Japanese cult filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto has both a reputation and a resume well past the point of having to prove anything to anyone of his bona fide auteur status. His latest film, Nightmare Detective seems to have attached to it the stigma that this is merely a mainstream genre exercise rather than the director pushing forward. This is probably compounded by the casting of two well known (in Japanese circles) pretty faces in the lead roles (Nana's Ryuhei Matsuda as the titular detective, pop-singer Hitomi in the films formally lead role). Variety goes so far as to label Nightmare Detective as little more than a franchise or remake opportunity for Tsukamoto to fund more personal projects. By the 20 minute mark into the film, it becomes quite clear that not only is this assessment incorrect, but also that Tsukamoto is very likely incapable of making that type of straightforward film (even if in fact that were his initial intentions). What is delivered, snugly in the bosom of the directors main motifs, is a film that functions somewhere in between the Bermuda Triangle of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, Satoshi Kon's Paprika and Michael Haneke's Funny Games. If despair, loneliness and graphic suicide are considered the hallmarks of what passes for the mainstream, well then pass me the Kool-Aid. This viewer is ready and willing to follow Tsukamoto on whatever trip he wants to take.
In the opening minutes of the film, Kyoichi (not quite yet the nightmare detective, but clearly comfortable with his unusual talent) enters a comatose salaryman dream to talk him back to consciousness. It seems the unconscious man has more than one set of issues and his coma may just be self-induced to get away from his boorish family and the guilt of a deed done in the past (note the longhair-ghost wig in the background). It is telling that Kyoichi is almost defeatist in his attempt to save the man from himself. He pleads that this paranormal job is just being done as a favor. There is only a limited chance of success to no small risk to Kyoichi. In other words, a reluctant hero is early established. Cut to a grisly crime scene where the investigating officers have decided it was simply suicide. Keiko (Hitomi), a hotshot gal from further up the police-service food chain and something to prove to the boys, is convinced otherwise with her chief clue being the victim's cellular phone. Yes, things are looking pretty conventional on this end too. Astute observers will notice that the world weary investigating officer is played by prolific Japanese character actor Ren Osugi, last seen deliriously hamming it up in Sion Sono’s J-horror parody Exte: Hair Extensions. The fact that Sono's film exists at all is a big sign that conventional J-Horror is well past its sell-by date at this point.
Fortunately all things conventional are soon thrust aside as raging point-of-view camera work takes over, bloody Exacto-knives rend flesh and innocent bystanders have their faces collapse inward upon themselves. Many folks get caught up in the Tetsuo: The Iron Man images of flesh and metal that they overlook that the body horror elements are only half of the equation in his films. Tsukamoto's later work, particularly Bullet Ballet and A Snake of June, has been predominantly concerned with the mind. Nightmare Detective's easy to convey premise of a brooding and enigmatic fellow who solves paranormal problems by entering into peoples dreams hides the fact that Tsukamoto is talking directly to the audience as the voyeur of such conventional horror spectacles. When Keiko takes a demotion from a high-level police job she does this for the thrill-seeking aspects of investigating a murder at ground level. Initially horrified at seeing a bloodied corpse, she nevertheless cannot look away. In a later scene, she seems to get off on strangling herself into unconsciousness just for the experience. She doesn't so much as interact with her new coworkers as bulldoze right over them.
Equally reckless is here young partner, Wakamiya (another pretty faced actor, Masanobu Ando, who recently chewed mondo scenery as the leader of the White Clan in Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django). Upon discovering that the killer gets his victims by engaging in some sort of suicide pact over the phone but complicated by eyewitness accounts of the victims trying to back out yet being unable to do so from some form of hypnosis, Wakamiya decides to give the cellphone a whirl with little hesitation to the consequences. At this point Kyoichi has been brought into the investigation as a paranormal investigator whom the police have used in the past. He enters Wakamiya's dream by administering a series of questions to the unconscious police officer, not unlike the Voight-Kampff test in Blade Runner and ends up encountering another lurker (not unlike himself) but with more malicious intentions. I find it curious the number of Blade Runner references in Tsukamoto's recent work, particularly the opening shots in Vital of the belching smokestacks, and here the strains of a Tangerine Dream-ish score that permeates parts of Nightmare Detective. At first it seems an odd comparison, Blade Runner being such a lush production design film and Tskamoto's work always retaining a DIY aesthetic. Upon further consideration however the replicants from Blade Runner are a near-perfect combination of flesh and technology and clearly have emotional issues. Those types of issues define the humanist side to Tsukamoto’s films, this one included. He likes to burrow to find out what price a modern technology driven society has extracted out of people emotionally (and what creeps in to fill the void). The villain in Nightmare Detective, simply named “Ø” is played with convincing menace by the director himself as a vampire of the subconscious, feeding on the need of those desperate enough to require a pact with an anonymous stranger to off their own life. A pose struck late in the film makes this connection visual. When it becomes Keiko's turn to make the fatal phone call, a speech delivered by Ø is directed as much to the audience as to Keiko drives the point home (think of the remote controller scene in Funny Games). Ø gets to experience directly his victim’s death by some sort of supernatural bond, but so too does the audience as the defacto eye-of-god voyeur of the film. Tsukamoto goes out of his way to make the kills quite visceral as well. There is a lot of red spilt before culminating in the (inevitable) showdown between himself and the Kyoichi inside Keiko's dream-state.
At this point, several layers are piled and pushed together in the film that the exercise of untangling them is sort of beside the point. Through muted colors (often heading into his signature recognizable monochromes), a highly varied and effective soundtrack and controlled mood of menace, Tsukamoto has crafted a film that is always engaging on a visceral and thematic level. We never know what we want: perception is what you make it.