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Recalling elements of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Vanishing Waves, fantastical and haunting mystery romance Real falls just shy of greatness. Some of the special effects are a tad underdeveloped and the story ultimately errs on the side of sweetness, but more often than not, it's a subtly chilling, light science fiction character piece dealing with the nature of guilt, love and memory, and how each can twist the others into elaborate knots.
The unravelling of these mnemonic entanglements is approached in much the same manner as the aforementioned films and, yes, even The Cell: one party enters the other's subconscious. In this case, it's a young man taking part in a cutting edge medical procedure that allows him to enter the mind of his comatose lover, Atsumi Kazu (Haruka Ayase), a successful Manga artist.
Right away, this is ostensibly a salvage mission; Koichi's entire motivation is to see if he can help her wake up. Unlike similar dream-diving efforts, they make contact easily and she's unperturbed by the knowledge that all this is taking place inside her unconscious mind. Insightfully commenting on the obsessive work ethic widely held in Japan, Atsumi can only seem to remember herself when she's feverishly putting pencil to paper. During every early "sensing," as the doctors label the procedure, she's busy logging intangible pages of art for the popular Manga series that's been on hold since she was hospitalized.
Hallucinations begin to plague Koichi between sessions, as one of the side effects of linking brain waves. While he searches for an old drawing of a dinosaur to kick-start his wife's memory, he begins seeing flesh and blood versions of the corpses in Atsumi's gory drawings, along with glimpses of a waterlogged little boy. The scene becomes increasingly fraught with paranoia and unease as the lines of reality blur more and more drastically.
Kurosawa does a fantastic job creating a sense of the perpetually off-kilter, subtly shifting the framing of shots between cuts and painstakingly applying eerie sound effects to ratchet up the tension and feeling that something is very wrong at the edges of perception.
Packing unexpected twists, cinematography that captures great beauty and creates serious willies with equal aplomb, as well as a score that commensurately blends the lovely with the creepy, Real will reward those who stick with it through the occasional stumble.
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