Usually something that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck can pretty much be considered a duck. The same can be said for genre films. Neighbour No.13 walks and talks like a horror movie, but in this case I suspect it’s actually a psychological thriller in disguise. There’s just too much symbolism in it – right from the outset – to be a conventional horror flick, even a Japanese one, and lonely houses on hills with one door and no windows should always be taken to mean that what you are seeing and what is going on are not exactly the same thing.
Despite possibly symbolic dream sequences however, this film still builds tension exactly like the horror movie it isn’t. It plays heavily on insight into the psyche of the main character, Juuzou, portrayed with just the right amount of harmlessness and passivity by Shun Oguri (Azumi) and all the cues are there. You’ve already worked out that something’s not wired quite right in Juuzou’s head, now all that’s left is to wait and wince and for that reason there are probably less surprises than if the movie had gone the way of Jason or Ju-On; scares are made possible by knowing, rather than not knowing.
Also, when it comes to horror/slasher flicks, the character you are meant to identify with is usually the intended and helpless victim, but bully-boy Akai, who made Juuzou’s life a living hell as a kid and who lives upstairs at Juuzou’s new address and works as top dog at Juuzou’s new job, is not exactly identification material either. There’s a strong under-current of ‘eye for an eye’ going on in Neighbour No. 13, of alpha-male-abuse and the fallout of the exiled from the Boy’s Club pack. It’s a disturbing topic for consideration – what happens to the traumatised and who’s responsible. Should kids not strong enough to stand up for themselves bear the guilt, or should the perpetrators, and how many body-count films do you know that ever posed such socially relevant, not to mention discomforting, questions? Not many, that’s for sure.
For a relatively low budget production by a first time director, such pertinent themes (disguised as a thriller disguised as horror) are not only unexpected but refreshing. A seriously good-looking film, its screen dense and textured, slick and grimy to the point of distressing, it makes you think you know what’s going on, tricks you into knowing what to expect. Colours are rich, almost fecund, and shadows are dirty, and you’re always half expecting No. 13 to come up out of the well like the evil not-twin he is, except that the well’s not where you thought it was, and Juuzou getting down with his bad self is a very bad sign that road marks a conclusion that no-one’s going to walk away from, because no-one deserves to. Or at least, they wouldn’t if No. 13 was the conventional genre film it was pretending to be.
And had it been a conventional horror genre film, it might not have been as rewarding as it is. It would have just been another scary movie and you wouldn’t be leaving thinking about that kid you called fat in pre-school, or the girl you teased in junior high for having bad acne. You wouldn’t be thinking about how a little compassion, a little tolerance and understanding can maybe change a person’s life. And you possibly wouldn’t be worrying about the fact that boys will still, after all is said and done, be boys.