Takashi Shimizu, famous for his highly successful Ju-on Franchise, has kept on making horror-narratives even after the J-horror craze dwindled. One of his more recent outings, the by-the-books Howling Village (2020), offered enough to please any horror fan, but did little to re-invent or refresh the genre. Will his latest film Homunculus, now available on Netflix, play it (too) safe or will it surprise us by being a fresh film that can compete with the classics of the J-horror genre?
Sumumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano), a homeless man who lives in his car, wanders around Shinjuku, interacting with other homeless people in the park and lunching in a high-class restaurant at the nearby hotel. One night, a strange looking guy, Ito Manabu (Ryo Narita), knock on the window of his car, offering him a ‘job’ that pays 700,000 yen. The only thing he needs to do is undergo a procedure called ‘Trepanation’, he needs to let the stranger drill a hole in his skull to try to lever the potential of his brain. Possible effects, as Manabu explains, are the development of an extremely sharp intuition, the awakening of a sixth sense, or even the return of one’s memories. Nakoshi refuses, but the next day his car is towed away due to Manabu’s interference. As getting his car back is important to him, he decides to accept Manabu’s surgical experiment and test, over the span of seven days, any kind of supernatural abilities he has developed.
While one could categorize Homunculus as a horror narrative, such categorization will lead many eager horror-fans to come out sorely disappointed. Rather then delivering a straight-up horror narrative, Shimizu has crafted a psychological drama with horror elements. But is it any good?
Before revealing our answer to this question, let us first analyze some elements of Shimizu’s narrative. Nakoshi is not, as he deceivingly contends, someone in search of himself. His past might be lost, but he has no interest in recovering it. The only element that echoes his vanished past to him, the only reminder of the forgotten past he has no interest in recovering, is the credit card that he uses at the hotel’s restaurant. Nakoshi is also not in search of any emotions to animate his body with. His stoic and emotionless being, in fact, renders him unable to do anything other than fatalistically accept his current state. His vegetable-like emotionlessness is, furthermore, the reason why he lacks a deep attachment to his past and is unable to form deep attachments to others. The only reason why Nakoshi accepts Manabu’s offer of trepanation is because he wants his car back. Yet, the car is, at first glance, not important for him for personal reasons, but only for practical reasons. His car is not important because it is his home, but because it is his house.
It does not take long for Nakoshi to find out that he, because of the hole in the skull, can see people uniquely distorted when he gazes at them with his left eye. The first time he perceives these strangely distorted people (e.g. a two-dimensional person) and weirdly transformed people (e.g. a talking tree, a walking ball of chains, and even a robot), he becomes ill and disoriented, precisely because these sudden appearances in his field of vision problematize the Other that gives him, as ego, a safe place of orientation. The distortion of the visual form of people distorts the ability of a subject to orient himself as ego among the other imaginary ego’s that populate the same societal field.
The visual disturbance of the imaginary field is also disorienting because it is without meaning, because it is solely a visual burst of nonsense. Yet, it quickly becomes apparent that what Nakoshi sees (visualized) is nothing other than the lingering unconscious traumas and frustrations of the others around him – he perceives, in other words, the traumatic ‘truth’ of the other. Nakoshi gets, via his supernatural gaze, a visual insight in the unconscious of the other and becomes able to see the hidden current that dictates the actual behaviour and desires of said other in the social field.
He is, in a very twisted away, given the psychoanalytic ‘key’ to force the other to confront his ‘trauma/conflict’, meet the truth of his current subjective logic, and give this other a possibility to gain more subjective freedom by handing him the key to unshackle the chains that determined his current societal functioning. This becomes evident in the way the meeting between Nakoshi and the yakuza boss unfolds – his desire to cut of pinkies grounded in a childhood trauma concerning a pinkie and a sickle, as well as in the other ‘therapeutic’ encounters (Narra-note 1).
Yet, these ‘therapeutic’ encounters are not without negative effects on Nakoshi. After two encounters, he suddenly realizes that various parts of his body have taken over the traumatic truth of those others he has forcefully helped gain some subjective freedom (Narra-note 2). This first element that drives the narrative of Homunculus from this realization onwards can be formulated as a question: Can he escape the process of becoming a patchwork of homunculi or will he be forced by Manabu to destroy himself with the trauma’s, fears, and frustrations of the others?
