Tomie: Re-Birth (2001)
Dir. Takashi Shimizu
Written by Yoshinobu Fujioka Based on the manga series by Junji Ito
Starring Miki Sakai, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Masaya Kikawada, Kumiko Endô, Shugo Oshinari
There’s something about Tomie. People just get obsessed with her and kill her, and she comes back and weirds everyone out. That’s her gig: she’s some kind of supernatural being, I guess, with the solitary goal of making men (and sometimes women) psychotically fixate on her to the point where they murder and dismember her. You’d think that would pretty much be an endgame scenario, but that’s only the first part of her plan, because what she really wants to do is come back to life and torment them in bizarre, passive-aggressive ways. Tomie’s origins and motivations are entirely obscure, but she has this shit down to a fine art. There are currently eight movies in the series, which are unrelated and feature different actresses as Tomie, but are all riffs on this premise.
And boy, what to make of that? At first blush, it can hardly help but strike one as a particularly insidious male persecution fantasy. Here we have a series of men who become obsessed with a woman --who generally doesn’t even especially encourage them-- to the point where they go crazy and murder her, but the point of the movie is that they’re the victims here. Not only was she asking for it, she was demanding it, they’re the innocent victims of her evil, even though she didn’t technically, you know, do anything. But then there’s the whole regeneration thing: Tomie doesn’t just come back from the dead as a ghost, she regenerates herself from severed parts, and can seemingly infect other people like a virus. She proliferates herself through inciting violence against herself. It this, perhaps, some kind of metaphor for toxic victimhood, a condemnation of those social forces who court persecution in order to feel the empowering false righteousness of the aggrieved? And if not that, then what? And for that matter, what are we to even make of the premise more broadly? What do we even call this? Is this metaphor? Moralism? Magical realism? Psychological surrealism?
Oh wait, I just realised I know exactly what this is. It’s Japanese. So that explains it. If it was ever supposed to mean anything, you can bet you’re not going to be able to figure it out. Best to just enjoy the ride and not ask questions.
REBIRTH is actually the third installment of the TOMIE series (or fourth, depending on whether or not you count 1999’s TV anthology Another Face), which began in 1999 with the first TOMIE and ended (so far) most recently in 2011 with TOMIE: UNLIMITED. If you’re wondering why I skipped right to part III, well, it’s because I could. There’s no continuity of any kind --even cast-- within the series, so once you know what the deal is with Tomie, starting one place is as good as the next. Which is not to say that starting with any of them is an especially good idea; while there’s a case to be made for the cultural importance of the Tomie series due to its association with the first real wave of what would become known as J-horror, it doesn’t seem like anyone really regards them as good. My buddy Dan P (who was already familiar with the manga) took it upon himself to grind his way through the whole series during October last year, and his reports didn’t exactly inspire confidence in this concept. Taken from his twitter account, here is a log of his grueling journey into madness:
#Tomie Uneventful adaptation of a bizarre comic, goes out of its way to avoid the best parts from the source. Saving it for the sequels? C-
#TomieReplay A marked improvement over part 1, more eventful and actually uses some of the cool ideas from the source material. B-
#TomieRebirth Less eventful than #2, but more interesting & spooky. Still seems like no one understands what was good about the comics. B-
#Tomie #AnotherFace Chintzy TV miniseries adaptation isn't great, but benefits from shorter stories that get to the action quicker. C+
#Tomie #ForbiddenFruit Maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome setting in, but I actually really dug this one. About time? B
#Tomie #Beginning Turns out the "beginning" is just another slow-mo rehashing of the same ideas. Not bad, but so much wasted potential! C
#Tomie #Revenge 7 movies deep and still it seems like the filmmakers have no idea what's cool about this premise. C-
#TomieVsTomie 8th in the series finally starts trying to play with the concept, although sadly it only leads to a small improvement. C+
#Tomie #Unlimited The final entry (good riddance!) is silly & stupid but the 1st to be fun, & chock full of weird monsters & body-horror. B
Original manga author Junji Ito was previously known to me as the guy who turned a rural town into were-snails in the movie version of his Uzumaki series (which is a favorite of mine) so the idea of another dip into total fucking weirdness has plenty of appeal to me. But the rap on the TOMIE movies is that they don’t really deliver as much concentrated nuttiness as the manga did; they seem to be pretty padded and one-note, without as much of the bizzaro body horror as you’d expect from anything adapted from Ito’s work. Nevertheless, I figured that with only so many movies produced in history that don’t star Julia Roberts, eventually Tomie and I would have to meet, so it might as well be on my own terms.
