An escaped killer cuts a woman’s throat in the lobby of a police station. He does it in front of the entire unit, and he does it with a fork. These first few minutes tell us how to watch the next two hours: look for horror in plain sight.
Last year, Japanese filmmaker Kurosawa Kiyoshi blended horror, psychological thriller, and family drama to give us the aptly titled Creepy (Kurīpī: Itsuwari no Rinjin). Although the film opens with candid violence, gore does not earn Creepy its name. Rather, an unsettling emptiness—a present absence radiating out from the characters into their surroundings, an absence in excess—does.
A year after interrogating the killer, ex-detective Takakura moves into a suburban home with his wife, Yasuko. We are suspicious of their neighbor, Nishino, from the start. He peers out from behind bushes, lacks basic conversation skills, and walks like a robot; even the family dog mistrusts him. So it comes as no surprise when we find out that he is the perpetrator in the neglected murder case that Takakura is inspecting sub rosa.
But the real horror is at home, not next door. We sense it when Yasuko, staring blankly at the TV in Nishino’s basement, tells her husband she “gave up a long time ago…on a lot of things.” What’s creepy in Creepy is how the Takakuras exist as ghosts of themselves. To borrow language from Yale Professor of Film Studies Aaron Gerow’s essay on the director, Kurosawa depicts the self as “ghostly.” The self becomes a source of anxiety because it does and does not belong to the body, because it is “dis/continuous.” Selves attached to bodies are at once detached, floating outside and between and opening up space for ambiguity.
Horror movies derive much of their suspense from uninhabited spaces: a noise behind the door to an empty room or a long, vacant hallway. But, as film scholar Akira Lippit notes in his book, Atomic Light (Shadow Optics), Kurosawa’s films shift the focus to an internal vacancy that has been externalized. The emptiness on the other side of the door belongs to the subject and confronts her as herself. In Creepy, the subjects’ interpersonal desolation—apathy toward colleagues and spouses—is displaced and set free on the outside. It fills the screen like helium in a balloon, pushing at its margins and distorting its surface.
Kurosawa’s wide lens stretches the film’s large, antiseptic rooms; his framing distances the characters from the sparse furniture and from each other. At dinner, the Takakuras face one another from opposite poles of the broad frame. While they talk about nothing, the emptiness inside each of them seems to collect over the table between them in what Lippit has called an “avizualizing” of space. What the camera renders visible is not the invisible but invisibility, obscure interiors expelled into the light of the world—“X-rayed,” writes Lippit, and ex-represented.
As the emptiness builds, it escapes the image and becomes ex-filmic. At the frame’s edges, curtains billow, leaves rustle, and machines whirr; the constant wind asonorizes the characters’ hollowness, giving new meaning to Abe Kashō’s claim that “emptiness rumbles throughout” Kurosawa’s 1997 international breakthrough, Cure.
The outdoors becomes a site of horror for its intimation of disembodied selves. Thirty minutes into the film, when Takakura and his former detective partner examine a crime scene, the camera suddenly untethers itself and floats up and away. The figures shrink in bird’s-eye view, ceding the image to open space. But we do not leave the characters behind. Instead, they are blown up to the size of the screen—gasified and released. They expand the frame, forcing it to pull back as we look down with them on their bodies, until the only sound is the wind: self as movement of air through space.
Nishino, the “demon” (oni) next door, travels from neighborhood to neighborhood assimilating strangers into his “family” of killers. A villain allergic to violence, he would rather make murderers of others than pull the trigger himself: “It’ll make a heck of a sound!” he warns Takakura as he hands him a pistol, covering his ears and wincing.
But Nishino is also a savior, rescuing the characters from their own dispersion. He catalyzes the compression of their expressed selves, condensing pathological plurality into singularity. He sucks the Takakuras back into themselves, not by entering them as an “other,” as Lippit argues of Cure’s Mamiya, but by returning their othered selves to them. Just as he “packs” his victims in vacuum-sealed bags, he packs his adopted family, vacuuming the film-space to retrieve and compact their excesses. When we see him at work, the frame shrinks along with the bag as a series of cuts brings us closer and closer to the curling body.
Nishino combines disparate parts to make and remake wholes: a family unit, individuals united, a reunited individual. Only after Yasuko is abducted (or adopted) by Nishino does she recognize her unhappiness; only after Takakura is taken captive can he look his wife in the eye; and only after Yasuko and Takakura both have confronted Nishino do they touch each other. When they finally embrace, Yasuko has a violent gasping fit, as if re-inhaling her exhaled self.
Yet, as Gerow points out, Kurosawa’s films challenge the possibility of “singularity of meaning.” Sounds of air and rushing water, of uncontained space and loosed interiors, drown out Yasuko’s gasping attempt at self-reunification. The creek behind her flows past the frame, and the wind picks up one last time as the camera retreats from Nishino’s corpse.
Twice in Creepy, characters are mesmerized by jellyfish on TV. This is not the first time the ghosts of the sea have made their way into Kurosawa’s work. His 2003 film, Bright Future, imbues them with the dreams and anxieties of a nation entering a new century.
But as they return to haunt Creepy, they take on a new meaning. Jellyfish are 95 percent water; little differentiates what is inside their membranes from what is outside. Looking at them, it is hard to tell where their emptiness ends and the ocean begins. Only outlines of organs show at their centers, as if through an X-ray: now expanding, now contracting—adrift.
Josh van Biema ’20 is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College.