Mari Asato, known from her contributions to well-established horror franchises, like Ju-On: Black Ghost (2009) and Fatal Frame: The Movie (2014), is back with another horror-thriller narrative. Her latest narrative is, just like Asato’s Bilocation (2012), an adaptation of a novel. This time, Asato adapts a novel from one of Japan’s most well-established horror writers, Kei Oishi.
Ever since he was a child, Naoto Mitsui (Kenga Kora) has felt like a bug, as something no-one pays attention to or shows interest for. In the final year of his high-school career, he received the ultimate proof of his position as bug, when he realized that no-one, not even his parents, noticed his absence from the graduation picture.
At university, his presence is, contrary to his expectations, noted, not only by the professor who asks him to translate something in French, but also by Chihiro Sasaki (Kanako Nishikawa), who offers him help to answer the professor’s question. 11 years later, still remembering Chihiro’s attention as if it were yesterday, he decides to find her again. But, upon finding her, the realization that she is not the girl of his memories anymore, compels him to obsessively investigate her current life.
What the failure of noticing the absence of Naoto in the picture of his graduation album illustrates is that he remains, for some reason, outside the eye of the others/Other. Whether he is present or absent, he is never noticed, he is always forgotten. His very being, his real presence, is, in other words, not considered at the level of the symbolic, at the level of the social fabric. The symbolic, the social field, is generally blind for him and fails to register his absence or presence. The only position he has within the symbolic is, in his words, the position of the bug or, in our words, the position of the waste-object.
But Naoto, while not as apparent in the film, plays an important role in the very blindness of the social field. His passiveness perpetuates this social blindness he is subjected to. By accepting his subjection to this social blindness and welcoming his position as bug, he does nothing but enforcing the failure of others to notice him. His passive acceptance of his position also explains why Chihiro’s use of ‘Mitsui’ to get his attention in class has such a profound effect on him. Even though he has already identified himself as bug, Chihiro’s use of the signifier ‘Mitsui’ calls Naoto, for the first time in his life, into the symbolic and acknowledges his existence as something other than as bug.
When Naoto starts looking for Chihiro, his desire to meet her again is driven by his desire to hear her say his name again and to receive, once more, her acknowledgement of his existence. He wants nothing other than re-experience the very happiness of being acknowledged as a subject within the eye of Chihiro.
By obsessively observing her every move, Naoto soon discovers that Chihiro is subjected to domestic violence, physical as well as sexual. Asato does not shy away from confronting the spectator with the raw brutality of this violence and allows us to see the very dynamic of abuse between her and her husband (Kenichi Abe). Her husband, subjected to the verbal violence of his seniors at his work, abuses Chihiro to re-establish himself as a man. In other words, Chihiro’s body, seemingly imprisoned by her husband, is reduced to a supportive tool to mend the imaginary injuries he endures at work and to give him what he lacks: the ‘phallic’ power he desires (Psycho-note 1).
When he starts ‘living’ under Chihiro’s bed to observe her in her house, Naoto realizes and fully assumes this position of bug. Not only does Naoto actively realizes his position as a bug, but this position, a relational position with respect to a woman, is erotically charged. Naoto’s position of bug has fully turned into a voyeuristic position (Narra-note 1). He appropriates, against her will, Chihiro as image, turns her into an object of pleasure, while remaining uninvolved in her intimacy.
But turning her into an object of pleasure also leads him to become witness of the physical and sexual abuse Chihiro must endure. Witnessing the sexual abuse does not fail to arouse him, aids him in establishing her as object of pleasure, but the physical abuse at the hand of her husband radically destroys Naoto’s attempt to enjoy his seizing of her image for his pleasure. It is this physical abuse that will ultimately compel him to leave his voyeuristic position (Psycho-note 2 (spoiler), Narra-note 3 (spoiler)).
Mari Asato’s visual composition of Under Your Bed is fluid, dynamic and full of thoughtful artful moments. What is impressive about Asato’s composition is not the fluidity as such, but the meaningful and even poetic way by which she has composed her narrative. Calling Mari Asato a master of cinematographical composition would not be an understatement.
What is also interesting about the composition – and an important reason why the beautifully constructed narrative proves to be so compelling – is that Mari Asato succeeds in putting the spectator in Naoto’s place, thus gently forcing him to identify with Naoto’s position in relation to Chihiro. Asato does not only make such identification possible through her use of semi-pov shots, putting the spectator’s look at the level of Naoto’s look, but also by vocalizing, via the use of a narrating voice, his subjective experience, and by crafting thoughtful compositions to make, with visual language, Naoto’s subjective experience truly sensible for the spectator (Cine-note 1).
Another element that enables Under Your Bed to become such a compelling experience concerns the acting performances as such. The performances of Kengo Kora and Kanako Nishikawa are simply amazing. While Asato’s narrative approach formally invites the spectator to identify with Naoto, it is Kora and Nishikawa’s performance that ensures that such identification happens and that the finale, as function of such identification, becomes a riveting and thrilling experience.
Mari Asato’s Under Your Bed is a brilliant narrative exploring, in a very confronting but enlightening way, the importance of inter-subjectivity to attain happiness. That Asato is able to deliver her message in such a compelling way and to stage such a thrilling finale is not only due to the artful way by which she visually composed her narrative, but also because the performances of Kenga Kora and Kanako Nishikawa ensure that the spectator invest in Naoto’s subjective position.
Psycho-note 1: One can also formulate the dynamic as follows: Chihiro’s husband calls upon Chihiro to efface the insecurities he has as a man. He needs Chihiro as a slave, as being subjected to his male power, in order to be able to believe that he is a man, but because such illusionary believe can only be fleeting, the cycle of abuse never ends. He only enslaves Chihiro because he is enslaved by the ever-fleeting fiction of phallic power.
Narra-note 1: The voyeuristic element is already in play from the very moment he starts observing and photographing her from his house, but the position of bug only becomes part of the voyeuristic dynamic from the moment he starts living under Chihiro’s bed.
Psycho-note 2: Without spoiling too much, the further actions of Naoto prove that he is not a pure voyeur and his true desire is the establishment of a form of exchange with her.
Narra-note 3: In the end, Naoto performs an act, an act that inscribes him in the symbolic in a radical different way than before. This act is a true subjective act, by virtue of following his own desire.
Cine-note 1: In the latter part of the narrative, when Chihiro’s perspective ais also focused on, the narrating voice, which at first exclusively vocalizes Naoto’s subjective experience, is also used to vocalize Chihiro’s subjective experience.