tomieA man carries a plastic bag. Through a tear in the bag, we see a human eye. The eye blinks.

The heroine, Tsukiko, hangs with her friends, takes photographs, and gets weird calls from her mom. To try and recover the memories of an accident she had years ago, she goes to a therapist.

In the apartment downstairs, the thing in the bag is fed and grows into a little girl with long black hair. She and her benefactor argue, then reconcile. We never see the girl’s face.

At her therapist’s office, Tsukiko waits because an emergency patient has to be taken care of first. The patient leaves, but returns, accusing the therapist of laughing at her behind her back.

The little girl decides she doesn’t need her benefactor anymore, and she tells him to die.

Tomie proceeds like this – vignettes that try to be coherent without stringing themselves together. It is the first film I’ve seen that is based on manga and which follows the form of manga. (Junji Ito’s Tomie was published in episodes, serially.) A horror manga constantly shocks an already sustained narrative. However, this can only lead to a disjointed narrative in film. The elements do not cohere.

Take, for instance, the police officer, Detective Harada. Played by Tomorowo Taguchi, a quirky Japanese actor, the detective is interesting. He has strange motivations and desires that aren’t related to his work as a policeman. But by the end of the film, that’s all he is – a cop and an expositional tool. The other characters have less pizzazz. Which might be in their favor – the story’s lack of consequence is less distracting. They don’t accrue enough interest in themselves to create expectations that are later upset.

The characters make Tomie a drag. Their fates are blasé, and we just don’t care. I’ve seen enough Japanese film to know: subtle derivation in character is to be more expected than traits that are more easily defined. Japanese horror (of the low-gore set) works because it’s universal – the death of a loved one, the child being replaced in its mother’s affections, etc. Tomie is a demon. She can’t die or grow, and her vendetta against Tsukiko is both personal and obscure. It can’t be applied as directly as the horrific spirits in Ringu or Dark Water. She is a succubus. She leads men to murder and suicide. But she has no influence. The killer and the victim lack motivation. The darkness hides Tomie, her face is never seen, and the seductions are never believable in the context of the film.

The basic idea – a sultry woman leads her lovers to kill her, but keeps coming back to life – has great potential for social critique and good old-fashioned chills. Tomie has neither. It tries to be a drama where the horrors insinuate themselves into real life, but the insinuations are too remote from the characters to have any impact. The film is inexpert, with a few good things: Taguchi’s acting, and a last-minute scare that is so surprising and effective, it’ll be ripped off any day now, for it belongs in a better movie.

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