Miss Zombie (2013)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Japan: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
With its black-and-white cinematography, minimalist visual décor and sound effects, and overall unassuming nature, Sabu’s venture into the zombie film is memorable, ingenious, and ultimately moving. Set in an ambiguous period of either the near future or distant past, Miss Zombie is in large part a sensitive family drama, with a focus on motherhood and a different understanding of what Barbara Creed has termed the ‘monstrous feminine’ with regards to horror films and femininity from a psychoanalytic lens.
… it is a smart, bold send-up of a traditional image of female domesticity and also reaffirms the film’s domestic/ated approach to the zombie story.
A morning delivery to a doctor’s home comes in the form of a large crate. Two landscape workers open up the crate for the family and reveal a young woman inside a cage. She is a low-developed zombie whose name is Shara (Komatsu Ayaka). Dr. Teramoto (Tezuka Toru) reads the instructions that accompany the crate, regarding feeding rules and the enclosed pistol, as if one has just received a rare plant or animal. This scene sets up in a great economical way the film’s approach to a zombie story in terms of the ordinary, the everyday, and the routine, as opposed to the extraordinary, the unusual, and the unanticipated. In short, the domestic/ated.
But giving a spectral feel to the domestic/ated is the family’s house. Its brightly photographed white walls, sometimes overexposed, and minimalist décor emanate a dream-like quality; ethereal but at the same time sterile, since the house looks like a domestic version of a Romanesque church from outside. Yet these details also make one think of 1920s/1930s-era Japan that exist in the short stories of writer Edogawa Rampo, as well as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932). The feeling is a strange combination of the otherworldly and banal, due to the isolated setting, black-and-white photography, the camera’s languid tracking and roaming, and chippy and episodic structure.
Dr. Teramoto, in partnership with a colleague, is considering getting into the business of pitching zombies as pets or domestic help, specifically lower-level ones closer to humans than zombies despite their appearance and manner of moving, like Shara. Despite the frowned-upon practice of keeping a zombie, Dr. Teramoto and family keep Shara and domesticise her. They dress her up in clean clothes, put her to work around the house, and provide her living quarters in a storage space several blocks away from the house. Inside her room, at an early point in the film, the camera shows her sewing the skin on her hand, the pacing of her actions methodical and measured in a way that muffles the sluggishness and grotesquerie of zombie-ism. Though a simple scene, it is a smart, bold send-up of a traditional image of female domesticity and also reaffirms the film’s domestic/ated approach to the zombie story. Furthermore, it gives way to a moment that hints at her pre-zombie life when she looks at a photo of (presumably) herself.
Contributing to the otherworldly yet banal feel of the film is the absence of a soundtrack and use of sound effects instead.
Every day, Shara walks to the family’s house from the storage space as if going to school. Every evening on her way home, neighbourhood kids throw stones at her and a group of young men stab her left shoulder with a small tool. The use of the word ‘school’ is not accidental, for such scenes are not that different from bullying, especially among young people. Every day, too, she brings home a flower that she places in a bottle. As this routine establishes itself, she is like a nod to Frankenstein’s monster in particular and to the loneliness of human-scale movie monsters in general, especially when she looks at herself in the mirror. Further inviting a Frankenstein’s monster reference is Shara’s relationship with the family’s son, Kenichi (Onishi Riku), and his unwitting role in the progression of events at the house.
Kenichi always has a Polaroid camera hanging from his neck and taking photos of things around the house. One day, he takes a photo of Shara from behind, while she is on all fours scrubbing away at the flagstone walkway, as she does every day. The photo and other incidents trigger sexual desires from the landscape workers and Dr. Teramoto, and ripples of change in the family life. In this way, the film plays with the clichés of family dramas through the trope of the eroticisation of the housemaid. When Kenichi suffers an accident that leaves him practically dead, Shara intervenes and further triggers a startling twist of events that mingles Shara’s past and present lives and places Kenichi caught between two mother figures, his mother Shizuko (Togashi Makoto) and Shara.
Contributing to the otherworldly yet banal feel of the film is the absence of a soundtrack and use of sound effects instead. The harsh sound of the scrub brush against the flagstone, day after day, becomes magnified and increasingly serves as shorthand for the way Shara’s presence gradually encroaches on the family, specifically Shizuko’s role as wife and mother. In fact, Shizuko’s sudden decrease in energy becomes inversely proportional to Shara’s increase in pull within the family. Occasional music surfaces towards the end, but the emphasis is mainly on Komatsu and Togashi’s nuanced performances.
Like Henge (2012, Ohata Hajime) and Death and Tanya (2013, Shiode Taishi), Miss Zombie has the quality of being a ‘small’ film, in the sense that it is very contained, modest even, in its setting and cast of characters. But like these two films, Miss Zombie provides a profound commitment and off-kilter sensibility in terms of ideas and performance.
With its black-and-white cinematography, minimalist visual décor and sound effects, and overall unassuming nature, Sabu’s venture into the zombie film is memorable, ingenious, and ultimately moving.