The Black House (黒い家, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1999)

black house posterYoshimitsu Morita, though committed to commercial filmmaking, also enjoyed trying on different kinds of directorial hats from from purveyor of smart social satires to teen idol movies, high art literary adaptations and just about everything else in-between. It’s no surprise then that at the height of the J-horror boom, he too got in on the action with an adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel of the same name, The Black House (黒い家, Kuroi Ie). Though tagged as “J-horror” you’ll find no long haired ghosts here and, in fact, barely anything supernatural as the true horror on show is the slow descent into madness taking place inside the protagonist’s mind.

Wakatsuki (Masaaki Uchino) is a nice young man with a good job investigating claims at an insurance office. Unfortunately, this gives him a slightly dim view of humanity as he comes into contact with scamsters and even people willing to maim themselves just so that they can claim on their policies. One day, he receives a strange phone call from a woman who wants to know if her insurance policy will pay out in case of suicide. Wakatsuki, slightly panicked, tells her that it really depends on the circumstances and, jumping to the conclusion she plans to kill herself, urges her to get help and talk things over with someone before doing anything rash.

The next thing he knows, Wakatsuki is despatched to her house to sort things out whereupon he makes an extremely gruesome discovery – the woman’s son, though only a child, has hanged himself in the back room. Obviously extremely shocked and distressed, Wakatsuki heads home with the nagging suspicion that Sachiko (Shinobu Ootake) and her husband Komoda (Masahiko Nishimura) have done something truly dreadful. The couple take turns coming into the office to find out what’s taking so long with their claim and gradually the situation begins to spiral desperately out of control.

Always one for irony,  Morita’s tone varies widely here. There’s an oddly Twin Peaks-like vibe with the jolly jazz score giving way to synths at moments of high tension, not to mention the run down industrial town setting. If that weren’t enough Lynchery, there’s even a moment where a severed hand is found in a patch of grass, crawling with ants just like the ear found by Jeffrey at the beginning of Blue Velvet. Morita seems to be telling us not to take any of this too seriously yet his subjects include parents harming or even murdering their children to claim on an insurance policy as well as bloody violence and dismemberment of corpses.

In fact, the insurance guys don’t spend too long trying to figure out if the boy actually killed himself but Wakatsuki becomes preoccupied by the idea the husband, Komoda, is behind the whole thing (the boy was only his step-son after all) and will now try and kill his wife to claim her insurance too. The couple are certainly both very strange people and the insurance company also have a problem as the policy was signed off on during a campaign drive in which a now dismissed employ made use of a personal connection to try and meet her unrealistic quota. Wakatsuki eventually engages an equally eccentric psychology professor who takes him out on a weird nighttime odyssey to a seedy strip club where he expounds on a epidemic of psychopathy among the younger generation. Even Wakatsuki’s girlfriend, Megumi, has some off the wall ideas based on an essay Sachiko wrote in elementary school (though actually Megumi’s view has some merit).

Things hit a more conventional note from this point on landing us with a familiar slasher villain who begins stalking Wakatsuki, even trashing his apartment before kidnapping his girlfriend and keeping her prisoner in the “Black House”. Wakatsuki heads to the den of evil by himself in the dark (in true horror movie fashion) where he finds a whole bunch of other dismembered corpses (and a few other surprises). He might think he can put his troubles behind him after this extremely traumatic incident, but this is still a horror movie so the killer gets away to strike again by throwing a bright yellow bowling ball at his head through the office toilet window.

Morita is not being serious at all, even for a second, but somehow he still manages to create an oddly threatening atmosphere of suspense despite the extremely weird things which are going on. He creates a complex set of visual cues from the recurring sunflower motif repeated on Sachiko’s shirt to the glistening yellow bowling ball, goldfish (in a toilet bowl if not a percolator), repeated sounds of cockroaches and old fashioned reel printers, and even the green glow from both old fashioned computer systems and the company’s insurance documents. Undoubtedly bizarre, The Black House is mind bending psychological-horror-movie-cum-Freudian-slasher that is primed for both head scratching puzzlement and confused chuckling as Morita has a lot of fun messing with our senses.


