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The Neighbor No. Thirteen
Year: 2005
Shidou Nakamura
Director: Yasuo Inoue
  Cast: Shidou Nakamura, Shun Oguri, Hirofumi Arai, Yumi Yoshimura, Takashi Miike (cameo)
  The Skinny: A fairly disturbing movie about one man's dissociative disorder run amok. Despite the often repellent actions of its protagonist, this modern-day Jekyll and Hyde tale has more than a few interesting things to say about issues like bullying and personal identity, and all without being too heavy-handed about it. Unfortunately, this would-be psychological thriller doesn't quite come together into a satisfying whole, despite the obvious potential on display.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      Is being bullied a rite of passage? Or is it something that should be stamped out of our schools to protect the safety of young children? In its own way, The Neighbor No. Thirteen explores these questions, all under the auspices of a horrific Jekyll and Hyde-style tale about a timid man with a decidedly homicidal split personality. Of course, this deep-seated psychological dysfunction has roots in the man's troubled past.
     Way back in grade school, poor Juzo Murasaki (Shun Oguri) found himself being constantly harassed by the sadistic Toru Akai (Hirofumi Arai) and his various underlings. Akai's brand of bullying wasn't exactly your garden variety grammar school teasing. In fact, it was so brutal that it finally culminated in Akai spilling acid on Juzo's face, which not only scarred him terribly, but also forced him to withdraw from school. And you thought your elementary school days were tough.
     Now, some years later, a grown-up (but curiously scar-free) Juzo is hired on as a construction worker - and as fate would have it, Akai is working at the same place in a supervisory role. Even stranger, Juzo recently moved into the apartment just below Akai's: room "Number 13." Unfortunately for Juzo, the years have not seen much change in Akai's temperament; he's still up to the same tricks, often finding the time to harass a meek co-worker as if those good ol' grade school bullying days never ended. And to make matters worse, the seemingly irredeemable lout is actually married to Nozomi (Yumi Yoshimura), a pretty girl-next-door-type that Juzo's developed a wee bit of a crush on. And wouldn't you know it? She and Akai are raising a young son together. How can this be? Juzo's curiosity is piqued, albeit not in a way he can even comprehend. It takes his alter ego to make the first move…with terrifying results.
     Since that horrible incident back in grade school, a second personality has taken shape within Juzo, and now, after all these years lying in wait he has finally emerged: the Japanese Mr. Hyde himself, the man known only as Number 13 (Shidou Nakamura). Disfigured (bearing Juzo's vanishing acid scar) and as surly as a drunken sailor, Number 13 doesn't take crap from anyone. Whether it's a mouthy neighbor (Takashi Miike in a cameo role) or even the kindly coworker that Akai harasses, this living Id has no problem dispatching anyone who stands in his way. But will revenge be quite as sweet as Number 13 imagines? Or will Juzo regain control of his fractured psyche? The finale answers those questions, albeit in a totally unexpected way that just might leave audience members perplexed, even disappointed once it's all over.
     On the plus side, there's a lot to be said about director Yasuo Inoue's distinctive visual style, the disturbingly hypnotic dream sequences that punctuate the action, and Shidou Nakamura's magnetic, unhinged performance as Number 13. But perhaps the most compelling aspects of Neighbor No. Thirteen involve its approach to the material and the resultant effects on the narrative.
     While the film is very much about a man seeking revenge on his childhood tormenter, Neighbor No. Thirteen in no way plays out as a revenge fantasy. Even though Juzo and his alter ego are completely justified in their hatred of Akai, it should be noted that Number 13 is no righteous avenging angel, but is instead a thoroughly immoral killing machine. Similarly, the villain Akai, although still thoroughly a jerk and a half, isn't quite as villainous as he once was. Neighbor No. Thirteen's refusal to allow the audience any vicarious pleasure its protagonist's quest for vengeance may be a part of why the whole thing feels somewhat unsatisfying, but ultimately, it's a choice that seems consistent with the film's insistence against painting characters in broad strokes of black and white.
     A prime example of this would be in the character of Nozomi. From the moment she appears onscreen, Yumi Yoshimura, one half of Puffy AmiYumi, proves to be a standout presence. But even as we grow to like Nozomi, the film uses her to raise questions about a single fixed identity, but in a manner far different than the dramatic Juzo/Number 13 personality split. Nozomi is introduced to us as the typical cutesy mom, but as the film develops, we later learn she's actually Akai's longtime girlfriend and a former tough-as-nails biker chick. In fact, she used to be so cold-blooded that - as a flashback sequence shows - she wouldn't even bat an eyelash if a man was beaten to a pulp in front of her. But now, Nozomi is a loving, oh-so-tender mother figure who demonstrates no trace of her past life. How can we reconcile this? Within Juzo's fractured mind, there is also an attempt to reconcile the past and the present in having the grown-up Akai pay for his past sins. But does the punishment fit the crime?
     Neighbor No. Thirteen mixes shades of gray into its characterization; its notable that film places much of the onus onto Juzo for Number 13's creation. As despicable as Akai is, the narrative makes the point of suggesting that Juzo is to blame as well. Juzo's suppression of his feelings, not to mention his inability to stand up for himself, fed the monster that is Number 13. This revelation - that the victim has agency, and therefore bears some responsibility for his victimhood - leads to an ending that is either a total a cop-out or the movie's whole raison d'etre.
     Still, as compelling as some of these issues may be, Neighbor No. Thirteen doesn't feel like a satisfying, cohesive whole once it's all over. There's no doubt that it has a lot of potential, but there's some serious pacing issues through the middle stretch of the film that border on tedium. And while I've certainly gone to great pains to demonstrate the major thematic issues put forth by the film, I can't help but feel that much of the build-up involved is woefully underdeveloped. And barring the sole exception of Nozomi, I found it terribly hard to root for anyone in this film on any sort of substantive level. Certainly, Inoue may well have intended to create a bevy of unsympathetic characters, but Number 13's actions are so totally repugnant, Akai remains so wholly irredeemable, and Juzo himself is so barely there as a character that I didn't quite know where to place my sympathies. Thus, when we get to the big reveal, the visceral punch that this film so desperately needs at its conclusion misses the mark entirely. Still, in the face of these deficits, Neighbor No. Thirteen is an honorable failure and probably worth a look if you're not put off by the material sight unseen. (Calvin McMillin, 2007)
Availability: DVD (HK)
Region 3 NTSC
Universe Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese and Cantonese Language Tracks
Removable English and Chinese subtitles
Dolby Digital 5.1
  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen