World Apartment Horror (1991)

Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

Cast: Hiroyuki Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Weng Huarong, Kimiko Nakagawa

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Ita, a twenty something Yakuza on a lower rung of the gang ladder, makes his way down a quiet backstreet. With his smart shades, slicked back hair and a cigarette drooping from his lips he looks every inch the young hood. He stops outside a dilapidated block of apartments and looks around, taking in the rundown environment and glancing at the garbage lying nearby. Cautiously, he walks into the building.

Standing in the entrance hall he removes his shades so as to take in the full gloom of the place. Noticing an old phone he picks up the handset to discover that the cord has been cut. "So that's why no-one answered it...," he muses.

Slowly venturing upstairs he knocks sharply on a battered wooden door which has a small diamond shaped emblem on it. Calling out for his brother Iri, Ita knocks again and again. When no answer is forthcoming he assumes that there must be something wrong and becomes more frantic in his gestures. Suddenly, a bullet rips through the door from inside and Ita dives backwards to take cover. Looking up he sees an eye peering at him through the hole in the door. Ita pleads with Iri to let him in and after several feverish exchanges he finally gets his wish. Entering the apartment, Ita notices Iri's sick pallor - something made even more dramatic by the flickering candlelight in the dim room. Composing himself, Ita passes on the message from their boss Kokubu, a simple message - it says only that Iri should get in touch with Kokubu straight away.

Back at the local Yakuza base Ita is dismayed when he finds himself landed with the job of going back to the apartment block to clear the other inhabitants out of the building. The block needs to be demolished as soon as possible and Ita is given one week to persuade the inhabitants to leave their homes...

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Wading back into the apartment block with his ghetto blaster cranked to 10 he makes his way to Irii's tiny apartment. As he slowly walks there he meets a group of young Koreans, a timid Indian youth, a Phillipino called Jose who works as a bouncer in a nightclub and Chan, a serious looking Chinese student. The latter informs Ita, after an initially frosty conversation, that there is a ghost in the building.

Iri's apartment is deserted so Ita begins to make himself at home, packing away Iri's things to give himself more living room. Without wasting any time, Ita puts his psychological warfare plan into top gear. One evening he turns up his Karaoke machine, opens his apartment door and walks out into the corridor - all the while belting out some off-key lyrics. In the corridor other apartment doors open slowly and blank expressions peer out from the darkness to see what is going on.

Ita quickly creates an intimidating atmosphere whenever he is around, something achieved mainly by never talking calmly to his neighbours but always leaning towards them and shouting at the top of his voice. He taunts them mercilessly at high volume, but most of the times his victims simply stare back. The group of Koreans even playfully misquote a lot of what he says - infuriating the young Yakuza even more.

After a couple of days the psychological war on his neighbours appears to be losing its impact so Ita tries another strategy. He removes the main toilet cistern, hoping that this will drive at least some of them away. As he removes the cistern and the main pipe he notices the wall covering peeling away and, intrigued, he begins to pull the paper off the wall. With one final tug the paper rips away, leaving a strange painting of an Asian deity's face staring back at him. Startled, Ita makes his way back to the apartment where he ponders over what he has seen. Nearby, a small television set in his room is running the local news and the main feature concerns an audacious robbery from a nearby museum. The thief managed to steal an ancient death mask, an item of alleged magical power that could be used for evil purposes. As Ita watches this the ceiling in his apartment starts to buckle and slowly undulate. Staggering to his feet he grabs a katana left behind by Iri and plunges the blade into the ceiling.

Misaki, one of the Yakuza's prostitutes, turns up to see Ita. The latter sees his opportunity for more psychological warfare and has sex with her on the floor, leaving the apartment door wide open so that everyone in the corridor can see them. Slowly, the neighbours doors open and they peer into Ita's apartment, silently watching the two of them on the floor. Misaki looks back and comments that everyone is watching but Ita replies, "after I've screwed you I'm going to screw them."

Yakuza brother Shouiji turns up and gives Ita the benefit of his knowledge of the building, informing Ita of how the previous Japanese inhabitants have all been driven away by a mysterious ghost. Ita will have none of it, saying that he is made of far sterner stuff than Iri before suggesting that they get to work immediately in setting off all the smoke bombs that Shouiji has brought with him. The bombs create panic in the building but rather than fleeing the inhabitants seek out Ita and once the true culprits and motivations are discovered the inhabitants quickly return to their apartments.

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Taking the strongarm approach again, Ita marches up and down the first floor with his samurai sword over his shoulder. With every step he leers at all the people cowering away from him, shouting into their faces that they should leave immediately or expect the worst. Yet, for all Ita's racist taunts, he is starting to look desperate and is rapidly running out of ideas on how to win in the face of such indifference. Also, the overbearing sense of paranoia is starting to take its toll on his own psyche. This is added to when, just as Ita is launching into more racist taunts, the main lights fizzle out and all the cans of beer that Shouiji is carrying start exploding.

Next morning an edgy Ita is woken by the sound of a phone ringing. Getting out of bed he moves downstairs to the main hallway and picks up the telephone, looking at the handset blood starts to pour out from the mouthpiece - and the telephone cord is still severed. Shrieking, Ita throws it to the floor and as he turns around he notices a ghostly backlit figure in the main doorway. Stumbling backwards he is relieved to see Misaki slowly step inside.

With Misaki turning up they head back to Ita's apartment and begin to get undressed. However, Misaki soon runs away in terror, claiming that the ceiling is moving in Itta's room. Ita calls after her in vain as his neighbours blankly look on.

Receiving a message that the time to get the people out of the apartment is now up, Ita has no choice but to call Kokubu. His boss tells him that the soft approach is now off the menu and forces Ita to agree to remove the inhabitants permanently - or Kokubu and his men will come and do it for him. Ita agrees and stumbles away from the phone. Nearby, the Yakuza messenger notices Ita's alarmingly dishevelled appearance and his broken man atmosphere. As Ita walks away we see that he is barefoot.

Returning to the apartment he locks himself away, just as Iri had done, and continues to vent his anger and frustration at the invisible phantoms all around him. Elsewhere, the young Chinese student Chan has invited his new Witch Doctor friend to come to the apartment block in a last, desperate attempt to rid the building of its evil spirits...

World Apartment Horror Review

Katsuhiro Otomo is a name that should be instantly recognisable. His 1988 feature 'Akira' is widely regarded as a stunning breakthrough moment, responsible for switching many a young western mind on to the delights of anime. This striking film showcased Otomo's talent in breathtaking style so it is a little intriguing to note that, a couple of years after the success of 'Akira', Otomo turned his back on animation and directed a live action feature - the darkly grotesque 'World Apartment Horror.'

Considering Otomo's CV it is a little surprising that 'World Apartment Horror' has not had more attention. Given that this 1991 feature also sees an early first performance by popular cult actor Hiroyuki Tanaka (AKA -Sabu) (who incidentally won the Best New Actor award at the 13th Yokohama Film Festival for his role as Ita) this lack of recognition is perhaps even more surprising. Sabu, now carving a career for himself as a Director, has appeared in many recent productions including Takeshi Miike's infamous 'Ichii The Killer'.

The main theme in 'World Apartment Horror' doesn't need any undressing as it's pretty much in your face from half-way through the first reel. Racial and cultural prejudices provide the basic thematic platform throughout, giving the many confrontations that litter the film an extra frisson. Of course, such themes have been explored before but it is Otomo's darkly humorous comical treatment that gives 'World Apartment Horror' an individual edge.

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Playing like a pantomime of the grotesque, comedy and drama criss-cross in the myriad confrontations that occur between all of the characters where perceived cultural differences allow for constant misunderstandings and manipulations. This friction gives the film a nervously comedic feel but Otomo's real individual masterstroke is the setting he has created for these confrontations to take place - a setting where confrontation is simply unavoidable. The extremely small stage created by the apartment block supplies a stifling level of claustrophobia and creates such an intense atmosphere that every statement, action and message is accompanied by a feeling of paranoia.

The apartment also mirrors the cultural balance that neatly exists within the apartment block - until Ita turns up that is. Otomo clearly shows how a fragile peace and tolerance is the everyday norm and how each of the inhabitants has created their own makeshift home. This idea of worlds within other worlds finds an intriguing parallel with the hysterical paranormal subplot that runs throughout. Otomo also mirrors this whole idea in Ita's plight, where the young Yakuza's inability to grasp this subtlety sees him wandering around unable to figure out if anyone is in the other rooms or not. It is also highlighted in other sequences where Ita shouts vainly at locked doors or where he marches up and down corridors barking out threats at invisible opponents. What Ita does, he does in isolation and is completely unable to break through into the areas actually occupied by the others. Once all the apartment doors are closed, Ita is at best a distant threat - a point that Otomo is quick to create a lot of humour from.

The supernatural aspects in this film creep stealthily into the melting pot, acting as something of an abstract link between the various cultures. Again, Otomo creates a fair amount of mirth from this fusion, encouraging the viewer to smile wryly as the cross-cultural divide is bridged with a fair old dollop of cheesy 'we're really all the same' style banter. The perceived nature and/or threat of the supernatural certainly bands everyone together, allowing each of the inhabitants to bring their own cultural perspective to bear on the problem. Chan, the bookish Chinese student, actually takes a lead here when he invites his new Witch Doctor friend back to the apartment block. The Witch Doctor figure becomes a galvanising force at the end of the film, alongside providing a comically overblown centrepoint to herald in the manic last ten minutes.

Sabu's performance is superb throughout, portraying the clueless young Yakuza perfectly and managing to inject an element of vulnerability at the same time. He effortlessly manages to show Ita's frustration and lack of skill in handling the indifference he is faced with. There is also a clumsy edge to the character of Ita which Sabu brings to the fore. This is a trait that the Koreans in particular exploit, most notably when they outfox the Yakuza during one of their poker sessions.

While this film probably just falls short of overlooked gem status, for fans of Japanese cult film it is definitely worth tracking down. Otomo has created a clever horror here with more than a few elegantly guilty laughs along the way. An absorbing experience helped by some excellent performances, the richness of the material itself and an all-encompassing, highly refined tone of uneasiness. Just the way we like them!

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