Studio: Zelico Film
Director: Saku Sakamoto
Writer: Saku Sakamoto
Producer: Osamu Fukutani
Stars: Kana Hanazawa, Ayana Shiramoto, Yosuku Ito, Yukari Fukui, Takaya Hashi
A young woman discovers her mysterious apartment building may be connected to a haunting secret involving bugs that possess human bodies.
While the claim can be disputed, particularly by those who disagree with my reviews, I consider myself to be a relatively perceptive, reasonably intelligent person. Nevertheless, I watched “Aragne: Sign of Vermillion” a second time in the same day because my first viewing left me slightly bewildered, as though I’d missed important factual aspects of the fiction in addition to certain themes.
It’s odd that a re-watch seemed in order considering there are only four or five key characters in the film. “Aragne” isn’t overly confusing per se, although it is surprisingly complex in conception for a movie that only runs ten minutes over an hour.
It’s relevant to mention that the version I screened was dated to May 2018, close to three months before it played Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, and was labeled “WIP” for “work in progress.” Storyboard still frames and pencil drawing animatics stood in for missing shots while other sequences contained unfinished elements. Mentally filling in those blanks was simple enough, though it is possible that entirely new scenes could make it into the final cut, rendering some of my notes about incompleteness and odd editing irrelevant.
No matter what its flaws may be in the end, “Aragne” remains an outstanding achievement for being the singular vision of its imaginative and impressively talented creator. Not only did Saku Sakamoto, who provided digital effects for “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” write and direct “Aragne,” he also animated the movie and produced the musical score too. Rarely has one person worn so many hats while making it seem as though an army mounted the solo effort he expended.
The story centers on Rin, a timid young student so shy, she can’t muster the courage to cuss out the rental agent when a misrepresented listing turns a mysterious housing complex into her haunting new home. In addition to several strange residents seen around the premises, the surrounding city of Shikinuma is reeling from a rash of serial killings whose victims are found with their necks broken at right angles.
Meanwhile, Rin deals with terrors less tangible. When she isn’t experiencing visions of lying in blood after having suffered a fall, Rin witnesses oversized insects bursting from human bodies that other people can’t see. A librarian warns that Rin’s ability to see these “spirit bugs,” which ancients believed were otherworldly entities capable of influencing unconscious minds, could be a portent of her death. Rin’s research into spirit bug folklore subsequently leads her down a rabbit hole connecting Shikinuma’s murders and mythology to secrets concerning a government conspiracy as well as Rin’s true identity.
In addition to all of the above, other crucial components of “Aragne” include clandestine experiments carried out during WWII, a cervical disease dating back 40 years, a mysterious mother regularly pushing a baby carriage, an equally mysterious blonde man in a hood, a dark-haired girl who may be a ghost, and a secret society of “chosen people” devoted to repelling curses through meditative magic. Like I said, there’s a great deal of content compacted into 70 minutes and it takes an actively engaged mind to process each detail.
Whether or not you get the gist of everything the movie means to say as both entertainment and allegory, the film still evokes a frightful feel. Combining the psycho-science of “Parasite Eve” with the nightmarish texture of “Silent Hill,” “Aragne: Sign of Vermillion” slices an unsettling piece of animated horror. From eyeless extras in backgrounds to sudden swarms of slugs, imagery always emits eeriness. And the fiction is so dense that it becomes easy to feel transported to a parallel world operating under its own weird rules.
To give his animation an illusion of more activity, Saku Sakamoto employs an unsteady handheld camera. Of arguable artistic necessity, it’s a hit or miss tactic. I’ve never been one to feel nauseous during “NYPD Blue” or any first-person “found footage.” Here however, I definitely had a sense of disorientation, undoubtedly intentional, although I found the sensation to be in conflict with keeping focus on the story.
Frequent lens flares are another atypical animation technique Sakamoto uses for a traditional movie feel. An eye for experimentation certainly plays into his style. Again, Sakamoto’s artistic choices have variable values. Yet when you look at his work under the lens that one person architected almost everything, it’s impossible to not be awestruck. At a minimum, the characters, which remind me of “Castlevania” concepts, and environments are extraordinarily well-designed.
Ultimately, that’s the chief factor influencing evaluation of the film. Sakamoto’s mildly convoluted script relies heavily on repeatedly having Rin fall unconscious only to wake up in another situation, which may be less an indicator of Rin’s fractured mind and more of a persistent cheat to transition milieus. But “Aragne: Sign of Vermillion” makes up ground lost on iffy plot progression by having a coolly creepy look befitting its askew atmosphere. Although not an all-timer, whatever form the polished product takes can carve out a unique corner for itself among intriguing animated J-horror concepts.
Review Score: 60