Writer: Satoshi Suzuki Cinematography: Junichiro Hayashi Music: Kenji Kawai
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Haruka Ayase, Satomi Ishihara, Kinya Kitaoji, Nagisa Katahira, Takuro Ohno
Looking at the career of director Hideo Nakata, I can’t avoid the impression he had his difficulties recovering from the catastrophe that was the US The Ring 2, possibly because being responsible for that one is a shame someone with even a little bit of pride in his work would have a hard time living down.
In Nakata’s case, his decline isn’t as horrible as it could be. In fact, compared with Takashi Shimizu, the state of Nakata’s career is absolutely golden, seeing as he’s not making something called Rabbit Horror 3D, and doesn’t seem to have lost all his talent while slumming in Hollywood. The Incite Mill is a clear demonstration that he still has what made me fall in love with his earlier films.
The Incite Mill is a pretty typical entry into the sub-genre of the thriller that is occupied with putting a bunch of characters into an artificially locked down place, having them submit to peculiar and bizarre rules and observing them fastly starting to kill each other off, in part because People Ain’t No Good™, in part because the party responsible for their imprisonment does some subtle and some not so subtle things to, well, incite them to murder. In this variation, the characters have come to the place of their imprisonment out of their own volition, for the promise of a surprising amount of money for just seven days of work in a psychological experiment. Of course, they didn’t expect quite as much violence, nor that they’d be the stars in one of these popular Internet shows nobody in the cast has ever heard of you only encounter in movies.
As this is a Japanese movie, the rules element is quite heavily emphasised, riding one of the hobby horses of Japanese pop culture of the last ten years or so in what is probably a reaction to the country’s still heavily restrictive and regimented society and the resulting pressures to conform on the individual.
There are also many allusions to classic manor mysteries (ten little Indians ahoy), and the Cluedo-inspiring (or Clue-inspiring for you Americans) construction of that very mechanical sub-genre. In a sense, Nakata seems to want to escape the heavy artificiality of his set-up by pointing it out himself. To a degree, this works pretty well, though I couldn’t help but begin to question parts of the story’s basic set-up I would probably not have questioned in a movie less knowingly artificial. Just to take an obvious example: how come the police hasn’t gotten involved if this is not the first time this little show has been broadcast? I can believe in police laziness and incompetence, but I’m pretty sure this sort of thing would at least have been in every news show in the country, and therefore nothing the characters could notknow about. And while I’m thinking about logical problems, how is it that most of the characters actually believe anyone (especially people who never ever show their faces to them) would pay enormous amounts of money for them to take part in a simple psychological experiment? I find this sort of thing much harder to believe than the existence of ghosts, aliens, and vampires, but your mileage may very well vary.
The Incite Mill‘s best moments are interesting enough to let me forget these doubts, however. Besides taking cues from manor mysteries and the brethren in its own sub-genre, the film also does some things that are bound to help a guy like me forget little niggles like logic problems and a lack of coherent worldbuilding. Namely, there is a slight SF element in the form of one of these new-fangled ceiling-bound robots with impressive gripper arms (and some useful gadgets). Even though it isn’t talking or beeping melodically like a good robot should, it’s still there to throw people in jail, inefficiently patrol the Paranoia House’s (yes, that’s how the place of the experiment is named – surely no reason the get paranoid) corridors at night, and to delight my heart to no end. After all, everything is better with robots.
I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the good ensemble cast, consisting – among others – of actual movie star Tatsuya Fujiwara (with whom Nakata has worked before on the Death Note spinoff L: Change the World), veteran actor Kinya Kitaoji, veteran TV actress Nagisa Katahira, and some other members of the TV actor and idol business (Haruka Ayase, Satomi Ishihara, Takura Ohno and others). All of them (yes, even the male idols) deliver performances that are generally convincing and often even quite intense. There’s never the feeling that you’re watching idols act. Rather, these are actors who also take part in the idol rat race, but do know about more than pushing their physical assets into the camera. There’s a certain degree of overacting on display, but overacting seems to fit the hysteria-inducing situation the characters are in quite well. Plus, I prefer conscious and artful overacting to the near-catatonic blandness that is so trendy in English language cinema right now. I understand, all that botox makes one’s face difficult to move, but still…
Hideo Nakata for his part has never been a flashy director, usually preferring a style that subtly influences an audience perception of a story and its characters to one that is always pointing at the director’s technical abilities, which usually works to the detriment of the narrative. Nakata is too self-assured a director to have much of a need for showing off. If you want to see his technical accomplishments, you will find them in the careful framing of scenes, in the precise rhythms his films’ editing creates, and in Nakata’s strong sense for iconic imagery that works as an actual, living part of his movies. In The Incite Mill, Nakata shows that all of these talents are still alive and well in him, serving him as well in his new genre of choice as they did when he was making the horror films which made me fall in love with Japanese horror.