"I had to do something that was a horror films, but at the same time I wanted to destroy horror films."
-Kiyoshi Kurosawa, taken from a talk given after a screening of Loft at Yale University
Loft is a very peculiar movie. It maintains Kurosawa's trademark eye for atmosphere and horror, yet, as occasionally happens, it feels like a very disjointed film. I don't necessarily find this to be a bad thing, but when sitting down to write about a disjointed film, I find it more difficult to organize my thoughts into something coherent. And coherency, well, that's what one hopes to accomplish with a review. Coherency is also something the movie itself wants to accomplish, and surprisingly, it does.
At least, in a very indirect way. The movie is an odd hodgepodge of terror, atmosphere, melodrama, and subtle comedy. In some ways, the movie is a response to the current state of the Japanese horror film--at least, the Japanese horror film as viewed by the Westerner. A couple of weeks before watching Loft, I had the pleasure of viewing Sion Sono's Exte: Hair Extensions, which maintains a totally different tone from Kurosawa's film, but also subtly ridicules the array of omnipresent cliches that abound in contemporary J-Horror. While I think Sono's film succeeds more in calling attention to the sorry state of J-Horror while still delivering an intelligent and entertaining film, Kurosawa's film works better divorced from the satire. It's there, and it's done fairly well, but if the satire is the only thing the viewer fixates on in the film, he or she is missing out on a lot.
Before I segue away from the satire; it is worth discussing. Most of Kurosawa's satire in the film isn't so much straight up satire in the vein of Month Python or popular television, rather, it's more a subversion of the archetypes that permeate J-Horror, revealing why exactly it is that these cliches are lacking. The long haired ghost, which exists as the most present archetype known to Western audiences, is present in the film. But the "ghost" doesn't move jerkily, is rather just another character on screen, and Kurosawa allows the ghost to remain present uncomfortably long once she has been revealed. By allowing the (expected) source of terror to remain on screen, the terror is diffused and any emotional response the character/signifier would elicit is crushed.
As Jerry White points out in the chapter on Loft in The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa: Master of Fear, Kurosawa also subverts archetypes by allowing his female protagonist (his first since 1992's Guard from the Underground) to, through a lack of anchored identity, take on all the roles generally offered to females in J-Horror: the victim, the monster, and the hero. These roles are ostensibly established by three characters (Reiko: the hero, the mummy: the monster, and the ghost: the victim), but all there characters have overlapping personalities-they are essentially three parts of the same whole. By collapsing all of these archetypes into a single character (who, let's face it, in the scope of the movie is an empty shell, a simple signifier for Kurosawa's ideas) he reveals the lack in depending upon the archetypes.
But aside from the subversion of cliches, the film is also a narrative. The story finds Reiko struggling to churn out a pop-romance novel to satisfy her publisher. She moves into a house in the middle of the country to get some peace and quiet. She discovers her neighbor is a scientist working on a mummy. Her publisher goes nuts and tries to kill her. She falls in love. A dead girl pops up. All this implies, of course, is that there is a narrative in the film, the narrative is far from straight-forward.
As usual in a Kurosawa film, the progression relies on the creation and sustenance of atmosphere. Atmosphere, which Kurosawa is always wildly successful at building out of location, is what propels the film forward. There is no central conflict (well, we think there is at first, but that central conflict is utterly abandoned half-way through) to carry the narrative, so we have to give ourselves over to ideas and aesthetics. Also as usual in a Kurosawa movie, it is the atmosphere that makes the movie worth while: sound and image work together so well in the film that it's impossible to not be totally absorbed into the locations on display. Several abject "jump shock" scenes make perfect use of the natural light and old house that Reiko is living in, and the heavy atmosphere manages to approach a climax without plummeting immediately afterwords. The intense atmosphere is sustained throughout the entire first hour and a half of the film.
And that's when things change.
Out of nowhere, Reiko and Yoshioka begin speaking to each other as if they're living in a Douglas Sirk melodrama: music swells, and the two run to each others arms professing their love for one another. An empty grave lies in the background. It's jarring: in the same way "jump shocks" work within the realm of generic J-Horror, this change is constructed to be surprising. From this point on, Reiko is no longer the films center; she's thrown to the background and Kurosawa's camera starts to linger on Yoshioka instead. An attack mars their brief foray into the land of emotions, and soon everyone is back to their apathetic and empty selves.
But, it is the fact that these characters are completely empty and apathetic that allows this melodramatic interlude to occur without distorting the film into something incoherent: when you have nothing, the first chance to attach yourself, fill yourself, achieves a sense of epic proportions. The overly dramatic scene really fits perfectly with the rest of the subtle, understated, and almost silent film. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. Kurosawa's realization of that is wonderful, and the cinematic approach to his revelation is even more impressive.
If there's anything that needs to be said about the film it's this: in an interview Kurosawa mentioned the film being an "experiment in terror." And for that, I applaud. Loft doesn't get tied up trying to maintain itself in an overdone, unnecessary plot. One of the primary perks of making films is the ability to both establish emotions and inspire emotions in fairly straightforward way (when done well)--and that is what Kurosawa does here. It's an experiment in atmosphere, an experiment in applying theory to practice, and overall it's a stunning aestheticized experiment. A fulfilling one, at that.