English Title: Nightmare Detective
Original Title: Akumu Tantei
Country of Origin: Japan
Studio: Movie-Eye Entertainment, Kaijyu Theatre
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Producer(s): Shinya Tsukamoto, Shinichi Kawahara, Yumiko Takebe
Screenplay: Shinya Tsukamoto
Cinematographer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Art Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Editor: Shinya Tsukamoto
Runtime: 106 minutes
Starring/Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Hitomi , Masanobu Ando, Ren Osugi, Yoshio Harada, Shinya Tsukamoto
Having made a name for herself dealing with fraud and white collar crime, detective Keiko Kirishima (Hitomi) has transferred to the murder squad in the hope of tackling more serious crime. Her first case involves a young woman who committed suicide, soon followed by more suicides, all of them dying in violent, bloody fashion, apparently in their sleep. Suspecting foul play might be involved, Keiko begins’s doubts about these incidents increase when it emerges that all of the victims dialed zero on their mobile phones before dying. After receiving little support from her superior, Keiko tracks down an individual known as the ‘Nightmare Detective’ (Ryuhei Matsuda), who is said to be able to enter a person’s dreams. When a junior officer agrees to dial the number and go to sleep, the detective enters his dreams, where he meets ‘Zero’, a psychopath using similar powers to murder his victims while they sleep.
The synopsis reads like another update of Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but despite the similarities Nightmare Detective is not simply a copy. One of Japan’s most respected and influential directors, Shinya Tsukamoto has made his name with a series of original, challenging and intelligent features - including Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Gemini (1999) and A Snake of June (2002) - but Nightmare Detective is his first attempt at ‘straight’ horror since 1991’s entertaining work-for-commission Hiruko the Goblin (1990), although genre elements frequently appear in his work. It is also arguably the closest to a mainstream effort that Tsukamoto has come in his entire career, featuring a pop star in her debut appearance and playing to the same crowds who turned out for blandly commercial fodder like Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (2004). The comparison is an apt one, since Tsukamoto’s film succeeds in many of the areas in which Miike’s film fails. Whereas One Missed Call looks like the standard post-Ring techno-phobic horror movie (albeit a slickly made one) and bears few of the hallmarks of its maverick director, Nightmare Detective is both mainstream and most definitely a Shinya Tsukamoto film; as well as writing and directing, he also receives production, cinematography, editing and art direction credits, and also stars as Zero, the villain of the piece.
Equally importantly, Nightmare Detective is noticeably more effective in horror terms than many of its contemporaries. Tsukamoto stages his violent death scenes in deserted urban locations that seem to reflect the victims’ psychological state. His handheld cameras whirl around the victim as they are hacked apart by Zero’s frenzied assaults. At first it isn’t clear precisely what is attacking them, although Tsukamoto reveals a little more each time. Zero’s ‘dream monster’ becomes more and more deformed and mutilated with each killing, apparently bearing the cuts he inflicts on his earthly body in order to enter his victims’ dreams. These sequences are tense and scary, as Zero stalks his prey around familiar but eerily deserted locations, including an underground parking area and a maze of empty concrete roads.
Despite her relative inexperience, pop star Hitomi acquits herself well as the ambitious young detective trying to adjust to the murder squad. Her supercilious chief, well played by Ren Osugi, delights in mocking her squeamishness around corpses and her high-powered dress sense, referring to her as a ‘princess’. Full acting honours go to Ryuhei Matsuda, whose excellent performance as the fragile, tormented Kagenuma makes a welcome change from the withdrawn, blank-faced and frequently psychopathic characters he has played in films like Blue Spring (2002) and Love Ghost (2000). A welcome change from the multitude of ghost stories produced in the wake of Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series, Nightmare Detective is a smart, scary and original film, one that proves the director still has plenty to say and strongly suggests Japanese horror has some life left in yet. A sequel was released in 2008, once again starring Matsuda and with Tsukamoto still at the helm.