残穢:住んではけない部屋 / The Inerasable

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Ai Hashimoto and Yuko Takeuchi search for clues in The Inerasable. Image courtesy of zang-e.jp.

If you’ve spent any time scouring the listings for affordable apartments in Tokyo, you may be familiar with jiko bukken. Roughly translating to “stigmatized apartments,” these are units that tend to be super-cheap for a variety of reasons—usually the fact that a murder or a suicide occurred there, but also because of their proximity to graveyards, crematoria, or criminal gangs. Landlords are required to disclose this information, but there’s a rather horrifying loophole: they only have to disclose to the first tenant to move in after a murder / suicide, and if the potential tenant doesn’t ask, they don’t have to say anything.*

In a rental climate where more and more young people are struggling to get by, some real estate agencies have become quite up front about their jiko bukken, touting them as a cheaper alternative. One large agency, Suumo, outraged more than a few people when it went so far as to advertise a unit with a picture of a friendly-looking cartoon ghost, touting the apartment as a place for those who want to “live alone without actually living alone.”

The apartment featured in The Inerasable takes full advantage of the jiko bukken loophole. Bad things—lots of very, very bad things—may have happened, but they happened long before the current building was erected, and the real estate agency is appropriately tight-lipped. Pity the poor apartment-hunters in Tokyo—in addition to key money, draconian rules, and guarantors, now you’ve got to worry about ghosts keeping you up at night.

The Inerasable is a return to the horror genre for director Yoshihiro Nakamura, who wrote the script for Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water (2002) and served as writer-director for Booth (2005), about a radio talk show host who starts receiving disturbing phone calls while broadcasting out of a booth that may be cursed. After Booth, Nakamura made mostly sci-fi and mystery films. The Inerasable is based on a popular novel of the same name by Fuyumi Ono, and it’s structured like a detective story, but one in which solving the mystery may not save anyone.

We begin with a writer known only as “watashi” (“I”) (Yuko Takeuchi), who solicits scary tales from her readers and turns them into short stories. After receiving multiple stories from the same address, the writer begins a correspondence with Kubo (Ai Hashimoto), a young architecture student who’s been hearing strange noises in her apartment. Writer and student team up and discover a long history of terrible happenings that seem to follow the tenants even after they leave—which effectively eliminates the “just move the hell out” strategy of haunted house movies.

The story is familiar, but there’s so much about it that’s fresh, or that’s simply done very well. Nakamura makes wonderful use of silence, which can be far more oppressive than the shrieking violins or piano that seem to announce the arrival of ghosts in recent Japanese horror films like Nakata’s Gekijorei. Random, innocuous noises like the brush of an obi against a tatami floor gradually become more and more ominous. I jumped or felt genuine chills several times, and the mostly high school-age students surrounding me in the theater shrieked and gasped quite a bit.

The two women at the center of the story are competent, assertive and have meaningful jobs. Neither of them are prone to shrieking or weeping and are never forced into a damsel-in-distress role. I was also happy to see that the writer appears to be in a contented marriage to someone on an equal playing field—a real rarity in Japanese films, where married couples are frequently depicted as antagonistic or alienated from one another.

The detail that struck me the most was The Inerasable‘s  frequent references to the idea of home, both as an emotional and physical space that’s more tenuous and fragile than we’d like to believe. Kubo spends much of the film designing what looks to be the ideal apartment building—switching roof and window shapes on her computer, placing little cutouts of trees around a scale model. In reality, of course, she’s afraid to venture into one half of her already-tiny apartment, and things may not get better even if she moves out. There’s also one young, single guy who cheerfully asks “Is this about the guy who committed suicide here?” when the two women go to investigate his apartment. “The rent was cheap,” he adds.

The writer and her husband manage to buy a plot of land and build a ridiculously gorgeous house (one that, in a typical movie / TV tradition, seems far beyond their budget). Their new living space, on land recently purified in a Shinto ritual (as all land is in Japan before construction begins), is all high ceilings and soft lighting, a dream home by any standards. But this space too may become unlivable, tainted as the writer is by her contact with the malevolent presence that originated in Kubo’s apartment.

At one point in their investigation, Kubo wonders whether they should just give up. “How much further do you want to go?” she asks the writer. Her meaning is clear: solving the mystery may not banish the malevolent presence that has come into their lives. Like so many Things That Lurk in Japanese horror films, it’s not so easily vanquished. The search for answers, like the search for an authentic home (or just an affordable apartment), may only lead to more misery.

*For more on jiko bukken, see Tokyo Cheapo’s post from 2015.

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