Claimer: Case 1, is based on an interesting and relevant contemporary premise. In a consumer society dominated by service industries and capitalist greed, the maxim that ‘the customer is always right’ or ‘the customer is God’ in Japan takes an ominous dimension when a manager, Naoto Tsugimura (Shuji Kashiwabara), who works in customer services for a big food and drinks manufacturer, Yamade Foods, becomes embroiled in a customer complaint that he fails to deal with effectively – indeed it is a complaint that cannot be dealt with – and which ultimately turns deadly. Naoto is the modern iteration of the typical Japanese salaryman – a small cog in the large wheel of capitalist industry – who devotes his life to the company, living an isolated and alienated life outside of work. Outside of the small office that he shares with three other workers including his girlfriend, Ajiki (Misato Hirata) and a troubled relationship with his sister, Mai, there is a lack of meaningful human contact in both his personal life and professional life. When he prematurely puts the phone down on a customer complaint about water infected with strange ‘bugs’ (which turn out to be maggots), he becomes the object of a vendetta against him by the unhappy customer. A razor blade is stuck to his door handle, Ajiki disappears, and he gets arrested by the Police when he attempts to stop the batch of contaminated water, which was meant to have been disposed of by Ajiki, being given out to children in a playground. Naoto becomes increasingly deranged and paranoid as he attempts to identify the mysterious customer even so far as accusing one of his colleagues of being the caller, and as a result is suspended from his job. Unlike the old paternalistic companies on which Japan’s economic miracle was founded, the Director of Yamade Foods has little interest in the well-being of his workforce and is more concerned about bad publicity that would be generated if the contaminated water became public knowledge. Totally isolated, with no human contact whatsoever, outside the phone calls demanding that he makes reparation for his failure to treat his customer as ‘god’ that he keeps on receiving, Naoto’s fragile mental state deteriorates even further. He ransacks his apartment for evidence that he is being watched, and works obsessively on the puzzle that is his only hobby. A couple of neat twists leading up the final dénouement add interest to the film’s premise.
Director Taishi Kaneko’s film contains intertextual nods and visual references to classics contemporary Japanese horror cinema, including Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo, 2001) (in one scene Naoto’s sister, Mai, sees a shadowy reflection behind her reflected on the television screen in front of her); Fujii’s Living Hell: A Japanese Chainsaw Massacre (Iki-jigoku, 2000) (the part shots and distorted angles of Naoto’s face which are used to suggest that all is not what it seems) and Shimizu’s Ju-on (2002) (the tapping noises, which turn out to be made by an agitated foot, that accompany the phone calls). However, the horror in Claimer: Case 1 is more psychological than supernatural, and is concerned with showing Naoto’s mental disintegration in the face of economic and societal pressures that he is unable to cope with. With much of Japanese horror cinema devoted to gore and the grotesque, Claimer: Case 1 bucks the trend and is all the more welcome as a result. The film works both as an effective psychological horror film and as a critique of the conditions of existence that contemporary workers in Japan, but also across the world, are forced to endure in order to keep the wheels of the capitalist machine grinding. However, Claimer: Case 1 is peculiarly Japanese in that Naoto never questions his responsibility for not solving the caller’s complaint, even when it becomes apparent that the customer is not right.
The sequel, Claimer: Case No 2, which was also released in 2008, and is more horror orientated than the first film, while Kaneko’s next two films, Uniform Survigirl 1 (Seifuku sabaigâru I) and Uniform Survigirl II (Seifuku sabaigâru II) – both released theatrically in December of the same year – rake up the gore as a group of Japanese high school girls who are taking part in a ‘survival’ game at the aptly named ‘Survival Land’ find themselves pitted against real killers, both human and inhuman, and what should have been a fantasy role-play game becomes horrifying reality. While Claimer: Case I is considerably more low-key than Kaneko’s other films, it is nonetheless well worth watching and is a welcome addition to the annals of J-horror.
Colette Balmain is a lecturer in film and media studies and writer whose research specialty is East Asian horror cinema and popular culture. She is the author of Introduction to Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh University Press: 2008) and the editor of Directory of World Cinema: South Korea (Intellect: 2011). Currently she is writing a book on South Korean Horror Cinema.