Hideo Nakata remains one of Japan’s masters of horror, even if in recent years he has been unable to deliver narratives (e.g. Sadako (2019)) that reach the heights of his horror classics, Ring (1998) and Dark Water (2002). Yet, his inability is not, in our view, due to a lack in talent, but because the horror-film has, within contemporary Japanese cinema, attained a somewhat marginalized state. Can Nakata prove with his adaptation of Tanishi Matsubara’s nonfiction book Jiko Bukken Kaidan: Kowai Madori (2018) that there is still live in the Japanese horror genre?
Osaka. After another failed comedy skit, Taisa Nakai (Koji Seto) finally confesses to his partner Yamame Yamano (Kazuya Kamenashi) that he wants to disband the Jonathans, their manzai duo. The next day at the Keihan TV station, to help his friend out, Nakai launches the idea of living in haunted houses. Producer Matsuo (Houka Kinoshita), who is desperately trying to improve the ailing ratings of the television program he oversees and not lose his job, welcomes this fresh idea and asks Yamame Yamano to start living in stigmatizes properties for a new segment on the show. The same day, he encounters Azusa Kosaka (Nao), a long time fan of the Jonathans, who has just started as a make-up assistant at the tv station.
Stigmatized Properties is – and this should be made clear – not a pure horror-narrative. The moments of eerie uneasiness and supposed supernatural intrusion in Nakata’s narrative are counterbalanced with some heart-warming moments that are able to touch the spectator and natural light-hearted sequences that do not fail to put a smile of the spectator’s face.
Yet, as the film tries to hit different emotional notes, it ultimately turns into a tangled mess that cannot fully satisfy those who thirst for horror nor those who seek for a story with touching moments and a heart-warming conclusion. Yet, it is not only this balance that short-circuits the film, but also the structure of the narrative as such. The chapter-like structure does not work well, because it fails to give the ghostly appearance of the finale the power to scare the spectator.
Stigmatized Properties does deliver some pleasant horror-moments. Yet, the effectivity of these moments, at least partially, depends on the willingness or ability of the audience to belief that the Japanese cultural superstition surrounding certain properties has some truth, that the death that smears and dirties these properties – either by suicide, murder, or a natural but lonesome passing – actually makes these places easier for restless otherworldly presences to intrude into the real material world.
The composition of Stigmatized Properties is highly dynamic. Hideo Nakata does not only utilizes tracking shots, but he also thoughtfully plays with slow-moving spatial movement and elegantly exploits shaky framing. While Nakata’s dynamism is instrumental in creating temporary surges of tension, emphasizing the eeriness of a certain atmosphere, and making the spectator feel ill at ease, the frightening uneasiness does not simply depend on this dynamism.
Nakata’s composition, which remains the same in non-horror moments and more horror-like scenes, functions as a canvas that calls upon other elements to determine the mood of the moment (Cine-note 1). It is, in fact, because Nakata expertly employs ominous sounds, thoughtfully manipulates the sound-design, utilizes subdued colours to paint his atmosphere, and fluidly integrates sinister visual elements that echo the world-beyond that he succeeds, at certain moments, in crafting an atmosphere that engenders ominous feelings and anticipatory uneasiness in the spectator (Cine-note 2, Cine-note 3). Moreover Nakata grants Kazuya Kamenashi and Nao the necessary time and space to sensibly echo the superstitious uneasiness and the anticipatory fear that marks their characters, hereby strengthening the lingering discomfort the spectator feels, and to breathe life into those moments when fear invades their body and ego.
Yet, each moment where Nakata shows his skill at delivering horror is undercut by the need to deliver some light-heartedness or something touching. Nakata is, due to needs of the narrative, not allowed to play to his strengths, not allowed to carefully exploit the atmosphere he so masterfully is able to evoke to deliver a narrative that would keep the spectator glued to his seat, keep him ill at ease, and force him to, at least, consider the possibility of the otherworldly presences.
Stigmatized Properties is a film that never truly becomes horror nor a touching romance. It is a horror without well-developed horror and a romance story without satisfying romantic moments. While there are, of course, enjoyable moments in the narrative, the problematic structure of the narrative renders Nakata unable to play to his strengths and short-circuits any kind of emotion to truly engage or satisfy the spectator.
Cine-note 1: The gentle spatial dynamism used by Nakata in non-horror moments does evoke a minimal anticipatory tension. Yet, whether this anticipatory tension can ultimately be pleased in the horror-moments depends mainly on the interaction of the composition, the sound-design, the colour-design, and the musical accompaniment.
Cine-note 2: Ominous imagery is, in some rare cases, utilized to deliver jump-scares. While such technique is considered a cheap by many, in Stigmatized properties it is thoughtfully applied to underline the superstitious uneasiness that marks Yamame Yamano.
Cine-note 3: It needs to be said that some visual moments aiming at making the spectator feel uncomfortable fail to do so. The reason for this failure is because the effects are not convincing enough to make the spectator fully suspend his disbelief. The reliance on too-revelatory visual horror, in fact, often clashes with Nakata’s effective manipulation of atmospheres within the apartments.