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A Selection from My Collection: Nightmare Detective (Akumu Tantei)

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By Chris Kavan - 06/25/11 at 09:51 AM CT

In a way I’m glad a film like this showed up early in this little experiment because it allows me to confess something: Back in the early 00s, I totally immersed myself in the J-horror craze. I shouldn’t even limit it to J-horror – more Asian horror as whole, as I have quite a few Korean films too. Do I regret buying some of the movies? Yes. For every good film, I probably have a couple I could have done without. And don’t even get me started on the American remakes.

Yet if it weren’t for that fad, I wouldn’t have discovered so many great horror films: A Tale of Two Sisters, Ju-On, Tell Me Something – and many others. Nightmare Detective is actually one of the last, true J-horror films I purchased and while it’s not quite the cream of the crop, its story makes it one of the better selections for this genre.


Nightmare Detective is essentially a serial killing mystery with a psychic twist. A series of bizarre suicides leads back to a mysterious man known only as “0” who seems to be able to use subliminal suggestion to enter their dreams and cause them to kill themselves. The detective assigned to the case gets help from a man known for being able to enter nightmares to track down and stop the killer. When her partner falls victim, she decides to be the next target and stop the killings once and for all.

One thing you have to know is that the director (also the actor who plays “0”) is Shinya Tsukamoto. If you’re going “WTF, who the hell is this guy?” I highly suggest checking out his filmography. He’s responsible for some of the more twisted, and in my opinion more interesting, films in this genre. Examples include Tetsuo, the Iron Man (and their sequels), A Snake of June and Bullet Ballet. In fact, I picked up Nightmare Detective based on his name alone and while it felt more mainstream (well, for him anyway) than his other films, it kept that surreal touch throughout.

Whereas the Tetsuo films were about merging man and machine, Nightmare Detective is about merging dreams with reality. There are many instances where you find yourself questioning if you’re watching a person’s dream or if they’re back in the real world. The biggest giveaway is “0” himself, who appears in the nightmare as a blood-covered, knife-wielding mutant who makes the most God-awful wet, suction sound as he shuffles madly along. That one sound alone makes the film worth watching – it’s hard to get out of your head.

Suicide also seems to be an element that shows up in a few of the films of Tsukamoto. I know A Snake of June features a suicide counselor. In Nightmare Detective the victims are people who have expressed a desire to commit suicide. Serious or not, “0” is not to be taken lightly. Even when the victim doesn’t realize they want to commit suicide, such as our detectives, somehow “0” is able to dig deep down and find that kernel of doubt and hopelessness and exploit it. The film can get rather dark when you dwell on it.

While I have quite high esteem for the story, which comes across as rather good serial killer material, the main fault I have with Nightmare Detective is the cast. While Tsukamoto is great as “0” and Masanobu Ando is also good as the frizzy-haired partner (the one who, unfortunately, bites it), it’s the two main roles that seem miscast. First is our lead detective, played by Hitomi. Yes, a one-word name and yes, she was a pop idol before landing the role. It shows, she does say as one point she’s socially inept – but her blank stare throughout the film doesn’t help her character. Fear, intense concentration, anger – a wide range of emotions, but just that one look for pretty much the whole film. She isn’t terrible for a pop idol, but I have to seriously question the choice of actress here.

Then you have the nightmare detective himself, Ryûhei Matsuda who has a much better resume, but, I’m sorry, comes off as a bit of a whiny wimp. A suicidal person himself, he never calls “0” but he constantly reminds viewers he really hates going into people’s nightmares. I guess he has come across some pretty traumatic things – but man, did I ever just want to slap the living piss out of him for being on the pathetic side. I have to give him props for going on after being cut up, but that opening scene just bugged the hell out of me.

In the end, there are plenty of creepy visuals – who knew a series of white hallways and a room full of bikes could be so unnerving? A bit of blood, a few scares and that surreal quality permeating the entire film that I would have no problem recommending it to a horror fan. If you ignored the whole J-horror craze, I daresay this might even be a good place to start – certainly it’s one of the more approachable films that has a pretty straightforward story compared to some of the more ambiguous films I have seen. Granted, sometimes using your brain makes a film more enjoyable too.

So there you have it – not only do I like anime, but J-horror as well. So sue me. Don’t worry, you haven’t seen the last of these films and not nearly the most twisted out of the bunch. Just wait until I pick out a Takashi Miike film.


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