Based upon the novel by Otsuichi, GOTH is about two morbid high school students who share a fascination with murder. Kamiyama (Hongo Kanata) is an outwardly friendly and popular boy who hides his potentially sociopathic nature with a carefree, happy attitude. Loner Morino (Takanashi Rin), on the other hand, does little to hide her strange nature; she never smiles, doesn’t interact with her classmates, and wears a long-sleeved, black school uniform even during the middle of summer. While these two seem to share little in common and do not interact with each other in front of their peers, their shared interest in death and murder has turned them into an unusual duo. Initially happy to exchange books on morbid subjects, a series of recent murders spark their interest and they begin investigating the killer. This serial killer has a fondness for cheerful young women and, after severing their left hand as a trophy, displays their dead bodies in public locations to be discovered. After Morino discovers the killer’s notebook in a local café, the two use it to see the corpses for themselves before discovery and attempt to discern his identity. Obviously, the closer they get to discovering him, the more danger they are in.
While the premise can easily sound like a standard horror flick, GOTH is much more than it appears to be. The film is rarely gruesome and is not a horror film in the sense that it attempts to scare or sicken the audience. Like the serial killer and the protagonists, GOTH is interested in death and the act of murder as an aesthetic philosophy and the result is an extremely intriguing film. Directed by Takahashi Gen (working with cinematographer Ishikura Ryuji) has created a beautiful, thoughtful movie that unfolds in the typical Japanese ‘slice-of-life’ fashion; the slow moving plot is uninterested in rushed revelations and most of the film takes place in empty classrooms, an eccentric café, and quiet bedrooms. Working with cinematographer Ishikura Ryuji, Takahashi also gives GOTH a surreal look with an emphasis on light and shade. The overexposed white gives the characters a ghostly appearance, particularly the strikingly beautiful Takanashi Rin. Like the character’s fascination, the atmosphere of the film is filled with death. While people tend to repress thoughts of mortality and murder, the serial killer’s fascination with displaying dead bodies in public locations demonstrates just so quickly and subtly death can creep into our lives. In one of the first scenes, a breezy summer day in a park is slowly tainted when two old women discover that the lovely woman seated in the center of the camera frame has been dead all along; her corpse unnoticed by the people seated so close to her. A beautiful walk through the lushly green foliage of a Japanese countryside is interrupted by the body of a dead woman seated on a red armchair. Despite her unnatural placement, the girl appears to have simply fallen asleep while reading. The soundtrack reinforces this sinister air with an impressively ambient quality that highlights the innocence of the protagonists and the threat looming around them; the innocence of the murder victims and the fate they encountered.
Personally, I found the threat of the serial killer to be one of the less intriguing aspects of the film. A much more pressing concern is the relationship between Kamiyama and Morino. While Morino’s obsession with death can be connected back to the accidental hanging of her sister, Kamiyama appears much more sinister. Both characters are uninterested in right, wrong, and morality, but Kamiyama displays several characteristics of a sociopath – a lack of empathy towards others, a lack of emotion, the ability to easily deceive people, etc. As it becomes clear that Morino fantasizes about being murdered, Kamiyama clearly fantasizes about murdering people. This creates a tense ambiguity between the two characters and forces the audience to wonder if Kamiyama would kill Morino if the opportunity ever presented itself.
The film can drag on a bit and the conclusion of GOTH emphasizes a cathartic revelation about the protagonists rather than a narrative resolution about the serial killer. Obviously the plot device that allows Morino to just coincidentally discover the serial killer’s notebook feels forced and several characters seem superfluous. However, the performances delivered by Hongo Kanata and Takanashi Rin are truly top notch. GOTH isn’t a film for the standard consumer of J-horror, but it is a thoughtful and intriguing meditation on death and mortality. In short, GOTH is a film that is much more than it appears to be and one of the more impressive Japanese films I’ve seen this year. You can currently stream this film via JapanFlix.com.