Wait…fans? What am I saying?
Basically, for those of you who stuck it out through two arguably shitty movies here’s your payoff; the crown jewel of the Tomie tiara – “Rebirth.” Some of you might have already noticed who’s at the helm this time; Takashi Shimuzu of “Ju-on” fame. This go around he’s given a budget, a top notch cast and a solid script to work with, making for one of the best horror/thriller/dark comedies I’ve seen in a while. You’ll notice the tone right away (tone that Tomie: Replay was blasphemously devoid of); brooding, dreamlike, and very Poe-esque in that way. Top it all off with the smooth-paced (but never boring) direction and subtle humor that Shimuzu is famous for and you have one eerily suspenseful and sometimes grotesquely amusing viewing experience.
Hideo (an art student) sits comfortably in his studio panting the portrait of a certain unslayable bitch goddess. As Tomie nosily rifles through Hideo’s things she comes across pictures of a young woman (Hitomi, our heroine for the following 90 minutes) whom Hideo apparently has a thing for, as he rockets up from his chair and snatches the pictures out of her hand. An irritated Tomie retaliates by picking up a dry brush and destroys his painting (can’t hardly blame her, I hate it when people are grabby too). In a blind rage, Hideo stabs her with a palette knife, killing her (the whore deserved it; I wouldn’t take to kindly to my art being destroyed ether…wait, whose side am I on?) and spraying blood all over the canvas, his palette, and several pieces of irreplaceable antique furniture. Man, this would be a terrible time for his college friends to walk in huh? As Murphy would have it Shunichi and Takumi walk in on the crime scene. What do they do, you ask? Well, like any good frat boys who catch their best friend with a dead hooker, they help him bury the evidence in true Ben Affleck fashion. Later, when Hideo returns home, he takes a long withering glance at the portrait, and with a pang of inspiration, finishes the painting with the remaining oils and Tomie’s BREATHING blood (you heard me, and furthermore, remember that for later on). Hideo will later commit suicide in a grand fashion after Tomie resurfaces.
At this point in the epic poem that is Tomie, a few trends have been reversed. You’ll notice that this one has a different feel than the previous two installments, with the theme of art and decadence strung subtly throughout, both in the setting and manner of direction. The piece that Hideo paints (a ghastly beautiful maelstrom of madness and talent) becomes a character itself, and plays an integral role in the denouement, so keep your eyes on it. Tomie is killed an astounding FIVE times as opposed to the normal two times (you know, once to drive home the point and a second to close the film) and in some truly disgusting ways (The metal against bone sound that occurs when Shunichi bludgeons Tomie with the spade end of a shovel is pretty gross), but most of it is tastefully hidden so as not to distract from the artistry of the whole. Due to its layered thematic structure, “Rebirth” is not an all out assault on horror (like the original tried to be), but rather an ingenious blend of comedy and suspense thriller. Naturally, it’s a bit more slowly paced, but never reaches into the realm of boring like its predecessors. If something doesn’t come out of the woodwork to scare you, something genuinely amusing will instead.
Director Shimuzu considers fright and laughter two sides of the same coin, and while he tried to explain this in reference to “Ju-on” it’s readily apparent in “Rebirth”. As the film moves along and Shunichi becomes infatuated with Tomie, he brings her home to a less than receptive Tomoko Hosada – his mother (played excellently by actress Yutaka Nakajima). Like a good mom, she serves Tomie a hot cup of coffee to which she has added a generous amount of poisonous solution. After several attempts to pass off the beverage, Tomoko watches in horror as Tomie concedes to chugging the mug of coffee in front of her with one gulp, after which she exhales a hearty breath and says with a smile, “it’s not that bad”. Another good example of Shimuzu’s sense of humor is a scene where Tomoko walks in on her son cleaning madly and spraying air freshener. When she inquires as to what he’s doing, he replies “Tomie says the things you touch smell bad”. Strangely, most of the scenes I found amusing were shared between these two. Later on after Mrs. Hosada kills Tomie, and Shunichi walks in on his mother with the body, they share a sick, strange, and freakishly oedipal bonding experience over slicing her up. The effect is bizarre and mildly nausea-inducing. While this is different in tone from the manga, it breaths some new life into what could be stale and predictable proceedings.
