Tomie (1999) Movie Review

“Tomie” is based on a Japanese manga by popular artist Ito Junji, who was also responsible for the material that inspired the films “Kakashi” and “Uzumaki”. For those unfamiliar with Junji’s work, the film may at first glance appear to be no more than an early entry in the neverending cycle of Asian ghost stories centering on a girl with long dark hair. However, “Tomie”, both as a film and a character, is a far more complicated creature, being a demonic embodiment of the artist’s self-confessed fear of women, an unkillable monster who enslaves men and drives them to insanity and murder.

This is actually the first film in a series (the current count is 4), and being the original is the one on which Junji had the most influence, both in terms of its feel and in picking the lead actress to play the titular girl. Although this inevitably means that the film will probably mean more to fans of the manga, it still has plenty to offer the casual viewer. “Tomie” is definitely a superior slice of Japanese horror, and one that benefits from spending a large amount of its running time exploring both its human and inhuman characters, creating a fascinating mythos that gives the film a surreal, almost dreamlike atmosphere.

The plot begins by introducing us to Izumiasawa Tsukiko (Nakamura Mani, star of “Tokyo Trash Baby”), a student who is being put through hypnotherapy in an attempt to clear up a case of amnesia. It seems that the poor girl can’t remember anything as a result of some kind of dreadful accident, save a few bloody visions of a headless corpse. In reality, it turns out that Tsukiko is blocking out the murder of her best friend Tomie (Miho Kanno, who was also in Kitano’s “Dolls”) at the hands of her old boyfriend, who has since disappeared.

As Tsukiko gradually comes to realize the truth, a detective named Harada (Tomorowo Taguchi, a regular in the films of Takashi Miike) is investigating the case, and discovers that Tomie appears to have been murdered several times before. Meanwhile, Tomie herself reappears, insinuating herself into Tsukiko’s life, seemingly intent on destroying everything the other woman has, including claiming Tsukiko’s new boyfriend for her own dreadful purposes.

Although the above synopsis may seem a little revealing, don’t worry. It is made clear from the very start that Tomie is some kind of supernatural creature, given that our introduction to her is as a living, growing severed head that a strange young man keeps in a bag and feeds cockroaches. Although this does dispel some of the mystery, it quite nicely places the film in the realm of the weird, and indicates immediately to the viewer that strange things are more than likely to happen.

In any case, the film is concerned not so much with what Tomie is, as with what she does, and more importantly, her relationship with Tsukiko. Their bond, and the ways in which Tomie gradually takes over Tsukiko’s life, grow more disturbing as the film progresses. It’s fascinating and provides the narrative with far more drive than the detective’s investigation. Although we are well aware that Tomie is some kind of demon, our awakening to her motivations and spiteful desires keep our interest and make her a far more engaging villainess than one-dimensional ghosts such as Sadako from “Ringu”.

Having said this, although the film is engrossing, it suffers from having a very slow pace. Director Ataru Oikawa is very capable at generating an off-kilter atmosphere and in escalating the overall tension, but shies away from throwing in many action scenes. Although the film does feature a few scares, a couple of moments of inspired grotesquery, and some bloody murders (mostly repeated killings of Tomie herself), not a great deal actually happens, and as such the pace does drag at times. Oikawa seems to be mainly concerned with establishing mood and character, and whilst this does give the film a solid grounding to build upon, it never really goes anywhere. This is a shame as, fascinating as the character of Tomie is, it would definitely have been nice to see her in a little more action.

“Tomie” is an above average Japanese horror film that, though a little slow at times, introduces the viewer to one of the more interesting and twisted anti-heroes of the genre. Apart from a few gruesome scenes, this is effectively a demonic character study more than anything else, and whilst it generally succeeds in this aim and will definitely entertain most fans of Asian horror, it leaves the viewer wanting more. This, I guess, is where the sequels come in.

Ataru Oikawa (director) / Junji Ito (comic), Ataru Oikawa (screenplay)
CAST: Miho Kanno …. Tomie Kawakami
Mami Nakamura …. Tsukiko Izumisawa
Yoriko Douguchi …. Dr. Hosono

Buy Tomie on DVD