It must be said at the outset that one man’s Extreme Asian Cinema is another man’s Julie Andrews Film Festival. As one who tends to avoid films loaded down with graphic violence and buckets of (hopefully fake) blood, my concept of “extreme” is no doubt quite different than someone with a higher tolerance for the glories of gore. However, in the last few years I’ve begun to appreciate horror films from Japan, especially those from directors Takashi Shimizu (JU-ON, THE GRUDGE), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (KAIRO aka PULSE). Although these films contain a certain amount of violence, they tend to rely more on mood, atmosphere and dark, horrific imagery to provide viewers with chills and thrills. With his 2011 3D release, TORMENTED, Shimizu continued his legacy with a work that combines the expected creepy atmosphere and imagery with a disturbing element: the victims of the horror are children.
The story concerns Kiriko (Hikari Mitsushima), a young girl who lives with her father, Kohei (Teruyuki Kagawa) and her little half-brother, Daigo (Takeru Shibuya). Kohei is a creator of pop-up books for children. Kiriko has suffered some sort of trauma that has left her unable to speak. She is very protective toward Daigo and worried about him, especially since he inexplicably killed a rabbit that was being raised by the children at their school. Kohei seems too preoccupied to share Kiriko’s concerns about her brother. One night Kiriko takes Daigo to the 3D horror film THE SHOCK LABYRINTH, and a stuffed rabbit comes out of the screen into Daigo’s arms. Daigo begins having strange dreams where he is taken to an amusement park by a giant rabbit. At first, the rabbit is friendly and they have fun at the park. But soon the rabbit’s appearance changes, becoming menacing and threatening. The rabbit leads Daigo into an abandoned hospital where he sees a vision of a woman bleeding and dying on a gurney.
Kiriko tries desperately to communicate with her father about Daigo’s nightmares. Her father reacts in anger and tells her to stop her delusions. After this, Kiriko begins to remember events that she had repressed. A few years ago her father brought home a new wife, Kyoko, who was pregnant. Kiriko was unable to accept her new stepmother and became increasingly angry and agitated. One day her father took her to an amusement park. While riding on the carousel, she is surprised by Kyoko, dressed up as a giant rabbit. Kyoko gives her step-daughter a stuffed rabbit as a gift. Kiriko pushes Kyoko away, causing her to fall and go into premature labor. At a nearby hospital, Kyoko dies along with her infant son. Kiriko, in her guilt and grief, has imagined that the baby had lived. Daigo has been a creation of her delusional mind. It was Kiriko having the dreams, Kiriko who killed the rabbit at her school. She has been living in fear of Kyoko coming back for revenge.
In spite of regaining her memory, Kiriko continues to see Daigo. One day he leads her to the abandoned hospital where Kyoko and her baby died. Daigo stabs Kiriko and pushes her down a stairwell to her death. At the film’s end, Kohei is seen walking hand in hand with his little son, Daigo.
This film is graced with an outstanding performance by actress Hikari Mitsushima, and the other actors are equally convincing, making the surreal, somewhat convoluted plot, believable. There is such an overriding feeling of sadness and dread throughout the film, achieved mainly by the incredible cinematography and set design. Our first look at the amusement park in Daigo’s dream features a brief shot of dazzling beauty. But the beauty is swiftly replaced with a darkness that permeates everything else in the film. Shimizu uses scenes from his own film THE SHOCK LABYRINTH as the movie-within-the-movie. The appearance of the giant rabbit of course brings to mind Frank, the mysterious rabbit from DONNIE DARKO. But the difference between the two cinematic hares is quickly established.
Violence is minimal, but the death of Kiriko is, in my mind, worthy of the term “extreme”. Most horror fans would probably disagree.
TORMENTED is worth seeing. It’s imagery, and Miss Mitsushima’s very intense performance, will haunt you. And you will never look at the Easter Bunny in quite the same way.