As I said before, Shimuzu has a budget and uses it to great effect, showing the pure ugliness of the Tomie creature in a way never before seen. In “Replay” we got a glimpse of what could have been; Tomie as a head and spinal cord with what I assumed was growing nervous tissue (Which actually looked akin to horse’s ass hair) and on a scientific level made perfect sense to me, that a body would grow from nerve endings outward. Horror, however, is not science, and gives greater leeway as to what you can do. In “Rebirth”, after Shunichi and Mrs. Hosada are done dumping her dismembered body, Tomie comes lurching around the corner, as a severed head with tiny bird-like fetus hands. The use of prosthetics and set pieces here are wonderful, and for the first time begs this question: How could someone fall in love with such a disgusting monstrosity?
How? Miki Sakai, that’s how. She pulls off Tomie’s character in a way no other actress has, and does it well – rivaling even Miho Kanno; the queen bee herself. Sakai steps into the role with such sweetness and innocence that it’s hard NOT to fall in love with her. That’s not to say she ignores the cold aloofness that Tomie it famous for; she does that very well, but when she wants something she cranks on the cute, like a misty-eyed kitten. In this way she draws a much clearer line than any of the other actresses, making it easy to distinguish when Tomie is being herself and when she’s manipulating someone into doing something.
Her supporting cast is equally stellar. Kumiko Endo had mighty big shoes to fill with her representation of Hitomi, this particular films protagonist. Like many girls before her, she too becomes Tomie, the challenge being that the transformation aspect is given a great deal more screen time. Endo not only has to characterize Hitomi, but mimic Sakai’s version of Tomie; an interesting prospect to say the least. As Hitomi she’s demure, yet strong, a bit paranoid but otherwise well adjusted. As Tomie she is the perfect image of Sakai – aloof and detached, but still giddy and cute. Satoshi Tsumabuki as boyfriend Takumi is delightfully understated, giving Endo a solid anchor to play off when the transformation begins to take hold in the ladder half of the film. And Shunichi… hmm. At first I had a big problem with him. He came off as overwrought and melodramatic, but the more I watched the more I grew to appreciate the subtleties (or rather lack thereof) of his performance. He always seems to be swaying on the edge of believability; caricature (as we saw in “Replay”) and true madness, and I’m starting to think it takes a great deal more talent to keep your performance hovering in that grey area rather than just playing it one way or the other.
My only gripe (the one that keeps “Rebirth” from earning a 5 skull rating) is the horrendous ending. Now, Tomie films have a bad track record for endings (you might have noticed), but I both rue AND lament this woeful excuse for a finale. Hitomi and Takumi, fresh from a Tomie incineration, find themselves at the peak of a waterfall that runs behind Takumi’s parents’ property. Hitomi thinks Takumi would be much better off without her (smart girl) and decides to throw herself off the cliff before the transformation is complete and she loses her chance. In true lovers fashion Takumi grabs her and tells her that there must be another way. No sooner than the words are spoken than Hitomi shudders and, in the worst use of CG I have ever seen, Tomie’s head literally melts out of Hitomi’s face. With that Tomie throws all three of them into the swirling waters below.
Takashi, my Takashi; why did you do such a terrible thing? I realize the writer is responsible, but the director has ultimate authority and he HAD to have known it was bad. So bad, in fact, that it almost ruined the movie for me, but there are certain things I’ll be forgiving of in the end, even if they seem unforgivable at the time.
Adness America once again presents us with a widescreen anamorphic, 5.1 Dolby digital translation, the difference here is the alarming amount of extras. Tomie fans are used to getting screwed on extras, but this time we get a trio of featurettes with cast and crew interviews, film to storyboard comparison, and a look at the special effects, a nice treat considering you were probably expecting jack (as in shit).
“Tomie: Rebirth” is easily the top tier of what is, at best, an iffy franchise. The unfortunate thing is that the first two films are practically required viewing. You can get around this, of course, by simply reading the manga, which isn’t all that bad of an idea anyway. “Rebirth” has a fine tone, nothing less than great cast, high production values, and an accomplished director to tie it all in, and regardless of what type of films you favor (whether foreign or domestic, horror or not) that’s what great filmmaking is all about kids, and while Tomie has turned some people off, there’s a big likelihood you’ll enjoy yourself with this one.