I selected Part III because of its director, Takashi Shimizu, notable for his relentless death march of sequels to his 2000 film JU-ON: THE CURSE, which include JU-ON: THE CURSE 2, JU-ON:THE GRUDGE, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2, THE GRUDGE, THE GRUDGE 2 and what appears to be about eight more sequels he produced but didn’t direct. Regardless of what you may think of his obsessive need to remake his two 1998 shorts KATASUMI and 4444444444 (which form the basis for all six of his JU-ON/THE GRUDGE films, which are all basically remixed versions of each other) he’s also something like an auteur in the once-exciting, now-unbearable subgenre of J-horror. If he didn’t invent the female ghost with long black hair that hides her face (FGLBHTHHF), he at least threw her a coming-out party for the world. We were all excited at first and it seemed fresh and new but then they really just ran it into the ground and that trope showed up in every single movie for years until we got first sick of it, and then actively angry at it, and finally sent it away forever in shame and ignominy. You know, the Benedict Cumberbatch effect. But there’s a little more to Shimizu than just his Grudge fixation (woah, I just realized he’s fixated on the idea of a creepy female ghost to the extent that he’s compelled to destroy it, which in turn causes it to replicate -- he was the perfect choice to direct a Tomie movie!) -- I liked his nifty meta-movie REINCARNATION a couple years back, and I’ve been hearing good things about his crazy sounding Christopher-Doyle-shot 3D flick TORMENTED. His style tends to be patient, quiet and classically shot, which I like, even though his movies don’t usually look that nice.* I reasoned that even if this whole Tomie thing doesn’t pan out for me, at least Shimizu would bring his usual sturdy professionalism.
And for a while, it works pretty well. Shimizu brings his style of staid, low-key tension to the proceedings, and Tomie beings some much-needed weirdness which generates a little energy. The film starts strong, dropping you right into the middle of the weirdness without explaining anything, as Tomie’s boyfriend paints her picture, freaks out and cuts her up, and then drags his two friends Takumi (Satoshi Tsumabuki, “mirror polisher” in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE ASSASSIN, why not?) and Shunichi (Masaya Kikawada, BATTLE ROYAL 2) into helping him dispose of the body before killing himself. A rich, full day. Of course, it’s not long at all before Tomie (Miki Sakai, LOVE LETTERS) shows up again, first dragging Shunichi into the same cycle of obsession and murder, and then somehow “infecting” Takumi’s girlfriend Hitomi (Kumiko Endô, Japanese stuff you haven’t seen) and turning her into some kind of quasi-Tomie, I guess? Like everything Tomie, the details are a little hard to fathom, but of course it doesn’t really matter in the least, because it quickly spirals into a dour haze of paranoia and bizarre imagery.
It’s not wall-to-wall surrealism, but Shimizu does heroically deliver some respectable weirdness; in the film’s standout sequence, Shunichi and his mother go into some kind of trance and ecstatically saw Tomie’s body apart, only to have the pieces grow tiny limbs and come back at them. Later, a corpse turns into a furry Chewbacca with sentient hair tentacles. So there’s enough Ito in there for you to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Shimizu imbues the whole thing a nicely dread-inducing atmosphere, and the actors (particularly Tsumabuki and Kikawada) do a nice job of selling their mix of panic and obsession. Together they work up a respectably feverish paranoia that gives the film plenty of kick, despite the fact that the freakouts of surreal weirdness are somewhat sparingly applied.
