Loft (2005) is Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s genre bending, experimental, love story that subtly pokes J-horror clichés by diffusing them while retaining the creepy, atmospheric elements that are Kurasawa’s trademarks. This little known film has been out of print for some time now, but is important as his farewell to J-horror, the genre that made Kurasawa famous among cult cinema fans. During a talk at Yale University following Loft’s screening, he commented, “I had to do something that was a horror film, but at the same time I wanted to destroy horror films.”
In Loft, Kurasawa revisits his familiar theme of isolation with Miki Nakatani (Ring 2, Chaos) in the lead as novelist Reiko Hatuna. Reiko rents a country house suggested by her deadline-obsessed editor, Koichi Kijima (Hidetoshi Nishijima) in an attempt to break her writer’s block. With this clichéd narrative premise as his framework, Kurasawa introduces, and then slyly twists horror film paradigms from every conceivable sub-genre.
Early in the film we watch Reiko move in and out of the frame. The stationary camera maintains watch, surveillance-style over the character, adding a voyeuristic aspect to the viewer experience. Only her frequent coughing breaks the silence. At first we attribute the cough to her incessant smoking until she begins to cough up some kind of thick, brown goo. As unsettling as it is intriguing, this peculiar condition of Reiko’s inexplicably disappears once her mind becomes preoccupied with the mysteries of her new surroundings.
In a scene straight out of Hitchcock, Reiko spies the man next-door loading what looks like a sheet-wrapped body into the back of a truck. The man turns out to be archeologist Makoto Yoshioka (Etsushi Toyokawa) and the corpse, a 1000 year-old mummy recently pulled out of a nearby swamp. To hide the mummy from some students partaking in fieldwork, he asks Reiko to keep it temporarily at her house. That night, she becomes aware that the house is haunted by a female ghost but remains unsure of the spirit’s identity. Is the mummy trying to communicate or is this something else? The mummy story begins to fade in importance when Reiko finds the manuscript of a story left by the previous occupant, a female writer who has disappeared. Reiko and Yoshioka grow closer as they try to solve the mystery. At this point, Reiko gives up the protagonist seat to Yoshioka, taking a supporting role during the ensuing murder investigation.
From mummy to ghost story on to murder mystery and romantic melodrama, archetypical plots are established and dropped with no resolution in a disjointed storytelling style that has viewers constantly guessing what type of movie they are watching. In a comment about the horror film industry and its oversaturation of the market with copycat films, Kurasawa allows every horror trope to fizzle, underscoring their inability to be scary. It is a bold idea, but doesn’t go far enough to prevent confusion. In an interview with Suzanne Lloyd for DVD Talk, Kurasawa admits his difficulty in finding support for Loft. “…What I ended up making is kind of a strange love story with many horror elements. That’s the film I wanted to make, but that’s a bit of a hard sell in the Japanese market. Apparently, I should have made a less unambiguous love story or a more ambiguous horror. We’re struggling a bit to find the appropriate release.”
That said, even a flawed Kurasawa film beats most mainstream movies hands down. As a director who makes films about filmmaking, Kurasawa creates unease through the use of inventive camera placement, while using atmospheric environments and multi-layered symbolism to great effect. When Reiko explores the house during a power outage, even the most jaded viewer will sit forward in spine-chilling tension.