Due to the incredible success of Ring (1998), which launched the J-Horror boom, provided the source material for a blockbuster US remake, and started a series which is still active today, it has been difficult for director Hideo Nakata to consistently meet audience or industry expectations. Although he delivered the goods with the equally atmospheric Dark Water (2002), much of Nakata’s subsequent output has been variable: a brief trip to Hollywood for the nonsensical sequel The Ring Two (2005), the craftsmanship of Kaidan (2007), relatively anonymous work on the Death Note franchise entry L: Change the World (2008), and the perfunctory mind games of the enclosed space thriller The Incite Mill (2010). The nadir of Nakata’s career, however, came in the form of his English language misfire Chatroom (2010), a painfully outdated affair which arrived long after its titular virtual space and been supplanted by social networks. Nakata is the kind of genre filmmaker who does more with less, yet his recent features have found him realising scenarios that are too far removed from the everyday reality that made such a suitable backdrop for his earlier hits, while sometimes requiring elaborate special effects that break the disquieting mood that is his speciality. With its pared-down aesthetic, The Complex appears to be a conscious effort by Nakata to return to Ring territory following the visual clutter of his recent work, although this latest exercise in terror eschews the technological elements of his breakthrough feature in favour of traditional supernatural chills.
The Complex takes place around a residential development that is the new home of nursing student Asuka (Atsuko Maeda), her parents and younger brother. Although it could use some refurbishment, the Kuroyuri Building Complex is not nearly as dilapidated as the apartment block that traumatised the single mother in Dark Water, with the surrounding area being similarly nondescript. Yet in ghost story fashion, Asuka is soon being disturbed by the sound of scratching from the neighbouring apartment, then awakened by an alarm clock that regularly goes off at 6am, while her classmates inform her that the complex is rumoured to be haunted. When she tries to talk to the occupant, Asuka finds the door unlocked and goes inside, only to discovers a dead body in a position that suggests the deceased had been trying to claw his way into her bedroom. Once the police have removed the body, a cleaning company is sent in. Asuka meets softly-spoken employee Sasahara (Hiroki Narimiya) who explains how the spirits of the departed will remain in buildings and sometimes try to maintain a connection with the living. After the police officially conclude that her neighbour died from a heart attack, Asuka tries to resume her studies and develops a friendship with Minoru (Tanaka Kanau), a young boy who also lives in the complex, but is never seen with his family or any other children. However, she experiences a series of distressing visions, and seeks assistance from Sasahara, who is acquainted with a spiritual medium.
Sparsely designed with Nakata largely keeping the special effects at bay until the climax, the first half of The Complex is particularly unsettling in its ordinariness, with Kenji Kawai’s sound design and score complementing the deceptively simple visual style. The suburban residential development is framed in a manner that at once emphasises its mundane structure and its capacity for evoking unease: fellow residents are rarely seen aside from Minoru, who is usually playing in the sandpit, the perpetually calm summer weather suggests that time is standing still, while Asuka’s interactions with her cheerful family have an odd, repetitive rhythm. Maeda, who was recently seen in The Drudgery Train (2012) but is best known as the former lead singer of J-pop group AKB48, proves to be an engaging anchor for the otherworldly activity and the narrative maintains a steady pace, even after a twist at the half-way mark which, although not particularly surprising in itself, serves to take events in an unexpected direction. Despite this measured approach, The Complex is not quite in the same league as Ring and Dark Water, partially because of an effects-filled finale which plays like a concession to current genre trends and the sense that Nakata is skilfully revisiting his favourite tropes without necessarily revitalising them. In comparison to the current J-Horror scene, however, The Complex is a creepily effective chiller that will certainly satisfy Nakata’s fanbase, even if its core elements are too familiar to prompt an upsurge of general interest in its once-lucrative genre.