As the title might suggest, Creepy marks Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s return to the horror that made his name as a director, right down to the Hitchockian strings that score the opening credits. The film opens by introducing us to Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a criminal psychologist, who is in the process of interviewing “a perfect psychopath, a sample that comes along once in a lifetime,” who is being detained by police before imprisonment. When the criminal escapes, Koichi is unable to talk him out of stabbing a hostage in the next, leading to a career change for Koichi, who we next see working as an academic, rather than with the police force. As a lecturer, he specialises in serial killers, starting his courses by telling students that serial killers are a very much an American, twentieth-century phenomenon, and that three distinct types are currently known to the FBI. Where “organized” and “disorganized” serial killers are relatively easy to classify, and often eventually caught, he is more preoccupied with the “mixed” type of serial killer, who are “thought to be beyond analysis,” and whose “motives, patterns and continuity…are erratic.”
Clearly, Koichi understands the “mixed” serial killer profile to mean something more than a mere combination of organized and disorganized traits, and as the film goes on this “mixed” profile comes to stand for two different things. First, it stands for those killers who simply defy classification or capture, whose modus operandi is too unusual or oblique to fit into any discernible pattern. Second, it stands for those serial killers operating in Japan who don’t fit into the predominantly American taxonomy devised by the FBI. This latter focus tends to be more prominent, as Creepy considers how to best represent the figure of the Japanese serial killer, given their relative absence from Japanese cinema, and their cultural distance from FBI guidelines. Clearly, such a figure can’t simply be assumed, or contained by a traditional Hollywood narrative, forcing Kurosawa to articulate their existence in the space between two different narratives, each of which resembles Western cinema on their own terms, but whose combination creates an odd and unsettling combination of Hollywood suspense with a more Japanese awareness of mono no aware, the impermanence of things.
The first of these narratives focuses on Koichi’s work life. Early in the film, he is approached by another colleague in the university, whose speciality appears to be geolocation and geoprofiling. Through this colleague, Koichi becomes fixated with the disappearance of the Honda family six years earlier, and starts to informally help local police officer Nogami (Masahiro Higashide) with the cold case. It quickly becomes clear that Koichi has a particular skill in sensing a crime from a space, and sensing that a crime has occurred from a space, since he repeatedly tells both his colleague and Nagami that the Honda house “feels exactly like a crime scene.” The second narrative focuses on Koichi’s home life, especially his wife Yasuko’s (Yuko Takeuchi) efforts to connect with their neighbours after they move into a new suburb. While most of her efforts are met with rebuttal, she forms an unusual rapport with Mr. Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), the neighbor who lives with his daughter next door to their property. At first Nishino is rude, then he is welcoming, but in both cases his manner unsettles Yasuko and then Koichi, as it gradually becomes clear that he may be involved in the disappearance of the family that Koichi is investigating, on his own time, with Nagami.
While the film is certainly creepy, the “creepiness” of the title seems to correspond more to the sixth sense that Koichi has for reading spaces, both in terms of the house of the vanished family, and Nishino’s house next door to where he and his own wife live. From the outset, Kurosawa embeds that spatial awareness within the film itself, distending and dwelling upon its spaces so languorously that it clocks in at over two hours. That spatial awareness is particularly intense around Koichi’s house, where it is accompanied by a very detailed ambient soundscape, like a series of field recordings or Foley recordings, that often coalesces around a slight rumbling that is just at the cusp of non-diegetic noise. It never gravitates into sound effects, however, or a sustained soundtrack, as the film’s Hitchcockian strings only slice through the mise-en-scene at discrete intervals, rather than accompanying it in any real way. With a slight wind always blowing, and the camera always panning in and out of spaces after characters have left the frame, the disappearance of the family Koichi is investigating makes its absence felt in every shot, offsetting the very Japanese sense of poise with a more unsettling ambience that can’t quite be attributed to any single situation.
