The horror movies I respect the most aren't the ones that try to scare me, let alone just gross me out. The most captivating ones leave me uneasy, with lingering dread. Japanese horror at its best is all about that manner of dread: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (and most of the rest of his films), the Ring cycle at its best, and so on. Kei Fujiwara's Organ fakes you out: it starts as a blood-glazed, filth-speckled barf-a-rama, then reveals itself to be more a vehicle of great dread and unease.
Black market blues
J-horror aficionados might know Fujiwara by name, if not by her work. She was Shinya Tsukamoto's girlfriend at the time he was making Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and appears in that film as the wife of the hapless, devolving-into-scrap-metal salaryman protagonist. She isn't in the movie for long, but her blazing eyes and butoh-inflected performance are on of its high points. Founder of her own underground theatrical company, she created Organ originally as a stage play for the troupe, then a micro-budgeted film where the crew was the cast and vice versa.
Fujiwara stars — although, again, she has relatively little screen time — as Yoko, a one-eyed viper of a woman who runs a black-market organ-legging ring. Dead bodies are less preferable to comatose live ones, which can be stashed in back rooms and harvested as needed. Yoko's brother, Saeki, has a respectable day job as a high-school biology teacher, but he uses the school as a front to abduct students who aren't likely to be missed and turn them into organ farms.
One night two undercover cops, Numata and his green partner Tosaka, find their way into Yoko's lair on a tip — one that involves watching passively as a "dead" body, most likely a thug, is picked out of the gutter and stuffed into a car. ("He's worth more dead than alive," Numata sneers.) Numata's cover is blown and a ghastly fight ensues, with Tosaka stolen away by the gang and Numata booted off the police force.
With nothing to get in his way now, Numata goes after the organ-leggers on his own, not realizing that Tosaka's twin brother Shinji also wants to find out what happened. The organ-legger's HQ has since been taken over by a yakuza group, who resent the presence of the cops even more, but might have crucial leads — especially if one of their number is Yoko and Saeki's father. And Saeki himself is suffering from some kind of progressive rot that he's only able to keep at bay with more human sacrifices, including the progressive mutilation of Tosaka's body, still alive in Saeki's closet like a human bonsai.
Lingering side effects
Most horror films present themselves as endurance tests, not always to their benefit. I'm not of the mindset that the truest of art is the kind that works the hardest to eliminate audience members until only the devoted few remain. Horror movies, because of how they work and to what end, are doubly susceptible to this. A good starting point, or at least one with potential, can become mere nastiness.
The first twenty minutes or so of Organ do work like an endurance test, but not just because what we're seeing is grotesque (although it absolutely is; more on that later). It uses a disorienting, oblique storytelling style, where only the most important things are explained and everything else is shown, and you have to do much of the legwork yourself. The mood and texture of the whole thing is what matters — not just the grimness of the gore hidden behind plastic sheets and in locked back rooms, but the despair and frustration and regret of the characters.
In fact, most of the really vile material in Organ isn't in the scenes of comatose bodies being clipped open and harvested, with Saeki stripping his victims like the butterflies pinned to the cards in his office. It's in moments like when one of Numata's former partners, now missing an eye thanks to Numata's own monomania, bluffs his way into Numata's house and rapes his wife because her husband's never home anyway, not even now that he has no excuse to be out. Some of it is the mix of psychology and gore common to good horror, as when we learn what shaped Yoko and Saeki, and why their father is himself such a wreck as well.
Like Tetsuo before, Fujiwara essentially made Organ by hand. In one of the few detailed interviews she's ever given about her work, she described how the cast and crew pooled money to buy film stock, and how the cast bore the financial burden of any reshoots past the first take. It was a cost-saving measure, and a way to get her performers to level up and get it right the first time, just as they would on the boards. The acting in Organ is frenzied and rough, but not sloppy; it's intense in the way I imagine Fujiwara's "micro-theater" productions are, happening mere feet from your face.
It's easy to be gross, as per Peter Jackson's Dead/Alive or Bad Taste (which have the redeeming qualities of being unaccountably funny) or as per The Human Centipede (which has no redeeming qualities I know of). It's harder to be grotesque, and again Organ manages that by way of its unbroken atmosphere of grimy despair. I mentioned Tosaka in the closet, a truly ghastly image. But even more striking ones abound, as when Saeki injects one of his female victims with drugs and she hallucinates being an insect emerging from its cocoon.
Fujiwara is not cinematically prolific. Maybe that's for the best: if she were more prolific, it might be nigh-impossible to endure all her work. The only other film she's made, ID, is also mercifully available in English on DVD. What little we do have is more memorable than the entire catalogues of others.