There are certain movies I definitely had in mind when I began this column; absolutely bonkers stuff that I felt needed to be seen by more people, just so they would know that this type of horror film actually exists. “Horror” cinema as it exists in the minds of most people is doubly stigmatized because it is neither mainstream Oscar bait nor is it where you find the creativity of expression that would get you noticed at Cannes or Sundance. When someone like Spielberg or Joe Dante makes something like Poltergeist or Gremlins, that is considered to be a respected director making a respectable horror film; now (finally!) there are horror movies that can be talked about at the dinner table with the whole family. Likewise, fans of foreign films enjoy the work of someone like Guillermo del Toro as such, without really looking within themselves and thinking “What is it about this film that was so unique?” or, more importantly “Why do I like this film?” Finally, let’s not forget the film snob, lamenting the fact that “They just don’t make films like Psycho and the Exorcist anymore.” This is the film public, by and large, that modern horror cinema has to contend with: the kind that enjoyed watching Halloween while on a date as a teenager, and then “grew out” of the genre entirely. If this were not the case, how else could you account for the amount of slasher films made and remade in between the releases of Suspiria and Mother of Tears?
ID (pronounced “i-do”) was written, directed by, and stars Kei Fujiwara. Fujiwara herself isn’t really a household name; not nearly as much as her mentor Shinya Tsukamoto, creator of the seminal Tetsuo the Iron Man. Fujiwara herself handled the cinematography and co-starred in this classic, before going on to make her own movies, starting with the much-maligned (or otherwise forgotten) Organ in 1996. This visceral tale about two cops tracking down a group of organ thieves was mostly ignored in the western world, such that when its sequel finally came out nearly a decade later, relatively few people paid it any attention. This is unfortunate, since not only is ID the superior film of the two, but it also re-contextualizes its prequel, making both films far more interesting in the process.
The film opens with a wandering tramp aimlessly observing the world in the slums of Tokyo. This man is none other than the former police officer Numata, who has become a mentally-disturbed derelict. He is still searching for his nemesis, the teacher-turned criminal Saeki. Saeki finds himself in the care of the employees of a slaughterhouse, who take him in even as they suspect him of having a criminal past. This family, who end up getting the most screen time in the movie, are no angels themselves: they are a demented group of psychopaths that even the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw might find odd. However, in the absence of screaming teenagers to chop up and kill, the film focuses instead upon the relationships between these people, the eventual breakdown of which leads to horrific results. This is interspersed with scenes of 3 apparently dead people reading a supernatural-seeming book, as well as narration relating to the story of the Amida Buddha. While the former is mostly inconsequential, the religious exposition has real significance, especially toward the end.
“However, in the absence of screaming teenagers to chop up and kill, the film focuses instead upon the relationships between these people, the eventual breakdown of which leads to horrific results.”
Up to this point, you may think ID sounds more like an off-beat suspense tearjerker indie drama, the type usually starring pre-hulk Mark Ruffalo, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Truth be told, this film uses narrative as more of a window-dressing, with the focus on the underlying themes and visual brutality. We can see this first and foremost in the imagery of pigs. “We don’t kill people, only pigs!” angrily proclaims one of the butchers, though we of course must hold everything they say to scrutiny. The pigs themselves, with their grunts and squeals becoming more and more prevalent, as they are crammed in tiny cages, slaughtered and eaten. The graphic imagery isn’t enough to make someone a vegetarian, (not that this was the films intent) but one may not feel like eating that last pork chop in the fridge for dinner. Numata expects something is wrong at the slaughterhouse when he finds in a local garbage dump the leftovers of the slaughter, except that instead of swine, the mass of organs and viscera is clearly human. At this point we must reconsider that previous quote. It is no accident that the denizens of the slaughterhouse, with their ramshackle dwellings and slovenly lifestyles, have a certain piggish air about them. You see, not only is the family extremely menacing and aggressive in an animalistic way, but they are also rather stupid – in fact, laughably so. Ryo, played by Fujiwara, narrates much of the film, with ruminations such as “Do pigs deserve to live?” and “Was I born only to be eaten?” Aside from the obvious parallels between Ryo and Yoko (Fujiwara’s character in Organ) , it becomes clear that everything, you see, has a double meaning; this film is a nice balance of surreal on the surface and then mostly subtext, but man is it good subtext. Indeed, this is about as good as it gets except for Jacob’s Ladder, but I will say this movie is far more tonally adventurous. True, nobody has ever watched Jacob’s Ladder and argued that it needed more comedy, but watching the Pigfarmer-slaughter family (I don’t believe they are ever given a name) bumble around in panic as they try to discover the identity of a dead body, or seeing the “daughter” of the family attempt to seduce a police officer is legitimately funny and prevents the darkness otherwise permeating the picture from being overly penetrating.
That being said, ID spends most of its time being dark and uncomfortable, which it does rather well. First of course are the visuals, where Fujiwara treats us to copious amounts of blood, guts, vomit, pee, and shit. Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking, in the heat of the moment, that some of this was real. During down times we are treated to haunting harmonica motifs with some underlying synths. This film, a slasher film full of slashers, somehow still manages to find “down time” and inventive ways to increase tension. Somehow, when the body count does inevitably start piling up, we don’t see it coming. To supplement the (purposely) inane dialogue, Fujiwara gives us insight into the psychology of these bad little piggies, specifically their bodies. When one psychopath is peeping on another getting undressed and unfurls a metal coil or industrial piston out of their pants, you know something is wrong. Welcome to Body Dysmorphia: the film!
If you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned Numata and Saeki since the beginning of this diatribe, it is because they barely are featured in the body of the film at all. These two, ostensibly the protagonist and antagonist, are reduced to mere bystanders. They watch as the dingy, decaying society around them – already held together by thumb tacks and duct tape – truly begins to unravel. Somehow we can relate to them both, as they stare, dumbfounded, wondering “Is this how people really are?” This is, in a nutshell, why ID is superior to Organ (and many other horror films): the world – the real world – has problems far greater than simply “good vs. evil.” Once you have realized this, the perspective in the third act shifts entirely to Ryo, who has until this point been largely in the background. This, including a mind-boggling twist ending, is where the film really stops becoming a discombobulated series of images and gets real context. That’s all I’m going to say; ID is a horror masterpiece, savor and enjoy it!