While there are creepy moments and objects in the film, this heightened spatial awareness tends to make the background of the film more unsettling than anything playing out in the narrative foreground. Not only does Kurosawa favour backdrops that are just a bit too crisp, clear and geometrically framed, but the background is always a little too foregrounded, whether in the form of the figures who loom in the background whenever Koichi and Nishino walk to their houses from the train station, or the students sitting outside when Koichi and Nogama conduct their interviews of Saki Honda (Haruna Kawaguchi), the only member of the vanished family who managed to survive. In part, that is because these spaces, like so many Japanese urban spaces, are porous and hermetic at the same time, compressing public and private space so that the threshold between them becomes even harder to negotiate. While Koichi, Yasuko and Nishino may live in the suburbs, their home still takes on the spatial logic of the inner city, embedded in a labyrinthine and reticulated landscape that alternates between tightly contained cul-de-sacs and unexpectedly panoramic vistas. It’s the same spatial logic of the Hollywood Hills, and of so much noir, forcing Kurosawa into an oscillation between long shots and close-ups, or else a series of slow pans in and out that can’t quite seem to decide whether they are too far or too close.
Yet the point of Creepy isn’t simply to draw out similarities between Japanese and American noir, or to show how the Japanese city creates odd thresholds between foreground and background. Instead, these features form the basis for the film’s sharpest distinction from American cinema and culture – the expectations and etiquette around neighbours. In American culture, and Hollywood cinema, neighbours are expected to be sociable, supportive and emotionally invested, to a certain extent, in the welfare of their neighbours. This makes it quite easy to discern people who don’t belong in a suburban milieu, since their lack of neighborliness typically gives them away as the first sign of their antisocial and possibly dangerous intentions. By contrast, the density of Japanese cities and the differences in Japanese culture make for a very different set of expectations around neighbours. In Japanese cities, neighbours are inherently more unsettling than in America, just because the thresholds between private and public space are so much more compressed and intensified. With many urban-dwellers’ personal spaces within touching distance of their neighbours, the prospect of neighborliness is literally uncanny, or unhomely, always threatening to invert the experience of domestic privacy at its most homely. For that reason, neither effusive friendliness nor total privacy is a possibility for Japanese neighborliness, whose etiquette subsists instead on a kind of performative privacy, a mutual commitment to assuming that complete privacy exists, even if it ultimately cannot.
This performance of privacy is the essence of Japanese etiquette with regards to neighbours, which also means that silence is a much more valued aspect of neighborliness than in most American cities, where a great deal of people live much further out of earshot than occurs in Japanese metropolises. In the context of horror cinema, however, this makes the threshold between private and public space, so integral to the figure of the American serial killer, ramify in quite a different way. Whereas the American ideal of neighborliness was presumably set up to differentiate between good and bad incursions into private space, the fluid zone of Japanese neighborliness turns a certain performative opacity into a virtue – exactly the performance that is regarded as so suspicion in American horror cinema. Throughout Creepy, both plot strands revolve around this fluid space between neighbours, with Koichi actually introducing the serial killer, in his lectures, as a figure who is best defined as a neighbour, since “most dangerous criminals seem super nice to their neighbours.” Over the course of the film, however, this formulation will come to seem more and more American, less and less applicable to the mindset of the Japanse serial killer, which, Kurosawa notes, is unthinkable outside of a more Japanese ethos of neighborliness.
When Koichi first senses that the Honda household is a crime scene, and the disappearance of the Hondas was a crime, it is mainly because their house seems a little too close to the house next door, and so suggests an awry neighborly relation, although it takes him a while to figure out that this is where his intuition came from. Similarly, the fact that this prototypical serial killing space is boxed in by highways and train overpasses makes its thresholds between public and private life even more compressed, meaning that Koichi has to continually approach it from unusual and varied angles to get some sense of what it is trying to say to him. Not surprisingly, the most important angle turns out to be the house next door, which he breaks into after Saki, the only survivor, recovers a repressed memory of their neighbour, Mikita, staring up at her and her family from the backyard. When Koichi searches the house, however, he not only finds the bodies of the Honda family, but of the Mikita family too, meaning that it can’t have been Mikita whose gaze Saki remembers so vividly. Instead, this gaze – the point from which she starts to recreate events – is dissociated from the gaze of any one specific neighbour to become the collective address of neighborliness itself, staring at her only to insist upon its own eerie and irreducible privacy.
