OAFF: New Religion (2022)

When the time comes to publish the best new features I saw in 2023, it is as good as guaranteed that Keishi Kondo’s New Religion will be on that list. It is not simply up my alley: right now it feels as if it pretty much is my alley. It is always exciting to discover a film that absolutely reflects one’s own tastes, and if – like me – you have a particular love for atmospheric Japanese horror, then New Religion is also likely to reflect yours.

Miyabi (Kaho Seto) is mourning the accidental death of her daughter, who fell from an apartment balcony while unsupervised. Rather than pursue any previous career ambitions, she has shifted into sex work. When a colleague goes missing – and is then witnessed undertaking a random spree killing – Miyabi takes on her former client: a mysterious man who wants to photograph her body one part at a time.

To summarise New Religion any further would be to spoil what is a surprising and remarkably disturbing work of screen horror. It begins as a modest blend of family tragedy and psychological thriller, but be aware it ends up a comfortable neighbour to the likes of films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata, and Takashi Shimizu. I always felt that the single-greatest difference between Japanese horror cinema and its American equivalent was that American horror movies were always about defeating a monster, whereas in Japan it was all about simply attempting to survive something unknowable and horrific. You can (at least temporarily) kill Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, but your best bet is to simply escape Ring‘s Sadako or the white-faced ghosts of Ju-On without losing your life – and even that may not be possible. While the consequences of meeting blind photographer Oka (Satoshi Oka) and his strange artistic project are there for the viewer to discover by themselves, Miyabi’s journey is ultimately as frighteningly unknowable and mysterious as J-horror gets.

New Religion kicks off with not one but two central mysteries. The first regards the link – if any – between Oka’s photography sessions and the criminal rampage of sex worker Akari (Kuroe Mizuta)? The second is related to the circumstances surrounding Miyabi’s daughter, hiow Miyabi is coping, and what possible link it could have to the strange photographer as well. There are answers to be found, but laudably Kondo does not spoon-feed the audience. It is all there, backed up with excellently evocative themes and subtexts. It also very well played: by Kaho Seto (also excellent in Japanese indie My Identity), by Satoshi Oka, and notably by Daiki Nunami – who plays Miyabi’s level-headed and professional handler.

Remarkably this stylish, insidious work is Kondo’s feature directing debut. It was shot in evenings and on weekends, although it is impossible to tell. It represents a potentially major new entry onto the J-horror landscape, and something a lot more exciting than yet another moribund retread or sequel. Despite its enormous merits generally, it does feel as if J-horror has been coasting for quite a while (Shimizu’s Village trilogy notwithstanding). Hopefully New Religion will be a valued shot in the arm. I am also hopeful the film’s exposure extends internationally: this has late night festival favourite painted all over it in deep, threating shades of red.

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