A quasi-scientific fantasy in which two lovers enter each other’s subconscious to confront their joint childhood trauma, “Real” is Kiyoshi Kurosawa at his least disturbing or mesmerizing. Although the aesthetics retain the Nipponese horror maestro’s trademark haunting quality, the yarn’s U-turn from psycho-horror to hokey childlike fable is unexpected and disappointing. As the plot drifts toward incoherence and pivotal twists fail to deliver on their promise, the pic seems to be stumbling its way through adjoining rooms with no exit in sight. A solid earner in Japan since its June 1 release, “Real” will cruise festivals based strictly on Kurosawa’s reputation (it next docks at Locarno and Toronto), but ancillary is where it belongs.
Despite its themes of repressed consciousness and parallel universes, “Real” is no “Inception”-style mind-bender; nor does one expect it to be. But one does expect a more layered exploration of alternative realities from this adaptation of Rokuro Inui’s novel “A Perfect Day for a Pleisiosaur” (the symbolic significance of the titular creature does not emerge until the end).
Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) is a manga artist who enthralls readers with “Roomi,” her grotesque serial about a psychopath who commits murders as inventive as they are hideous. But deadlines and writing blocks have taken their toll, to the point where she attempts suicide and becomes comatose as a result. Under the supervision of Dr. Aihara (Miki Nakatani) at the Advanced Medical Center, Atsumi’s lover, Koichi (Takeru Sato), tries to awaken her by connecting with her subconscious via a telepathic process called “sensing.”
In the film’s visualization of this procedure, Atsumi’s troubled psyche takes the form of a chic apartment where she and Koichi are spending time together. Fissures in their relationship are mirrored by unnatural occurrences in their environment, lending the story its first touch of creepiness. Back in Koichi’s quotidian life, he bumps into what Dr. Aihara describes as “philosophical zombies,” phantom figures that are the side effects of the sensing.
Kurosawa instills the picture with a brooding sense of dread and irrationality as the waking and subconscious worlds bleed into one another, underscored by car scenes in which the motorway and the moving scenery have been doctored to suggest CGI simulations in an online game. Shots of the city are touched up to resemble abstract architectural drafts, framing Koichi in a surreal world that recalls M.C. Escher’s drawings. The mystery culminates in the appearance of a boy apparition who stalks Koichi, malevolent eyes aglow.
As Koichi and Atsumi return to Hikone, the rural island where they befriended each other as kids, past events hint at what’s been tormenting Atsumi all along. The story could have moved in a taut, intriguing direction if Kurosawa had kept to a clear exploration of the character’s guilty conscience. Instead, the helmer falls back on his habitual narrative ellipses and repetitive imagery; finally belly-flopping with a Big Reveal that turns everything upside down without raising the dramatic stakes; audiences are likely to feel they’ve been taken for a ride. The eventual unmasking of the ghostly boy’s identity likewise becomes a drawn-out tease.
Ayase, who often enchants as a bubbly romantic heroine, can’t breathe much spirit into a dull and largely passive role; nor is Sato called upon to cultivate any complexity in his character. Nakatani is inscrutable behind a veneer of professional courtesy, but nothing comes of her enigmatic air. Other accomplished thesps who made much stronger impressions in other Kurosawa works, like Joe Odagiri (“Bright Future”) and Kyoko Koizumi (“Penance”), are reduced to strictly functional roles in scenes staged with zero dramatic interest.
The f/x-loaded finale is visually arresting, but as a resolution of all these mysteries and dilemmas, it’s tonally out of place, even childlike in a cheesy way. The rest of the film sports an eerily desaturated color palette that blurs the lines of reality while foregrounding the characters’ melancholy. Crystal-clear lensing by Akiko Ashizawa and exceptionally subtle lighting make the apartment look tangible yet convincing as a figment of imagination.