Similarly, Koichi makes his first connection between the disappearance of the Honda family, and his neighbour Nishino, when he realises the two houses in both cases have a similar spatial situation and configuration to one another. In both cases, privacy and publicity are just a little too compressed, especially once Nishino starts to grow odder, and insinuate himself further into Koichi and Yasuko’s lives. What’s so unusual about this process, to a Western audience, is that neither Koichi nor Yasuko share Nishino’s odd traits with each other, which typically only occur when they encounter him alone, and not when he and his daughter come over for dinner or spend time talking to them outside. It is as if there is an unwritten rule against intruding too far into their neighbor’s life, even in conversation. Paradoxically, the more that Nishino pushes the bounds of neighborlinesss the more that Yasuko seems unable to report his behavior to Koichi, even when he finally co-opts her into his modus operandi, which involves infiltrating families in just this way, and choosing one family member to kill all the rest at his command. As it turns out, his daughter is not his daughter, but simply the remainder of the last family he absorbed, a young girl who was presumably as loathe as Yasuko to acknowledge his failure as a neighbour in any direct way.
In a creepy twist, then, the presence of Nishino breaks down the rapport between Koichi and Yasuko simply because they are unable to discuss or process his breaches of neighborliness. While it might seem as if conversing about Nishino’s weirdness might be the best way to restore their privacy and use it against him, his weirdness consists precisely in robbing them of that sense of privacy in the first place. Whereas American horror films focus on the ways in which a lack of neighborliness can produce killers, here it is the taboo against speculating about neighbours that allows the neighbour to become a serial killer and go undetected. Insinuating his neighbours into his own life until they can’t extract themselves without breaching neighborly etiquette themselves, and recognizing the extent to which they have been breached in turn, Nishino’s modus operandi dissociates him from any direct sense of action and agency. Instead, he manipulates neighborly agency to force his victims to commit his crimes for him, and so thrives in the space between the two houses, at the neighborly threshold where his refusal to perform as a neighbour in quite the right way gives him absolute power. Often, he vanishes into this space at key moments, destabilizing the pacing of the film, and leaving a heightened awareness of this neighborly threshold, rather than any clear or consistent sense of a character with a mind of his own.
Put more bluntly, Nishino takes the neighborly ambience of the film, the ambience dictated by Japanese etiquette, to its psychopathic conclusion, much as the Hollywood slasher takes the etiquette of American suburbia to its psychopathic conclusion. While Nishino’s taste for vacuum-packing bodies is macabre, it’s as much about neighborly discretion as criminal evasion. It’s also presented, somewhat comically, by Kurosawa, as a form of domestic economy, a response to spatial thrift, and a way of making sure that everything is compartmentalized and packed away in its proper place. Similarly, all the white noise of the film culminates with the bunker where Nishino keeps his victims, which, more than any other space, fulfils the ultimate neighborly goal in Japan – to create a kind of negative noise, to ensure that your presence makes the block, apartment or neighbourhood even quieter than when you arrived. Only a generator can be heard muffled and buried somewhere in the background, so distant and subliminal that it feels like the motor engine of the film’s own ambience, subsisting, like the good neighbour, just below the threshold of audibility.
Within that surreal space, the last part of the film plays out in a sustained trance, as Nishino convinces both Yasuko and his daughter to kill the superintendent of police and then capture Koichi as well. This is partly attributed to a drug that Nishino injects into his victims, which slackens their will and gives him an almost supernatural command over their actions. In truth, though, the film doesn’t really need this touch, since Nishino’s awry neighborliness is far more eerie and effective in getting Kurosawa’s message across. In an awry final scene, Nishino takes his new family to an abandoned tower near the airport, and uses it to survey the city with binoculars, finally lighting upon a pair of houses that offer just the right configuration for him to put his neighborly modus operandi into play once again. Before he can do so, Koichi kills him, but by this stage all distinction between publicity and privacy has vanished, just as the very notion of private life has become a kind of intoxicating, deadening and stupefying drug that none of the characters can possibly believe in anymore. While Yasuko initially seems relieved to be free, then, the film ends with her breaking into an inchoate scream, as the camera pans down to Nishino’s prostrate body, which almost seems to smile in death, even more insinuated in their lives than ever. Like a Japanese take on True Detective, this cold case haunts the present even more when it is discovered, in one of the most eerie and unsettling – one of the creepiest – horror films that I’ve seen in some time.