New Religion (2022) review


New cinematic narratives are released everyday, yet not many of them succeed in firmly grabbing the attention of international audiences. Yet, Keishi Kondo’s first feature film is met with praise in any international film festival it is screened. With such success, surely many spectators wonder if Keishi Kondo can be a new fresh voice that can help shape the future of Japanese horror cinema.  


One night, Miyabi (Kaho Seto) an escort at Girl’s Vanilla who lost her daughter Aoi (Hana Nakamoto) to a tragic incident, and her driver Aizawa (Daiki Nunami) witnesses Akari (Kuroe Mizuta), a self-mutilating co-worker, seemingly slashing random passers-by with a cutter. Some hours earlier, Akari talked, as if she were a child, about meeting up with her father.

Not much later, Miyabi and her boyfriend (Ryuseigun Saionji) are approached by Miyabi’s ex-husband (Yuki Nagata). He roughly pulls Aoi’s bracelet from her wrist – she has no right to wear it – and tells her that his life has been ruined by her negligence. A few days later, Miyabi meets Oka (Satoshi Oka), the client Akari met before she embarked on her killing spree.

New Religion (2022) by Keishi Kondo

New Religion is both an unsettling mystery-horror narrative as a genuine and heartfelt romance-drama. It is bathed in mysteriousness and the evocative imagery and signifiers are as alluring as unsettling. Yet, beneath the fluidly woven visual fabric lies a combination of signifiers that transforms the narrative into a societal critique.

Yet, first things first, one of the reasons Kondo succeeds in engaging the spectator form the get-go into his narrative is the revelation of two interrelated riddles. The first riddle concerns the truth of Akari’s protective hallucinatory fantasy, the phantasmatic retreat into the harmonious and fictitious relation between child and father. The second concerns the link between the sudden bursting forth of such embodied fantasy and the passage-a-l’acte, her killing spree.

Not long thereafter, Kondo adds another narrative element to further intrigue the spectator but also to confuses him/her: Oka’s obsession with taking pictures of limbs and other body parts. What kind of connection is there between his singular obsession of capturing the human body in a fragmented and cut-up way and Akari’s fantasy and her dazed attack on random people on the street? And what dangers and changes await Miyabi by continuing the photography sessions with Oka?

New Religion (2022) by Keishi Kondo

To unravel the societal critique of New Religion, we need to explore Miyabi’s logic. It should be evident that she has not fully overcome her past traumatic event, the moment of her motherly failure. This is underlined by the unchanged state of her balcony garden as well as by the nearly religious way she tends to it. In a certain sense, by keeping the garden in the same state, she keeps the necessity to radically accept her physical absence at bay. It is not that she avoids the death of her daughter – such avoidance is, in fact, impossible as the gardening tools function as visual reminders, but the fixation of the garden keeps her daughter, in a phantasmatic way, alive. Within the absence that the flourishing garden emphasizes resides a fantasized possibility of a return of the lost daughterly presence.      

Without revealing too much about the course of the narrative, it should be clear that all the imagery and signifiers point to the fact that Oka, the photographer, feeds on the unresolved state of subjective loss, the yet-to-be-fully resolved state of mourning. He resolves the ‘lack’ that lingers within the subject-with-trauma, yet with quite destructive effects.  

The trilling finale of New Religion, where the truth is evocatively revealed, allows the societal critique of the festering emptiness that marks the contemporary Japanese subject to burst forth. The unsettling descent Kondo’s narrative depicts is function of a societal lack, the lack of symbolic structures, like religious ones, that can counteract the parasitical emptiness of the subject and heal his/her traumatic injuries. What the Japanese subject is given, as the trajectory of Miyabi so hauntingly illustrates, is nothing but illusions of pleasure, imaginary patches that only fleetingly cover up the hollowness that marks the subject. And does Kondo ultimately not evoke that the realization of the insufficiency of societal fabric to support the stuffing of one’s subject will lead to societal destruction, to the inauguration of vengeful attacks against the institutions (e.g. schools, temples, kindergartens, …etc) entrusted with the nurturing of subjects?   

New Religion (2022) by Keishi Kondo

The composition of New Religion is really well though-out and visually engaging. Keishi Kondo does not only create shot-compositions – static as well as dynamic – that satisfy the gaze of the spectator, he also pleases him/her by utilizing the cut in a very elegant way. With his cutting, he does not merely create a well-measured dreamy visual rhythm – reminiscent of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early horror work, but a rhythm that allows shot-composition to stand out and revelations and twists within the narrative to have a greater impact on the spectator.  

A few words need to be said about the sequence that opens New Religion. This reddish concatenation of strange ever-changing imagery decorated with unsettling musical accompaniment is not merely meant to impress the spectator, but to ensure that a sliver of uneasiness remains lingering within the spectator as the story starts unfolding. This quantum of uneasiness, so carefully engendered by the reddish sequence, allows Keishi Kondo to make unsettling imagery more effective and more shocking (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2).

Another element, a visual one, that subtly supports the lingering sense of uneasiness within the spectator is the darkish colour and lighting-design. By refusing most yellowish lights their warmth within the visual frame, Kondo echoes the desolateness and hopelessness that marks the atmosphere of his narrative (Colour-note 1). The threatening music and unsettling sounds that comes to decorate certain moments in the narrative also helps ensuring that the spectator’s uneasiness does not dissipate and the sense of dread remains lingering in the narrative’s atmosphere.  

New Religion is a splendid horror-drama narrative that will keep the spectator on the edge of his seat from start to finish. Keishi Kondo does not only impress with his refined sense for composition and the elegant way he creates atmosphere, but also with the satisfying way in which he utilizes signifiers to deliver an impressive finale and, if you know how to read them, a biting societal critique. Everyone should check out this new voice in Japanese horror. Highly recommended.  


Cine-note 1: The effectiveness of the horror thus partially depends on the way the spectator received the opening sequence. If nothing of uneasiness remains within the spectator, the moments of horror cannot exploit the lingering uneasiness to make their shock and unsettling effect more effective.  

Cine-note 2: By returning to this reddish colour-scheme throughout the narrative and repeating certain imagery of the opening sequence,Kondo succeeds in elegantly and fleetingly heightening the lingering uneasiness of the spectator. The visual repetition allows Kondo to create an atmosphere that unsettles but also captivates.

Colour-note 1: In the case that yellowish lights dofeature in the visual frame, Kondo counter-acts their effect of warmness by subduing those colours with a wealth of dark shadows and darkish (and often blueish) backgrounds.   


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