Noboru MitaniShugo FujiiSei HiraizumiHirohito Honda
Living Hell
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Shugo Fujii
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Keywords: horror
Actor: Hirohito Honda, Yoshiko Shiraishi, Rumi, Kazuo Yashiro, Naoko Mori (not the Torchwood one), Shugo Fujii, Hitoshi Suwabe, Umitarou Nozaki, Noboru Mitani, Sei Hiraizumi
Format: 104 minutes
Website category: J-horror
Review date: 19 November 2010
It's often called the Japanese Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That's quite a good description. I can see it. It doesn't contain actual chainsaws, but they're both rough-edged, disgusting horror movies and are similar in certain big spoilery ways. Both even have a guy in a wheelchair.
The difference between them though is that this film is really camp. Admittedly it's doing this in a gruesome video nasty way, but camp it most certainly is. You can tell when something bad's going to happen because the cameraman will get drunk, the actors will start doing something that's nearly self-parody and the music will start trying to imitate Italian giallo films, probably specifically Goblin. It's ludicrous, to be honest. It's going so far over the top that you'd be laughing out loud if it weren't about to become super-twisted and gross. However that said, I kind of liked it. If nothing else, it's an unparalleled match of form and content, since the storyline is just as feverish and deranged as the cinematography. It's certainly giving the film personality, anyway.
This film was shot in nine days and looks it. Its writer/director/star had never before made a feature-length movie, although in fairness since this he's made two more: White Panic (2005) and Delusion (2006).
The story begins with a couple of random strangers waking up in the middle of the night. There are people in their house. Hint: it's not Santa Claus. Two murders later, we jump to an ordinary family household who've recently decided to let a couple of relatives come to stay. There's dad (Hitoshi Suwabe), big brother (Kazuo Yashiro), wheelchair-bound younger brother (Hirohito Honda) and the much put-upon sister (Rumi) who's going to have to do all the actual work. Anyway, their relatives are the people we've just seen doing disgusting things with a drinking glass, a hammer and two innocent strangers. One of them is a senile old granny (Yoshiko Shiraishi) and the other is a hatchet-faced young lady (Naoko Mori - no, not the one from Torchwood). These two don't speak except to each other. If absolutely necessary, they'll write on a piece of cardboard and hold it out for their victims to read.
No one seems to think these two freaks are in any way odd, except Honda. Then everyone who can goes out to work and Honda finds out why he's in a film called Living Hell.
The odd thing about this film is that I didn't hate the psychos. No, the person I most wanted to see die a gruesome, drawn-out death was the well-intentioned, helpful sister. You see, there's a motif in this film of people not helping you. Even before Shiraishi and Mori turned up, this family was unpleasant. They bicker, they don't believe each other and you couldn't drag an apology out of them with a towtruck. They don't have big fights, but instead just subsist in an unpleasant low-level atmosphere of stress and selfishness. It's nothing too outrageous. For many families this would be a step up. Nevertheless I think I truly came to hate Rumi when she was bullying Honda to tell her what was wrong (answer: he's been tortured), yet she's never believed or even really listened to a word he says and is also getting cute with Shiraishi. In that scene Honda doesn't even bother trying to tell her anything and you're on his side.
Note also the way in which SPOILER doesn't even apologise to Honda upon finally learning the truth, then even under those circumstances doesn't listen to him and instead goes back for a mobile phone. Guess what happens. As far as I'm concerned, the only pity is that death came too quickly.
Shiraishi and Mori are pretty freaky, though. They're almost wordless and they move like the cursed video girl in Ringu. They'll often be standing motionless, then in the next shot they'll have moved closer to you. What movements we do see will tend to be important ones. Furthermore Shiraishi seems to be wearing zombie make-up, while Mori almost looks mummified.
There's a subplot, by the way. This involves Shugo Fujii himself as a journalist who's been tracking down Shiraishi and Mori for a year. This too is tied into the "your saviours won't help you" theme, as for instance when Fujii's finally found the house where Honda's right now being tortured, goes up to investigate... and then can't see anything and just goes away again. He also has a friend. This friend doesn't even bother accompanying him, but just waits in the car.
Anyway, the plot goes even more nuts than you're already expecting. By the end, we've had a Hitchcock's Psycho-style psychiatrist's evaluation of how our heroes got so screwed up and we're wondering how much of we saw was even objectively reliable. There's that Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence I mentioned. There will also have been, among others, a surprising variety of invertebrates, a dead pet, household tools, a sledgehammer and a hairdryer. I was a bit puzzled by the latter. There's a backstory involving Siamese twins and a truly loopy coda. It's all so hyper that eventually it had me reflecting that the script had managed to trump the director's shooting and editing and make them seem almost appropriate, but then we hit the banquet scene and some mega-acting to get me boggling afresh.
Hardly any of the cast went on to have careers in the business, by the way. Most of them have done occasional bits and pieces, but the only two with a CV you'd notice are veterans Noboru Mitani and Sei Hiraizumi in minor roles as the Professor and the Inspector. However this isn't a movie you watch for its acting.
Despite being a deranged micro-budget Japanese horror cheapie, this film made a splash. It has something of an international following among horror afficionados and it even got a Region 1 DVD release. There's certainly nothing else quite like it, even from the other Japanese releases of that year. It's mad, but it's sincere in its madness. It's not just having a laugh and throwing in yakuza, zombies, gunfights and/or sexual depravity whenever it can't think of anything else to do, unlike Junk, Wild Zero, Crazy Lips, etc. It doesn't have the odd purity of Red Room 2, but underneath the ridiculous excess it's got a similar kind of honesty. Looking at 2000's horror cinema, to my surprise I'm finding myself oddly most impressed by Japan's gross-out video nasties. They're better films. Cheap, ridiculous and hard to watch, yes, but you can't accuse them of not having the courage of their convictions.