A young writer for a magazine, Naoko Tomioka (Yoko Kamon) is commissioned to write an article on a famous artist, Saburo Gouda, famous for his ero-guro (erotic grotesque) paintings. Although Gouda himself is dead, his companions including Sakurai (Shunsuke Kubozuka), Mr Yamane (Jin Muraki) and Mr and Mrs Akutsu and their daughter, Madoka (Momoko Shimuzu) still live at his isolated mansion, which Naoko visits as part of her research. The uptight and repressed Naoko, who is secretly fascinated by the abject renderings of Gouda, finds his companions odd and the mansion strangely unsettling. On her first night, Naoko has a strange erotic dream in which she is lying in a field while rose petals rain down on her. However, in reality (if there is any such thing in the film), she is being watched through a hole in the attic floorboards and hot pink wax is being dripped onto her body, a scene which self-reflexively recalls the use of bokashi in traditional roman porn and Japanese pink cinema as the petals are strategically placed as to cover up Naoko’s breasts and genitalia. When Naoko discovers that Gouda used to prowl around the attic at night, she decides to investigate for herself and through the cracks in the boards witnesses a number of erotic and eerie scenes including one in which a woman is tied to a chair with pink ropes in the style of shibari (Japanese bondage), whose body is a spider network of scars. Then the following day, whilst out in the grounds with Madoka, to her horror Naoko finds a dismembered female finger. She gives the finger to Sakurai who promises to take it to the police, but soon discovers that not everyone is who they seem and that sometimes art is murder.
Watcher in the Attic is loosely based upon Edogawa Rampo’s 1925 short story, The Walker in the Attic (Yaneura no sanposha) which tells of a bored drifter who decides to bring excitement to his life by pretending to commit a series of crimes. However, soon the pretence is no longer enough for him and one night, in the boarding house in which he is staying he commits murder by dropping morphine into one of the other tenant’s mouth through the holes in the attic floorboards. His crime is revealed at the end by an amateur detective with whom the protagonist had struck on a friendship. Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965) was one of the most important Japanese writers of the mystery and crime stories and is noted for his grotesque fusion of sex and violence. Rampo was particularly influenced by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and in fact Rampo is a pseudonym based upon the transliteration of Poe’s name into Japanese. Rampo’s stories have been the inspiration for a number of Japanese films, and the short story The Walker in the Attic has had 3 cinematic incarnations before this version. The first version was directed by Akitaka Kimata in 1970, while the second and best-known is Noboru Tanaka’s classic roman porn version of 1976 in which The Walker in the Attic is combined with The Human Chair, another of Edogawa’s short stories, to provide an erotic tale of perverse and dark desires set during Japan’s Taisho Period (1912-1925). It is therefore not a coincidence that the production company behind The Watcher in the Attic has also released a contemporary updating of The Human Chair, titled Ningen-Isu directed by Keisaku Sato: clips of which can be found in Japan Flix’s trailer for Watcher in the Attic. Together, the two films are advertised under the series title “Erotic Ranpo” (Erochikku Ranpo). The third version of Walker in the Attic was in 1994, directed by Akio Jissoji, and is purportedly more soft-core porn than ero-guro production.
By changing the protagonist into a woman, director Mitsuhiro Mihara brings Rampo’s short story up-to-date and indeed the film is in many ways a sequel to Tanaka’s classic rather than a re-envisioning of the original story since it is based around the legacy of Saburo Gouda, the protagonist of Tanaka’s film who dies at the very end. Here, the voyeuristic gaze is no longer exclusively male and, as such, this version acknowledges the presence of woman as desiring subject rather than merely object to be desired. However, when Naoko’s gaze lingers on the bound body of the dead woman who appears to be the victim of sadomasochistic games gone bad, the film reveals the dichotomy of female identity, split between the gazing subject and the gazed object, between desire and death, fantasy, and reality. Here, Naoko is synonymous with the character of Yoshimi in Suzuki’s short story Floating Water (on which Nakata’s Dark Water [Honogurai mizu no soko kara , 2002] is based), who is suffering from nightmares and anxiety attacks after having worked as an editor for a particularly violent novel that leaves her “unable to distinguish between illusion and reality.” As such this version of The Watcher in the Attic seems to deliberately critique the sexual violence implicit within Japanese shibari and the prevalence of S/M imagery in Japanese popular culture.
The imagery in The Watcher in the Attic is particularly effective at giving visual form to Rampo’s disturbing words including the scene of a mad clown who hacks at his female victim as “L’amour est un oiseaux” from the Opera Carmen plays in the background and caterpillars crawl between the dead woman’s thighs. The cinematography recalls the gothic heyday of Japanese horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, while the soundtrack adds to the overall feeling of uncanniness generated through the imagery. In some ways, Watcher in the Attic reminds me of the Italian director Pupi Avati’s 1977 giallo, The House of the Laughing Windows (La casa dalle finestre che ridono), which is built around a not dissimilar premise, albeit without the religious subtext.
Yoko Kamon is particularly good as the repressed Naoko, whose enthusiasm for Gouda’s work and prim appearance (signified through the high necked sweater that she wears) is at odds with her repressed desire which is ignited by the strange erotic tableaus that bring Gouda’s art to life that she comes across during her voyeuristic travels in the attic. In addition, Momoko Shimzu is suitably creepy as the girl who conducts séances and through whom the dead speak, while Jin Muraki as Mr. Yamane, the owner of the mansion, gives his character the Grand Guignol treatment. This third re-imagining of Rampo’s short story captures perfectly the intensity of Rampo’s work at its Poe/tic best and is one of the finest adaptations of his work that I have seen to date.
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.