The Letter (手紙, Jiro Shono, 2006)

The Letter PosterWhen it comes to cinematic adaptations of popular novelists, Keigo Higashino seems to have received more attention than most. Perhaps this is because he works in so many different genres from detective fiction (including his all powerful Galileo franchise) to family melodrama but it has to be said that his work manages to home in on the kind of films which have the potential to become a box office smash. The Letter (手紙, Tegami) finds him in the familiar territory of sentimental drama as its put upon protagonist battles unfairness and discrimination based on a set of rigid social codes.

Nao (Takayuki Yamada) is a bright young man who had the chance to go to university and progress into a normal middle class life but is now slumming it as a blue collar worker at a factory. It transpires that his dismal circumstances began when he and his brother were orphaned meaning that his older brother Takashi (Tetsuji Tamayama) left school to get the money for Nao’s education. Working himself to the bone, Takashi was injured in a workplace accident and subsequently laid off. Desperate to provide for his brother, he turned to crime and unfortunately ended up killing an elderly woman during a burglary gone wrong and will spend the rest of his life in prison. The once close brothers now communicate through letters alone. With his university dreams shattered, Nao moves from place to place, forced out of employment and friendship groups each time someone finds out about his brother. Increasingly he comes to resent Takashi for the shadow his foolish actions continue cast over his life.

It is sadly true that this kind of social stigma towards the relatives of criminals is more prevalent in a society like Japan’s which prizes the overall harmony of the group (though I wouldn’t say it’s entirely absent here either). Every time Nao thinks he’s about to get somewhere, a background check throws up his imprisoned brother and it’s all over. Especially considering that his brother’s crime is a violent one perpetrated against an elderly lady, nobody is prepared to extend an understanding hand to Nao even though the crime itself has nothing to do with him (save being committed in his name) and its price should not be hanging on his shoulders.

It’s unsurprising then that Nao tries to conceal his brother’s existence, often claiming to be an only child with no living family. Though originally communicating warmly with Takashi in the letters, his growing resentment leads to a decline in their frequency and he rarely visits in person. The desire to hide his problematic past becomes a trigger in itself which leads to his having to give up on a dream of becoming a TV comedian just when it looked like his career was about to take off, and failure to tell a fiancée that he lied about being an only child also presents a serious crack in the couple’s relationship. Had he been more upfront and faced out the resulting reaction, he might have been able to work through it but once you’ve tried to lie sympathy dissipates entirely.

At the end of the day Nao is a young man with no one to guide him. He’s angry and he’s ambitious so he’s filled with resentment that he can’t have everything he thinks he deserves simply because of a series of things which happened to him none of which were his fault. Because of this, he makes a series of poor choices failing to see the things that are right in front of him. The dowdy girl next-door type from the factory is clearly in love with Nao but he isn’t interested – she doesn’t fit his slightly arrogant view of himself with her plainness and straightforward goodness. On the other hand, he’s immediately captivated by a beautiful and wealthy socialite who’s way out of his league. Of course, this is likely to end in tears – even if Nao didn’t already have skeletons in the closet the girl’s father has other plans for her which don’t include a marriage to a jumped up poor boy comedian.

The Letter suffers slightly in its focus on Nao and his troubles rather than being evenly split between the brothers. Takashi has paid a heavy price for his crime – he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life and the bright future he tried to buy for his brother has been ruined forever precisely because of the actions he was taking to ensure it. His only lifeline is the letters and the news he gets of Nao’s prospering in the outside world. Nao’s final decision to stop writing and not even tell his brother his new address so that the letters will no longer reach him is therefore a doubly cruel and selfish one. However, Takashi is only presented in relationship to his brother and his own pain and struggle becomes an undeveloped facet of the film.

As in all of Keigo Higashino’s work, secrets are the great enemy. The film only partially addresses the extreme unfairness of Nao’s plight as he’s continually persecuted for something that’s nothing to do with him. Guilty by association only, he is also in prison with no parole board to consider his case. The film even states that this kind of stigma is a perfectly natural thing which just has to be accepted – accept the truth, it says, and the world will open up to you. On balance this is a good message, but the idea that prejudice and social discrimination are things which just have to be endured is an uncomfortable one which sits at odds with the film’s otherwise positive messages of personal redemption and the importance of familial bonds. Uneven and occasionally tipping over into sentimentality, The Letter is something of a missed opportunity but nevertheless offers a thought provoking and emotionally satisfying melodrama in the best traditions of the genre.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.