Takashi Shimizu’s spookily effective Reincarnation arrived relatively late in the J-Horror cycle, after international audiences had already been unsettled by Ring (1998), Pulse (2001), One Missed Call (2003), and Shimizu’s theatrical instalments of the Ju-on: The Grudge franchise (2002/2003), then disappointed by a run of lesser titles that were released in order to keep the ‘Asia extreme’ business ticking over until the next breakout hit. Rather than being an example of a genre that had passed its peak, the somewhat neglected Reincarnation is an excellent J-Horror film that exists within the realms of its national horror cinema (the manifestation of ghosts within the world of the living), while also suggesting connections to the work of dark fantasists from further afield (the atmospheric dream-logic of European horror cinema).
It revolves around the creative imagination of Ikuo Matsumura (Kippei Shiina), one of the most successful horror directors in the Japanese film industry. For his latest project, Matsumura has written a screenplay based on the true story of a series of horrific murders that occurred 35 years ago at a hotel in a tourist area. The murderer was college professor Norihasa Omori, who wanted to understand reincarnation, with this obsession driving him to kill hotel employees, guests, and even his own children before committing suicide. Unknown actress Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) is cast in the role of Chisato, the murderer’s daughter, but her big break has a severe downside: she is soon experiencing strange hallucinations and being haunted by the ghosts of Omori’s victims.
Shimizu acknowledges the status of Reincarnation as another entry in a possibly over-crowded genre through the film-within-a-film device on which the narrative is pivoted, playing with the audience’s knowledge of the production of such features and their conceptual roots in superstition or legend. Matsumara is a director who specialises in horror and has built up a certain level of name value in the field: this means that his attempt to up the ante with his latest project by making a horror film that is more disturbing than his previous offerings, can be read as a commentary on the challenges faced by such real-life genre practitioners as Hideo Nakata, Takashi Miike, and Shimizu himself when revisiting the same scare tactics. A scene in which an actress with an interest in the occult is pulled into another dimension through the bookshelves of a library is effective despite being a horror cliché, but Shimizu finds real terror by exploring the creative process. The possibility that Matsumara is the reincarnation of the killer suggests that film-makers can become possessed by madness in pursuit of professional success, although this turns out to be a red herring, with Shimizu instead showing his fictional counterpart to be hard-working, well-organized, and responsible filmmaker, running his set in an efficient, albeit slightly-detached, manner. In terms of making comparisons between Shimizu and other purveyors of J-Horror, Reincarnation has similarities with Miike’s much-discussed Audition in that it is the sheer intensity of the final fifteen minutes that make the film particularly memorable.However, the content of the final reel owes less to Miike’s painfully extended torture session than it does to the climax of Lucio Fulci’s cult classic The Beyond (1981), in which the beleaguered hero and heroine do battle with zombies in the corridors of a hospital before being transported to an apocalyptic wasteland. Under the strict direction of Matsumara, the increasingly distressed Nagisa portrays Chisato in a crucial scene located at the hotel. This prompts visions of past events which are filtered through the mise-en-scène of the production in which she is starring, resulting in severe psychological disintegration. Shimizu cross-cuts between Nagisa’s unravelling and two related situations, thereby operating at multiple levels of reality: Nagisa’s agent watches 8mm footage of the actual hotel murders, while psychology student Yayoi (Karina Nose) arrives at the hotel following her academic investigation of cryptomnesia (the return of memories that are forgotten and, therefore, unrecognised), an idea strongly opposed by her professor. Such structural audacity runs the risk of causing audience disorientation, but a clear sense of time and space is maintained by the editorial skills of Nobuyuki Takahashi, enabling the viewer to follow Shimizu’s twisted logic en route to the big reveal. Anyone who is somehow left unshaken by this sequence will surely be unnerved by the genuinely creepy ‘talking doll’ that turns up in the epilogue. A master-class in misdirection, Reincarnation ranks alongside Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Retribution (2006) and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Nightmare Detective (2007) as one of the best J-Horror films of the late-2000s.