Another effect of therapeutic encounters is that some emotions start to animate the body of Nakoshi, that certain memories return, and that he, because of that, regains a certain interest into chasing a romantically charged element of his past, i.e. the lady in red. The interaction with this woman of his past, an interaction that might confront him with his own traumatic truth, forms the second element that propels the latter part of the narrative forward.
Having analyzed some of the narrative, we can finally reveal if the film is any good or not. Despite some really pleasing visual sequences, in Homunculus, Shimizu’s film struggles to impress and engage the spectator. The pleasing visual moments of the narrative are not only due to the effective use of CGI, but also because some visuals are satisfyingly disturbing -the highlight of the narrative is Nakoshi’s disturbing encounter with the high-school girl in his car.
The failure to engage the spectator and deliver a narrative with a punch is, firstly, function of the haphazardly constructed plot – something that could very well be the cause of the difficulty to condense the rich source material or due to the malicious interference by the film’s committee. Whatever the cause may be, Jun Fukumoto failed to transform the source material into a narrative that is able to play with the spectator’s emotions and deliver its psychological message in a powerful and satisfying way. Despite some visual highlights and disturbing moments, the overall narrative remains emotionally bland.
The second reason for Homunculus’s failure lies in its composition or, in more precise words, the atmosphere of the narrative. The atmosphere of Homunculus is dictated by the greenish/yellowish colour design and a darkish lightning design (Colour-note 1, Colour-note 2). This aesthetic tries to give the atmosphere, before anything truly horror-like has happened, a subtle but somewhat eerie uneasiness, but sadly fails. Shimizu forgets to utilize the musical element and his composition to make the eerie quality and a vague and difficult to pinpoint psychological darkness that pervades the corners of the narrative spaces truly sensible for the spectator. This rather infertile atmosphere is, in our view, another reason why Shimizu’s narrative struggles to engage the spectator.
Homunculus is an attempt to offer something fresh to the horror-table, but one that, sadly, struggles to blends its pleasing parts into a whole that truly engages and pleases the spectator. Due to the emotional bland atmosphere, the narrative’s important humanistic message lacks the powerful cathartic dimension it so desperately needs. Now, more than ever, do we need to see, within our relations with others, the other as subject. Our relation to others can only be ‘therapeutic’ for this other when we have eye for his Otherness and the truths that dictate his comportment. If we fall victim to our obsessive search for the Other’s approval, we, as seeking subject, will remain blind for the very subjectivity of that Other we are seeking approval of.
Narra-note 1: Spectators might wonder what the unconscious element of our high-school girl is. In our view, what’s unconscious is the very struggle to separate herself as subject from the M(Other) and her vicious signifiers. She remains in her subtle rebellion subjected to this inescapable M(Other). This inability to separate is signaled by her poetic signifiers and pictures on social media.
Narra-note 2: Nakoshi’s ‘trauma/frustration’ is his emptiness or, in other words, the difficulty he has with animating his body with his own desire. The effect of the ‘Trepanation’ allows him to fill himself up with the traumas/frustrations of Others, enables him to be animated and oriented by the psychological darkness of Others. He who is empty is given the chance to feed of the dark traumatic fullness of the Others.
His visual transformation is, in other words, the visual signal that he is filling up his subjective emptiness with the traumas and emotions of others.
Colour-note 1: While this aesthetic marks both day and night sequences, it is far more noticeable in night-sequences. Daytime sequences are only marked by a subtle greenish tinge, while the greenish colour-design dictates the aesthetic feel of the night-sequences and strengthens the visual pleasure of many shot-compositions.
Colour-note 2: The greenish tinge is, of course, often contrasted with other colours within shot-compositions. In most cases, there is an interplay between the greenish tinge and a more pronounced yellowish colour. In some instances, red-coloured elements or lightning sources provide an additional contrast in the narrative spaces marked by fight between the greens and the yellows.