Bullying is an ugly reality of growing up that most of us can relate to, either as culprits or victims, but we usually grow out of it when we finish elementary school, or for some others, high school. However, in some cases the harassment extends beyond the schoolyard and into a person’s adult life, resulting in serious behavioral and psychological problems. This is the backdrop for “The Neighbor No. 13,” the debut film for director Yasuo Inoue, based on a manga by Santa Inoue (no relation to the director).
“The Neighbor No. 13” opens with flashbacks to little Juzo Murasaki (Shun Oguri, “Azumi”) being mercilessly abused by school bully Akai (Hirofumi Arai, “Blood and Bones”). Akai’s brutality includes everything from drenching Juzo with a garden hose in the bathroom to pouring acid on his face in science class. Jump forward to the present, where we find Juzo with his own apartment and a job at a construction site. Things seem to be on the up-and-up, so you can imagine Juzo’s shock and dismay when he gets to work and finds out that Akai is his site foreman.
While it seems Akai doesn’t recognize Juzo, he’s still as big a jerk as ever, and begins harassing Juzo on the work site. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Juzo returns home to find that Akai and his family have moved into the apartment above his. Coincidence, you say? It could also be that Juzo has worse luck than the `86 Red Sox. As the film progresses, there are hints that this isn’t happenstance, but rather something much more sinister. The renewed abuse by Akai brings long buried emotional baggage back to the surface for Juzo, just as strange things start to happen to the people around him, all coincident with the appearance of a mysterious, disfigured brute known only as No. 13 (Shido Nakamura).
From a technical standpoint, “The Neighbor No. 13” is impressive. Inoue proves to possess a deft hand behind the camera and makes excellent use of light and shadow. He also seems to have the art of mood down pat. The film is quite dark and Inoue takes advantage of the sets to force a sense of claustrophobia and terror in every scene. Inoue also showcases some pretty neat ideas in his approach to presenting Juzo’s internal conflict, such as the creepy red room that Juzo uses as a sort of staging area where he faces off with No. 13, as well as a wacky animated sequence that pops up when Juzo tries to explain his emotional issues to a terrified coworker.
Unfortunately the film falls flat in other areas. The concept of “The Neighbor No. 13” has great potential, the relationship between Juzo and No. 13 being a cunning conceit, but Inoue never really takes advantage of the material. The first two-thirds of the film cleverly builds up the tension, both between Akai and Juzo, as well as within Juzo himself. Inoue also uses No. 13 effectively by gradually injecting him into the action, which makes No. 13 quite a nightmarish figure. But what should have been an explosive confrontation instead comes across as hollow and anti-climactic.
The film also has serious issues with pacing and acting. For what appears to be a gritty revenge thriller, “The Neighbor No. 13” moves slower than a snail in molasses. There’s deliberate and then there’s the pacing of “No. 13”. Even in the middle of the action sequences, Inoue has the actors spending a great deal of time just standing around doing nothing. This technique doesn’t introduce any dramatic tension, just exasperation.
The actors also do a poor job of inhabiting their characters. There’s hardly a single emotional response that rings true; it’s not that they overact, it’s that they don’t react at all, as if they’re all on valium. Oguri injects Juzo with as much life as a doormat, while Arai plays Akai as if he’s got some kind of nerve disorder. When faced with the most horrible revelation imaginable, Akai barely registers an eye twitch. But the biggest letdown is Nakamura, who plays No. 13 like he’s sleepwalking. This guy is supposed to be the literal embodiment of evil, but aside from the scars on his face, to look at him he couldn’t scare a cat off a fish tank.
“The Neighbor No. 13” has a plot with great potential, but squanders it with leaden pacing and listless performances. I’m not sure if Inoue was aping the aloof style often found in Korean films, but in this case it comes across as simply boring. The film has plenty of mood and atmosphere, and genre fans will get a kick out of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Takashi Miike, but it’s just not enough. Thrillers should get your adrenaline pumping (for example, Wes Craven’s “Red Eye”), not require NoDoz to help you through it. There are lots of good ideas here, but not enough follow through.
Yasuo Inoue (director) / Santa Inoue (manga Rinjin 13-go), Hajime Kado (screenplay)
CAST: Shido Nakamura …. 13-go/No. 13
Shun Oguri …. Juzo Murasaki
Hirofumi Arai …. Toru Akai
Yumi Yoshimura …. Nozomi Akai
Tomoya Ishii …. Hajime Seki
Minoru Matsumoto …. Shinigami/God of Death
Takashi Miike …. Kaneda