Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater: Bug's House (2005)
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by: Kazuo Umezu (story) Sadayuki Murai (screenplay)
Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tamaki Ogawa, Hisako Shirata, possibly Asahi Uchida
Here’s something weird. A weird auteur (Kiyoshi “Would you ask if Will Smith was related to Adam Smith just because of his last name?” Kurosawa, CURE, SEANCE, KAIRO) adapting a weird Japanese comic (House of Bugs, or Mushi-tachi no ie) by a weird artist (Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom series) from a weird inspiration (Kafka’s Metamorphosis) for a weird medium (Japanese television). It’s… well, you know. Something.
At its heart, it’s a story about a relationship between husband and wife Renji (Hidetoshi Nishijima, K. Kurosawa’s LOFT the same year this premiered, THE WIND RISES [voice]) and Ruiko (Tamaki Ogawa, TORMENTED, RAMPO NOIR). Things are not going well in this relationship; Renji is complaining to the woman he’s been having an affair with (Hisako Shirata, non-Tomie star of TOMIE: REVENGE) that Ruiko is mentally ill. Meanwhile, Ruiko is at home complaining to her cousin (possibly Asahi Uchida*) that her husband is a jealous, abusive asshole. But the strange thing is, they seem to be describing the same events, only with radically different interpretations. And although the two conversations are told parallel to each other, it eventually becomes clear that they’re being told at different times. Sound confusing? Don’t worry, it becomes much less clear as things go along, and making any real sense out of it becomes definitively impossible right around the time someone turns into a large CG beetle.
The final result seems to have more K. Kurosawa in it than any of the other influences, complete with his trademark glacial pace (even for only 40 minutes) and long, silent, dread-soaked shots without a lot of editing or flashy camerawork. But it doesn’t look quite as nice because it’s shot on cheapie video for very little money, which robs it of some necessary impact. Story-writer Kazuo Umezu is more known for wild and bizarre tales than he is for quiet, claustrophobic psychological dramas, and although the titular bugs do eventually show up, it’s something of an uneventful journey to get there, which is fairly inconsistent with his usual tone. Umezu and K. Kurosawa both share a penchant for surreal horror, but Umezu’s strength is in imaginatively grotesque grand guignol, while Kurosawa’s strength is in chilly, amorphous dread. Putting them together sort of negates both artists’ best qualities, although glimpses of both at their best do slip through the cracks. The movie nails some of Umezu’s weirdo imagery, including the iconic image of a woman stretched out Christ-like in a massive spider’s web. But I can’t help but think that the original comic was probably a lot more lively and darkly fun. Not a lot of fun to be had with the TV version.
The most interesting thing about it is the structure; the couple is telling seemingly conflicting tales, each of their own abuse at the hands of the other, and we gradually realize that they’re taking place at different times, and maybe not so contradictory after all. We never really get a solid answer as to what the fuck is going on, though, so both characters remain a bit opaque -- and since this is really a story exclusively about what happens in their minds, that’s a bigger handicap than would be usual for a K. Kurosawa film. If we’re not going to have a much fun with this concept or be able to even remotely figure out what it’s actually about, that means we’re really left only with K. Kurosawa's inimitable sense of atmosphere to fall back on. But the cheap TV production diminishes this somewhat -- the camera work is nice, but it’s clearly sitcom-quality video, and hence loses quite a bit of ambiance. A few cost-saving shortcuts also do a lot to kill the vibe -- there’s a “driving” scene with the same branch passing overhead again and again like a Hannah Barbara cartoon. It’s pretty funny, but I don’t think he would ever let something like that distract from his real movies. Some extremely dodgy CG also mucks up the ending; the design is nice but come on, that beetle looks like a cartoon from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. K. Kurosawa is a strong enough director not to let those things completely derail him, but they definitely suggest that his vision works better when he has better tools at his disposal. Fortunately, his recent PENANCE miniseries --also made for TV-- is worlds better, thanks in part to the significant leap in quality of digital video in the last decade, but also, I think, because the story and the vibe suits his style much more than Umezu’s source material here does. BUG HOUSE isn’t a disaster but it’s a pretty middling effort considering the pedigree.
*IMDB doesn’t list him [or his part at all] and the DVD doesn’t translate his name; his name does appear on a few other sites, though, such as this one so I think it’s probable that this is the correct actor.