It's absolutely not exploitative trash. I wouldn't even call it a horror film. On the contrary, it's a slow, arty black-and-white piece with relatively little dialogue and no traditional zombie attack scenes. It's a Sabu film and I had high hopes for it, which were fulfilled.
I love Sabu. He's moved on from the black comedy of his early, explosively unpredictable crime dramas, but you can still tell it's him. He's taking dangerous things (zombies, guns, people) and combining them into a story that's hypnotic partly for its slow pace and partly because you're pretty sure bad things are waiting to happen with any or all of the above.
Japan has zombies. They're proper flesh-eating zombies that will infect you if they bite you, but the situation seems to be under control. It's quite easy to catch and cage them. Life goes on as normal, doctors are researching the zombie virus and you can even keep a zombie in your house if it's still in the early stages of infection. Low-level zombies are still comparatively human. They're largely brain-dead, they certainly can't talk and they just shuffle around all day, but they should be safe enough if you keep them fed. (Just make sure it's vegetables, not meat. The latter would be bad.)
You can keep a zombie as a pet, a housemaid or (if you don't tell anyone) a sex slave. The neighbours won't be happy, but a zombie or two is nothing to call the police about, if it's well-behaved.
I've now set the stage for our drama. Its players are a housewife (Makoto Togashi), her doctor husband (Toru Tezuka), their young son (Riku Ohnishi), two very unproductive workmen and of course our zombie (Ayaka Komatsu). She arrives in a cage. She can sew up her own injuries and do very simple household chores, but for the most part she behaves like a wind-up automaton that hardly ever reacts to anything. She shuffles along with her head down and, frankly, for much of the film she seems like an "it", not a "she".
Togashi tries to treat Komatsu nicely, e.g. saying "good morning" and giving her flowers. Tezuka is less warm-hearted, e.g. telling his wife to give Komatsu rotten food. Ohnishi is always taking photos of everyone with a polaroid camera, which is different from a digital camera in being bigger, noisier and more distracting. Oh, and the neighbourhood children think it's funny to throw stones at dead women walking along very slowly, while the area's teenage hooligans enjoy doing worse. (And their choice of implement escalates.)
The most obvious quality of this film is its hypnotic pace and cinematography. Everything is black-and-white, with the family house being all-white in a manner suggestive of either heaven or German Expressionism. What's more, Sabu will sometimes deliberately overexpose the film, making us lose detail in the glare and shadows. In the early scenes, it's as if the camera feels uncomfortable in this world. Of course I personally love black-and-white films and at the time I was happy to watch without analysing the reasons behind Sabu's cinematography choices, but afterwards I realised what he'd been doing. The camera represents Komatsu. It's not first-person point-of-view or anything like that, but it's noticeable that the camera tends to point downwards for much of the film, usually only showing us Komatsu's profile or the lower part of her face. That's why it's so striking in the second half when the camera lifts up to show us beautiful mountains that must have always been there, but we'd never seen them. Komatsu herself is walking a little straighter. We've seen them because she's seen them.
Then there's the brief colour section, which is saying powerful and tragic things about Komatsu's evolution. (Sabu's chosen palette and film stock in that section looks very 1970s, incidentally, which was of course a special decade for zombies, horror and indeed cinema in general.)
That's why the film's pace is so deliberate and why there's so little dialogue. We're in Komatsu's world. We've become her. She never speaks, obviously, but there are plenty of dialogue-free scenes for the human characters too. Ohnishi hardly says a word from beginning to end and expresses his characterisation through his polaroid camera and his relationship with his mother. Similarly Togashi and Tezuka seem to spend most of their time alone, inhabiting a nearly empty domestic space and reacting without words to what they see of the world and Komatsu.
It's also worth pointing out that the film has an eventful, gripping storyline, with at least one brilliantly Sabu-like moment and some genuinely cool exploration of the differences between the characters. It's a film about motherhood, although it's about many other things too. I love how it inverts everything. I love its finale. This film has a meaty story being told in quite a short running time, but despite this it feels slow, thanks to the minimalist dialogue, the often wordless scenes and the fact that most of the characters don't really have anything to do except exist and respond to each other.
It's dry, to the point of being understated in key scenes. I think that's a deliberate choice from Sabu, but it still creates some distance. There's a big scene halfway through that almost feels unconvincing in how little Sabu builds it up, although I think that's partly my reaction after having been indoctrinated to expect Hollywood Reactions at Hollywood Moments. Similarly the ending is slightly disconcerting in how casually it does big things, although (a) again that's very Sabu, and (b) it becomes more powerful when you realise that even the very colour and film stock is taking you inside Komatsu's point of view.
Ayaka Komatsu used to play Sailor V in the live-action Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, by the way. Wow. She's also a singer and bikini model, but this film is absolutely not making her look attractive.
This is a film to respect. It's probably a bit too slow and domestic for many horror fans, but as I said, I don't really think it's horror. (Mind you, the threat inherent in the premise is an integral part of its tensions and you'd barely have half a film left if you took out the genre elements. It could be done, though. You could read this as an analogy for abuse of immigrant domestic servants and there are scenes that play out a lot like straight films about that subject.)
I like the very dark maternal theme, to which as a corollary the men are worse than useless. So, so much worse. Even Komatsu's boyfriend is an idiot in the flashback scenes from when she was alive, although perhaps his car was out of petrol or something. Similarly, the modest amount of nudity is all discreet and we never see anyone's naughty bits. I like the storyline's inversions. What might make a zombie act human? What might make a human act like a zombie? (This includes both killing and other actions.) I also noticed Komatsu's vampire teeth.
It's really good. It's quiet, it's understated and it has a rhythm unlike normal movies, but it's really good. The world needs to watch more Sabu films.