little smoother maybe, but once Shimizu gets that on the rails it is smooth sailing until the last frames. The best thing is that the film kept me guessing throughout, as it is not a traditional Japanese horror narrative that follows a pre-defined plot structure. And that makes it a lot more fun when submitting yourself to a rewatch.
I'm a pretty avid fan of Japanese horror, just not of the less-is-more hype that made a global impact a decade or two ago. The Stranger from Afar carries some of its influences but applies them in a very different manner, and Shimizu delivers something more akin to the found footage films that were about to flood the horror scene a few years later (without technically being a part of it). The Stranger from Afar is a peculiar film, strangely efficient in creating a dreadful and uncomfortable atmosphere, sporting a superb score and a terrific lead performance. Just don't expect a typical Shimizu chiller, this film has more to offer.