Tokyo Film Festival: Yoshihiro Nakamura's teeth-rattlingly scary film combines flesh-prickling pleasure with the intrigue of a police procedural

Of the many compliments you can pay The Inerasable, perhaps the highest, is that it understands how fear moves through the real world – not by creeping up behind you and shouting boo, but by planting an idea or image and allowing it to marinade, perhaps for months, years, or even a lifetime.

Yoshihiro Nakamura’s picture – which had its world premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival this week – is about this phenomenon in action, which also perfectly describes how the film itself works its dark magic. It lets terror build slowly through the gradual accrual of unnerving ideas and images until their combined weight starts to shorten your breath.

The film’s heroine is a nameless horror novelist (Yuko Takeuchi) whose own habit of collecting strange stories brings her into contact with Kubo (Ai Hashimoto), a student who wants her to investigate a strange noise coming from her spare room at night.

'The investigation becomes a mission to discover the cause of the site’s seemingly indelible stain of sadness'

It sounds a little like someone dragging a broom across the floor, but Kubo has no reason to suspect the place is haunted: as her landlord proudly notes, there’s no record of murder or suicide in the building. But when the two women start asking around, they discover a neighbour has been hearing the same noise in her also empty spare room – and that her cute two-year-old daughter sometimes stops by the open door, looks up at the ceiling, laughs and shouts: “Swing! Swing!”

This is the point at which any sensible person would burn the place down and move overseas. But the women’s interest is piqued, and they dig into the history of the site through local newspaper cuttings, title deeds, records at the local Buddhist temple and by talking to local elders. They discover the plot of land on which the building is built has played host to a series of almost entirely unrelated horrible events over the last few generations, and their investigation becomes a mission to discover the cause of the site’s seemingly indelible stain of sadness.

Nakamura’s film, which is based on a bestselling Japanese novel by Fuyumi Ono, tells its story with the same unwinking solemnity that characterised the great J-horror films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, such as Hideo Nakata’s Ring and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge. It also shares those movies’ complex (as opposed to ‘strong’) female characters, and a sober worldview that’s nevertheless attuned to life’s spiritual undertow.

Its great innovation, though, is in the way it combines the flesh-prickling pleasures of intelligent horror with the intrigue of a great police procedural. As further evidence keeps coming to light – the land turns out to have previously been home to a paranoid hoarder and an old lady who talked to what her neighbours assumed were imaginary cats – one or two common details continue to resurface, strengthening the sense that a single, unifying cause must somehow be the root of the occurrences.

'Deserves an international audience': The Inerasable

A number of earlier residents, for example, are on record as having seen “babies emerging from beneath the floorboards” of their houses – a surreally horrific image, made all the more terrifying by its apparent refusal to suggest the kind of ‘rational’ explanation for which Kubo and the author are searching.

As the film dips in and out of the past, cinematographer Yukihiro Okimura switches shooting styles to reflect the era: crisp, wide compositions and a delicately sickly palette for the present;  stricter geometric framing and softer colours for the past. That may sound like a gimmick, but it works sensationally well in practice. Japanese cinema’s particular reverence for ghost stories stretches back to its 1950s golden era and beyond, and the film’s evocation of that period lends its flashback scenes an extra meta-shiver.

This is a sharply intelligent film about why we get scared that is itself teeth-rattlingly scary – a connoisseur’s horror movie that deserves an international audience.