Homunculus (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2021) – A homeless amnesiac awakens from an experimental medical procedure with the ability to see people’s innermost traumas.
From Tetsuo to Tokyo Gore Police, Japanese horror cinema seems to have few boundaries. Bizarre fetishes or shock brutality are often liberally shown on screen, driven by absurd plots and brought to life in lurid colours with confidence.
Tending to ignore the conventional arc that Hollywood directors are prone to, these filmmakers celebrate oddities and dare to manipulate reality in ways never done before. As long as one can put the concept to paper, they can put it to screen. Case in point: Homunculus.
Based on Hideo Yamamoto (who also wrote Ichi the Killer), the live-action adaptation follows Susumu Nokoshi (Gô Ayano), a homeless amnesiac who has been living out of his car. In a bid to solve his money woes, he agrees to the strange experiment of medical student Manabu Ito (Ryô Narita) – to have a hole drilled through his skull, in hopes of unleashing the untapped potential of his mind.
Susumu goes through the trepanation procedure and soon experiences inexplicable visions, from a part-mecha to a woman disintegrating into sand. Manabu explains that what Susumu is seeing are the innermost traumas of the people around him. Their troubled minds manifest in myriad ways, each an almost literal reflection of their buried memories.
These first moments of revelation are visually interesting. Susumu’s varied hallucinations make for a distinct aesthetic that holds our curiosity. We also wonder what he may see when he looks into the mirror with no memories of his past. When he sees Manabu as a body of water, another compelling plot surfaces in the student surgeon’s hidden past and motive for the experiment.
The movie however, also suffers from its very unbridled creativity. The deep dive into Susumu’s own trauma is where things get incredibly strange and uncomfortable. The slow-burning pace is the least of the movie’s problems. Initial intrigue soon turns into discomfort with fetishised portrayals of women, which gets worse during a gratuitous scene of sexual assault.
This unnecessary turn distracts from what initially looked to be a more thoughtful delve into the struggle in the everyday man to cope with their dark pasts. For all that uneasy build-up, there is but an incoherent bundle of twists at the finish line, which ultimately offers little beyond frustration in return.
Visual intrigue devolves into discomfort in the odd tangled story of Homunculus.
Homunculus is now on Netflix.