As audiences return to cinemas after pandemic-enforced absences, the hesitant relief of return has been paired with a yearning for new stories to match this new age. Keishi Kondo’s debut feature—and what a debut!—New Religion answers that call, a ghost story that manages to be both breathlessly intimate and awe-inspiringly widescreen at once. Currently doing the rounds on the international festival circuit—this reviewer managed to catch it at the Warsaw Film Festival—it is to be hoped that the film will secure a wide release in as many markets as possible, as Kondo has crafted a truly unique piece of arthouse horror cinema that defies easy categorisation and demands to be seen on the big screen.
The film revolves around Miyabi (Kaho Seto), a young woman struggling to live on after the death of her only child. The story takes place some significant but undetermined amount of time after the accident, but Miyabi appears to exist in a state of suspension, numb to the caring attention of her boyfriend (Saionji Ryuseigun) and to the everyday grind of her job as a callgirl. Things start to career out of control as she takes on a new customer, the sinister Oka (Satoshi Oka), who instead of sex insists on capturing Miyabi in a series of polaroid photographs, one part of her body at a time. In the intervals of this photographic endeavour, which is stretched over numerous sessions, Miyabi starts to gradually and bodily sense the presence of her dead daughter in her apartment. Are these mere illusions, or is there something more than meets the eye to Oka and his obsessions?
What unfolds from there is a ghost story, but also a great deal more: a vision of modern society—of present-day humanity—at breaking point. In fact, it is not so easy to say what actually happens in the more supernatural scenes of New Religion, as Kondo mostly avoids wordy exposition and allows powerful imagery and the gestures of his actors to carry the storyline. The official synopsis may provide a guide that helps make sense of the mechanics of the plot, although whether that is truly preferable to just experiencing the images as they come is debatable. What is clear is that Miyabi’s paranormal yearning for her daughter slowly drives a wedge between her and her previous attempts at a normal, reconstructed life, while around her the world begins to spiral into chaos in ways that may or may not be orchestrated by the demonic Oka.
The film has a small and apparently inexperienced cast—all the main players have few if any titles under their belts—yet the performances are all strong. Seto’s Miyabi, present in nearly every scene, is the standout: fragile without ever appearing weak, blank-faced from anguish but never bland. Meanwhile, Oka imbues his character with the threatening aura of an impersonal force of destruction beyond good and evil. Ryuseigun as Miyabi’s boyfriend and Daiki Nunami as her driver/handler have less to do but project a sympathetic if bewildered presence amid the mayhem, providing an everyday baseline of normality that repeatedly helps pull Miyabi, and with her the film, away from the brink.
Yet it is the visuals, and notably the sounds, that are New Religion’s blood and beating heart. Kondo uses light and colours, music and noise to impressive effect, creating a brooding, oppressive atmosphere that is enough to take one’s breath away: surreal, nightmarish visions are judiciously balanced with mundane shots of everyday life, overpowering and distorted background sonics with moments of clarity and quiet. Oka’s menacing presence is amplified by the overpowering red glare of his darkroom but also and especially through the warped synthetic voice that he uses to communicate through oversized speakers, having lost the use of his vocal cords to disease. It is a conceit that would appear ridiculous in a more realistic film but feels completely at home in Kondo’s dream-like world where every door might lead to suppressed horrors.
The film is laden with heavy symbolism that adds to the overarching desperate mood. The routine of watering houseplants comes to stand for both Miyabi’s trauma and for her halting attempts to live beyond it; while the bare, windowless concrete room where she and her colleagues wait for clients under flickering, failing halogen lights takes on the aspect of a limbo, a mournful waiting room for the inferno lurking just beneath the surface. The most crucial piece of the puzzle is the recurring image of the moth, in prints hung in Oka’s apartment and in documentary footage playing on a TV screen, a creature of the upside-down world of night and an uncontrollable pest spreading around the world.
The moth as symbol opens the film up in several directions at once, inviting layered readings. On the one hand, it appears as a sinister retelling of the classic Taoist parable of Zhuangzi and his dream of the butterfly, suggesting a double existence for Miyabi and everyone else as both a human being with emotions and a history, and as something different, something both more and less. The moth has no history, Oka informs us, and envies the connections that bind an individual to their loved ones and wider society. Its lack of humanity is a temptation, a dream of a life without pain. Or is it this imperfect human life that is the dream after all?
On the other hand, the imagery of the moth also points toward the theme of transformation from one developmental stage to another, a heavy premonition that everything is about to change in some foreboding way, both individually and collectively. It is there in how Oka’s victims relinquish their humanity and turn to destruction, but also in visions of widespread societal collapse. A background newscast ties the film firmly down into the pandemic moment, to a world grappling with the aftermath of an unprecedented crisis and wondering how to survive, much like Miyabi does after her own personal loss.
It is to this shared, pathological desire for transformative liberation from memories and lost futures—from pain—that the film’s cryptic title perhaps alludes. The people who inhabit this world struggle with a chronic lack of faith and perspective; against that context, Oka emerges prophet-like, sure of himself and his truths, an evangelist for the moth-realm and its promise of something else, a dream/life that is at least different even if not ultimately better: a new religion for a new age. This is a profoundly cynical take but an irresistibly effective one, perhaps because the villain here is shown to have no meticulous master plan; instead, the undoing of society merely occurs as people choose to stop upholding it.
Kondo’s view of twenty-first-century humanity is a deeply pessimistic one, but in a way that is elegiac and tragic rather than just dark for the sake of darkness. There is space for beauty and goodness in this story and in these characters: a handful of fragile, intimate moments between Miyabi and her partner transcend the oppressive atmosphere of the whole like stray rays of sunshine in a storm. There are no villains here and no one is really implied to deserve what’s coming—rather, the horror inevitably emerges from the characters’ most humane qualities and their inability, try as they might, to square those instincts with the harsh world that they live in. Giving up is the enemy.
Horror has been having a moment in mainstream culture in recent years, aided by the success of knowingly postmodern, auteur takes from creators like Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers. New Religion, however, stands proudly outside any trends as an urgent, unique, and visionary work—announcing Keishi Kondo as a name to watch. It is a beautifully restrained yet powerful work with few cheap thrills but an abundance of atmosphere and reflection, and one that will insinuate itself into the viewer’s mind and linger there long after the shock effect of its scares has faded.