When you think of Japanese horror films, two distinct types come to mind. The first features folklore, superstition, and the standard long haired ghost girl dynamic. It's the scare standard bearer which lead to a massive Western interest, influx, and eventual influence. The other is far more seedy, a gore drenched geek show which pushes the boundaries of violence into sickening, pseudo-pornographic places. Names like Guinea Pig and Meatball Machine are just a few of cinematic substrata's 'juiciest' offerings. With Goth, however, a new category can finally come into play - the thoughtful, plaintive thriller. The premise offers something both sinister and suspicious - two young Japanese teens, each obsessed with death, begin investigating a string of serial killings in their hometown. But instead of exploring the grim and often grotesque manner in which these young women are violated, director Gen Takahashi decides to stay strictly within the deep psychological issues of the pair themselves, offering yet another avenue of terror all its own. The result is a movie that constantly contradicts itself in ways that are both wholly satisfying and artistically aloof.
Within a typical suburban Tokyo school setting, gloomy gal Morino becomes friends with popular boy Kamiyama. Their common interest in death is what links them, though both have decidedly different ways of expressing said fixation. She is lost in a world of Victorian dread, bedroom festooned with what appears to be the vestiges of dozen violated crypts. He, on the other hand, takes a far more clinical and visceral approach. His room is like a lab, secret shelving hiding an array of graphic books of murder and criminal carnage. When a serial killer strikes their area, chemically inducing heart attacks and cutting off the left hands of his female victims, Morino and Kamiyama begin their own independent investigation. When they stumble upon clues that may suggest the murderer's next move, they make a decision that will push them ever closer to their obsession, while threatening their position as outsiders looking in.
In order to thoroughly enjoy Goth (also known as Goth: Love of Death), you have to be prepared for what it isn't. First off, this is one of the least gory horror flicks to ever come out of Japan. Even with the occasionally graphic nature of the crimes, we see more blood in the various books Morino and Kamiyama gloss over than anywhere else. Second, this is not your standard police procedural or serial killer thriller. We don't really care who's committing these horrible acts, especially since director Gen Takahashi is more interested in red herrings than revelations. Because we don't spend any real time in valuable investigation, the whodunit becomes a ruse all by itself. Finally, the film is the very definition of a meditation: slow, deliberate, taking its own sweet time to get to its often vague and ambiguous points. We know that Morino is hiding something (and we do discover what it is). We know that Kamiyama is coming closer and closer to making his fantasies of death all too real (and he does get his opportunity). But Takahashi believes in the beauty of his vision more than the mandates of the genre. If he can mesmerize us with a languid, ethereal sequence near a shallow stream, he will focus on that to the detriment of anything else.
Luckily, Goth has so much going for it that the drawbacks do fully distract from the final film. We are lured into the taboo-busting world of our duo's desires, shrinking back in sickening fear as they paw over tomes about autopsy and traffic accidents. We wonder why they are fixated on such horrific things, but only one gets a definitive motive. The coffee house where the two frequently meet becomes a stepping stone of potential suspects and ancillary issues and Takahashi enjoys using the gorgeous Japanese countryside as a macabre means to an equally eerie ends. Granted, the plot moves along at a snail's slower brother's pace, almost too premeditated in the way it spells out its principle and you will feel slightly gypped when the mystery is solved. Yet the film rambles over into a completely difference denouement that's almost as effective. Indeed, there is a lot to like here, including a wonderful visual flair that focuses on the austere loveliness of the surroundings while suggesting the horrific terrors hiding there.
As for the acting, it's really hard to say. Both of our young leads are clearly doing their deadpan best to avoid showing a single scintilla of outward emotion and even in scenes where they are supposed to be scared or suspicious, they come across as indifferent and distant. What makes matters even more confounding is that they are, with a couple of very minor exceptions, the only characters we invest in here. There is a young sister who Kamiyama envies (because she has happened upon more dead things in her life than he has) and a few regulars at the coffee house, but that's it. They often arrive and leave a scene before they've even made an impression. So we wind up paying closer attention to the direction and the production design than we do the players in this piece. Luckily, Takahashi has artistic ambitions to spare. His lens is always overlit, the frame capturing as much light - both natural and unnatural - as possible. He also stages his scenes in very engaging ways, keeping our eye interested in all aspects of the composition. For those who want less art and more arterial spray, Goth will surely fail to satisfy. Instead, this is the kind of revisionist horror film that sheds its radiance on areas that some may see as unnecessary. Luckily, Takahashi makes them borderline essential.
Offered in a picturesque 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image, Goth will give some purists the jitters. Director Takahashi definitely pushes the limits of light exposure and there are sequences where his characters seem bathed in an unnatural, otherworldly glow. There are also a couple of flashbacks and a few fractured video freeze frames that may give your home video aesthetic fits. Still, overall, this is an amazing looking transfer, the image giving off a polished and professional arthouse vibe.
Presented in the original Japanese with easy to read English subtitles, the audio aspects of Goth are equally intriguing. The score, which combines elements of ambient with an atypical rock approach, comes across perfectly, and the rest of the Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is a delight. Morino and Kamiyama often speak in hushed, hard to hear tones and yet the soundtrack picks up every level of ennui expertly.
Aside from a decent Making-of an original trailer, there's no other bonus features to speak of. The Behind the Scenes does provide some interesting insight into the story's origins (it was originally a novel, and then a popular magna) and director Takahashi offers his own take on its many meanings. A word of warning. For some reason, the Goth menu constantly goes back to a distributor's trailer whenever you pick the "Play All" option. Why not simply pick "Play", you ask? Well, because no such option exists. The easiest way to start the film is to go to "Scene Selections" and pick the first available Chapter.
If you've seen one spectral dark haired Asian girl with a guttural roar and dead eyes, you've seen them all. Similarly, one F/XS driven sequence of slice and dice atrocity is enough, especially when you're dealing with a title that offers little more than the basic snuff film bait and switch. Goth is something different, for reasons both good and grating. While some may hate its languid, lethargic tempo, this critic enjoyed the stylistic and subjective change of pace. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, this is one of the more intriguing Japanese horror films in quite a while. Even though it doesn't snuggly fit into one of the stereotypical subgenres Eastern dread has to offer, the novelty and the nuance provided should be enough to keep even the most seasoned fright fan on the edge of their seat.