Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
J-Horror is a bit like New Metal in so far as its cultural impact seems to bear little or no relation to the quality of the art produced under that label.
Don’t get me wrong… I love and still listen to a lot of New Metal, but even I struggle to name more than half a dozen great New Metal bands and even then, I tend to limit my recommendations to a couple of their albums. It’s not just that a lot of rubbish was marketed under the ‘New Metal’ label, it’s also that you need to have listened to a lot of New Metal and allowed your palate to adjust before you can appreciate the work of some of its less famous practitioners.
When we talk about J-Horror – a label dreamed up by Western critics and distributors to refer to Japanese horror films produced in the 1990s – everyone remembers Ringu, Ju-On, and Audition. A few might even remember Pulse, Dark Water, and Three… Extremes, but looking beyond that handful of breakthrough successes involves disappearing into a bog of ill-advised sequels and uninspired copycats.
In reality, this is no different to any other cultural milieu. Regardless of whether you’re talking about Swedish arthouse cinema or Early Modern operas, the same rule applies: Some stuff is so transparently great that it’s easy to get into, some stuff is so transparently rubbish that it isn’t worthy of your time, but a lot of stuff is good enough that it might just merit developing your palate and traversing some bog.
Despite being written and directed by the creator of the Ju-On series Takeshi Shimizu, Marebito is one of those films that requires a fair amount of bog-trotting before you can reach the point where you can start to appreciate its subtleties. However, once you do hone your sensitivities and learn to look past the weird characters, odd pacing, and deliberately vague world-building you discover a film with a lot to teach fans of Horror RPGs.
Released in 2004, Marebito echoes the obsession with consumer electronics that features prominently in films like Ringu and Pulse. However, while The Ring was all about the joys of sharing pirated VHS tapes and Pulse was all about the early days of the internet, Marebito is about the democratisation of film-making that accompanied the birth of digital cinematography.
At the start of the film, Masuoka is already a marginalised figure. Obsessed with videography, he works as a freelance cinematographer and carries a camera around with him everywhere he goes. His days are spent wandering the streets of Tokyo. His evenings are spent in his lightless apartment going through the footage on his vast and slightly sinister home-editing desk. One day, Masuoka’s obsessive need to document everything and anything actually pays off as he happens upon a man who commits suicide by plunging a knife into his own eye. This sensational footage lands Masuoka an exciting new job but despite the professional challenges ahead of him, our cameraman keeps returning to the look of terror on the man’s face as he plunges the knife into his own eye. What could have caused that terror? What did he see that made suicide seem like the only reasonable course of action?
At this point in the story, Masuoka decides to come off his meds. Some critics have taken this an invitation to read the film as a kind of psychotic fever dream but I think a more productive approach to the text would be to view Masuoka’s mental health issues as an issue that exists at the level of tone rather than subject matter. In other words, it’s not that Masuoka is hallucinating everything that he sees, it’s more that he is seeing things that are actually there but his mental health issues are accelerating his already obsessive tendencies and making his discoveries harder to process. Marebito is an oddly structured film whose pacing drags only to suddenly skip forward and this reduced linearity is best read as a reflection of Masuoka’s fragile mental health.
Growing ever-more obsessed with what it was the suicide might have seen, Masuoka begins wandering the streets of Tokyo until he winds up lost in what are supposedly a network of ancient tunnels buried beneath the city. As he wanders the tunnels, Masuoka encounters ghosts and terrifying homeless people who warn him about sinister forces at work in the world. Some of these forces are manifest in the form of distorted voices on his mobile phone, other times they make reference to the work of largely forgotten pulp writers from the 1940s. Eventually, these voices guide him to what appears to be an underground mountain range where he discovers a young girl who is naked and chained to the rock face. Understandably perturbed, Masuoka frees the young woman and brings her home to his apartment only to discover that she can neither speak nor consume human food.
One of the many interesting ideas that Marebito plays with is the idea of the Wainscot Fantasy. First coined by the critic John Clute, Wainscot fantasies revolve around societies that lie hidden beneath the surface of human civilisation. Perhaps the best known exemplar of the form is Mary Norton’s Borrowers series though the form does permeate a lot of urban fantasy. Back in the 1990s, people were quite fond of combining this trope with fictionalised speculation about the lives of urban homeless people. Everyone knows that homeless people exist. Everyone assumes that homeless people have their own cliques, cultures, and rituals. Why not have some of those rituals be magical? As I said, this idea was quite popular back in the 1990s and you can find it not only in works like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere but also Tim Powers’ novel The Anubis Gates, Garth Ennis’ run on Hellblazer and, more recently, in mystical crime novels such as Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. In the world of table-top RPGs, this combination of ideas allowed the creation of Unknown Armies, which remains one of the greatest expressions of urban fantasy ever devised.
It’s interesting how this particular combination of tropes appears to have fallen out of favour… Perhaps it is a function of gentrification and the way that our city centres now tend to be far more aggressive in their policing of the homeless population. Perhaps epic fantasy’s appropriation and simplification of ‘grim dark’ imagery means that people no longer have the stomach for stories about the depressing lives of homeless people. Maybe we’re all just that little bit more aware of how mental health issues intersect with issues of homelessness and are a bit less eager to suggest that the homeless are fucking magic.
While Marebito’s suggestion that Tokyo’s homeless population might include subhuman cave-dwellers, evil robots, and crazy mystics definitely makes this a film that is ‘of its time’, there is no denying that its exploration of the trope is nothing short of compelling. The idea of modern cities being built atop vast interlocking networks of underground tunnels is already pretty damn cool but the film also does fantastic work exploring the tensions arising from the decision to live between two worlds. Already an isolated figure, the film’s protagonist finds himself having to reconcile the demands placed on him by both the ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ worlds. This tension is manifest in the figure of the young woman he frees from the cave as the film suggests that while Masuoka believes the girl to be some sort of inhuman monster, she could just as easily be his own estranged daughter.
A lot of the most popular fantasies are what could be called ‘portal fantasies’ in that they involve a protagonist who resembles the reader being drawn (through a sometimes literal portal) into a world of magic and adventure. By virtue of their tendency to be situated at least partially in the real world, Wainscot fantasies often include elements of portal stories. There’s always a moment when the protagonist discovers that the world is much larger and stranger than they had previously imagined. The mistake that a lot of urban fantasy writers make is in having the characters pass through the portal and then having them abandon the demands of the real world. This was particularly evident in the way that the World of Darkness would often take the demands of the real world and boil them down to a set of mechanical rules like The Masquerade or Paradox. Marebito is a reminder of quite how much fun you can have by forcing your characters not only to exist with one foot in each world, but also to wind up in a position where they have to continually parse the differences between the two worlds. Consider episodes of series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the protagonists are forced to deal with mortgage payments and jobs. Now consider episodes of these same series where the line between the real and the fantastical becomes blurred: Buffy killing an evil robot is business as usual, but Buffy appearing to have killed her mother’s boyfriend is a recipe for a really memorable evening’s play.
How do your characters keep the two worlds separate? How far are they willing to sacrifice their membership to one world in order to preserve their place in another? Marebito explores one particularly dark take on this idea but this type of issue should pop up in every game where the characters are required to keep one foot in the real world. How does a character’s legal practice suffer as a result of their tendency to disappear off to fight cultists? How do you manage to maintain your network of family and friends when you spend your evenings wandering the ancient catacombs beneath the city? Would your boss continue to employ you? Would your family have you sectioned? These are the types of questions that make for engaging games and Marebito offers up some fascinating answers.