DVD Review: Tomie Unlimited
Review by Ben Bussey
In another fortuitous turn of events, our Japanese Exploitation month sees a new release from one of the most eminent contemporary J-sploitation directors, Noboru Iguchi. Now, it’s a bit strange to sit down to watch the ninth film of a film franchise – itself adapted from a long-running manga series – when you have no prior knowledge of the property whatsoever. Such is my position approaching Tomie Unlimited, though as I’m given to understand it’s a reboot perhaps it doesn’t put me at too great a disadvantage. All I can say with any degree of certainty is what a departure this seems for Iguchi. Far from the Looney Tunes-ish excess of The Machine Girl and RoboGeisha, this is for the most part a comparatively sombre examination of how the bereaved family and friends of a dead teenage girl cope when she seemingly reappears alive and well. Of course, much nightmarish insanity ensues, and with it the kind of deranged gore we’ve come to expect from Iguchi and his frequent collaborator Yoshihiro Nishimura, here notching up yet another SFX credit on an already massive CV. However, as the overall intent of this film seems so far removed from the simpler shits-and-giggles approach of old, things don’t gel in quite the same way here.
Tomie (Miu Nakamura) is seventeen, beautiful, and well-loved by all, not least her younger sister, photography enthusiast and shrinking violet Tsukiko (Moe Arai). Naturally, it comes as a bit of a shock when, as Tsukiko snaps her beloved sibling, a loose rail comes hurtling from a nearby rooftop and impales Tomie, Patrick Troughton in The Omen style. Months later on the day that Tomie would have turned 18, Tsukiko sits with her parents at the dining table throwing the most uncomfortable birthday party imaginable (yes, we’ve all experienced plenty of those, but I daresay few so awful as this). Singing happy birthday and presenting a cake to that final photograph, her clearly shell-shocked parents invite Tsukiko to blow out the candles in her sister’s absence; and moments later comes a knock at the door. Yes, it’s Tomie, looking no different than the day she died, but without a scratch on her. I’d say she’s not what she seems, but then what does a dead person who suddenly turns up alive generally seem like…?
The influence of David Cronenberg has long been apparent in modern J-sploitation, but to date this has come across more in the gooey details of body horror than in the psychological breakdowns of the characters. Tomie Unlimited feels like an attempt to redress this balance, as for the first act at least the focus is primarily on how the characters react emotionally to the return of Tomie. This is at its most effective in the early scenes at home, where Tomie and Tsukiko’s mother and father are so overwhelmed with joy at their daughter’s return that they try to act as if everything is normal again. However, it’s fair to say this isn’t handled in the most interesting or unique way. As this new, dark Tomie bullies and manipulates her parents and sister, hinting toward incestuous desire, there’s no escaping the sense that Iguchi and co are – like so very many of their peers worldwide – on a mission to shock and disturb the audience. Sure, Iguchi has handled sibling rivalry and grief before, but there was always a hefty side order of irreverent humour to wash the heavy themes down. Tomie Unlimited certainly has its bizarre excesses, as the seemingly unkillable title character repeatedly resurrects in progressively stranger forms, from the miniature to the gargantuan (CGI haters, ye be warned); and yet the overall tone is dour by comparison with Iguchi’s earlier works, and indeed that of most of his homeland contemporaries. No one was ever expected to take RoboGeisha at all seriously, but it would seem the opposite is true here, and the film simply isn’t intelligent or effective enough for this to be the case.
Again, given my unfamiliarity with the Tomie series, I may not be in the best place to really judge Tomie Unlimited. The temptation is there to say that Iguchi should simply stick to what he knows best, but I realise that’s not the best attitude to take; filmmakers can and should try different things, to challenge both themselves and their audiences. In this instance, however, the director fell between two stools, trying to deliver something darker and more emotionally intense than he is used to, whilst still delivering the kind of gory spectacle his audience expects, and the result is a half-hearted effort which does not satisfy in either capacity. Given that Iguchi has directly followed it up with Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, I think we can safely say he’s gone straight back to the well.
Tomie Unlimited comes to Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray on 23rd January, from Bounty Films.