Things do fall apart a bit at the end, however, when the film’s second plotline -- Hitomi becoming infected by Tomie and increasingly taking on her characteristics -- becomes more prominent. Tomie’s earlier takeover of Shunichi’s life is strange and inexplicable in a good way, substituting nightmarish imagery and a skin-crawling predatory vibe for more traditional horror beats. But the conflict between Hitomi and Tomie is inexplicable in a less rewarding way, partly because it hews closer to those very traditional horror beats that the rest of the movie mostly avoids. Possession horror is nothing new in horror movies, but being possessed or infected (or whatever) with/by Tomie is less interesting than simply being affected by her, simply because Tomie is such an undefined character. What would it mean to turn into a Tomie? It’s not really clear, so the stakes here are a little too undefined for the tension to gain much of a foothold. Worse, after a whole movie of being a completely opaque, unknowable force of nature, the finale turns Tomie into a speechifying Bond villain, complete with a nonsensical monologue demanding that Takumi “choose” between the two Tomies. But obviously there’s no way of knowing what the fuck is going on here, or what the ramifications of either choice would be, so it’s dramatically kind of inert.
It does provide a moment of intriguing philosophy when Tomie gets annoyed with Takumi asking what she is, and asks him rhetorically why HE’s alive. Tomie’s just Tomie, man, stop trying to put a label on everything. That kind of unknowable menace suits her a lot better than villainous pontification. I’d prefer she stay completely opaque, maybe to the point where it's hard to know if she’s even sentient in a human sort of way. She works better as a creepy parody of humanity than she does as a supervillain who seems to make plans and issue ultimatums.
Her taunts to Takumi --that he’s only with Hitomi in the first place for the sake of convenience, and that he’s so cold to her he didn’t even notice she’s turning into Tomei-- are a little more interesting because they’re probably true, and at least have the benefit of not demystifying Tomie as much. But if that angle is not totally ignored by the script, it also doesn’t really add up to anything, since Takumi himself is kind of a cypher, too. Tomie presents such a bizarre conflict for the characters that it’s somewhat understandable that they’re not too relatable, but that certainly undercuts any interest we could take in their personal drama. And it doesn’t help that --as usual with Japanese movies-- there are a few things I think I missed culturally, one of them being, how old are these kids, exactly? They seem pretty young (at least two seem to live with their moms) but they also drive cars and get drunk at fancy bars. Nobody seems to have a job or be in school. Maybe this all takes place over summer vacation?
Anyway, the finale deflates a bit, but mostly it’s pretty good. Shimizu has the discipline to put this bizzaro concept into a deliberately-paced, quiet world which almost evokes Kiyoshi Kurosawa in its stately dread (though not in its technical prowess). It’s a risky decision, but I think it pays off here in making Tomie seem even more alien and nightmarish, an element that infiltrates the hum-drum normalcy of this world and disrupts it in ways which are impossible to explain or anticipate. Still, it could probably use about 20% more weirdness. That’s the biggest complaint people always seem to make about these Tomie films; for such a weird concept, the movies tend not to go whole-hog with it as much as they could, and this one is no exception. TOMIE: REBIRTH has flashes of full-on insanity, and handles its slow-burn dread quite masterfully as well, but it’s probably a little more staid and responsible than is really good for it. But oh well, they’ll get plenty more chances. Tomie always says “See you soon,” (which is pretty much already Schwarzenegger’s catchphrase, but i guess it works for her too) knowing full well that if she didn’t get the job done this time, there’s always movie #9 waiting for her down the road.
*Apparently he studied under Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who helps him get his early films off the ground. That explains the icy tone and deliberate pace, but I wish he had learned a little more about content.