Alter Ego (2002) by Issei Shibata

A trio of schoolgirls, Mizuki (Nobuko Sakuma), Yuka (Chieko Kawabe) and Maya (Sena) are gathered for a photoshoot at an empty high-school. While working on the shoot they begin to notice strange occurrences, beginning with the talent scout, Isaka (Kanji Tsuda), seeming to appear in two places at the same time. There is a old rumour that if you see your doppelganger you are doomed to die. Hisaka is chased by his own double and falls from a window at the top of the school where they are shooting. Other doubles soon begin appearing and the group are tracked down one by one.

Director Issei Shibata (The Chasing World) is working with a small cast and a micro-budget on this film. The cast do what they can with the material, but once the central concept is set up it’s a straight line to the finish as they are picked off one by one. There is minimal character development before the plot begins and later in the film, when we learn a little more about some of the characters, it is too late to form a real attachment with them. While the supernatural killings are given some explanation it is a fairly rote idea. Being made on such a small budget, the film is limited in what they can do in terms of the direction. While it is competently directed it rarely shows signs of brilliance. The special effects are poor and largely unnecessary. With a film of this type it would have been much better to suggest the horrors and traumas that are besieging the characters, rather than attempt to show them. In parts the laughable effects even undermine the tension that is established. This twinned with the drama being set entirely during daylight hours means that it is unlikely that the film will frighten anyone with even a passing acquaintance with other horror films.

Doppelgangers are an old horror trope and one ripe for allegorical interpretation. However, the film never really delves into the characters in any significant way. We learn that Maya was abused as a child, but again this is used only to service the plot rather than offer any emotional weight to proceedings. A largely forgettable film that struggles to provide anything in the way of originality or scares.

Reincarnation (2005) by Takashi Shimizu

Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) is auditioning for a role in a film adaptation of a real-life murder story. Many years before a man killed eleven people at a hotel in Gunma, including his own son and daughter. Nagisa is cast to play the young 10-year old daughter who was murdered, but things soon take a sinister turn when she begins to see visions of this girl and starts to wonder if there is something supernatural going on. Another actress, Yuka (Marika Matsumoto), a firm believer in reincarnation tells her this could be a possible explanation, something hinted at throughout. As work begins on the film the director Matsumura (Kippei Shiina) takes the cast and crew to the hotel where this horrific incident took place and Nagisa begins to spiral into a nightmare somewhere between memory and hallucination.

Directed by Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge, Marebito) from a screenplay by Shimizu and Masaki Adachi. “Reincarnation” is a chilling experience, mixing a haunted hotel mystery with psychological horror. By setting up the film within a film, the writers create doubt about what is going on that continues until the final moments. We are never sure how much of what we are seeing is real, or whether Nagisa is hallucinating. This sense of unease is pervasive, particularly later in the film, as it is not only the characters but the audience themselves whose sense of reality is being toyed with. Whereas many horror films offer an easy escape, the villain of this piece is not easily identifiable, and so impossible to counter. This sense of an unstable reality is heightened with great use of practical effects, such as the appearance of the young girl who was murdered at various moments. The editing also plays with the sense of space, by having the camera move from the real world of Nagisa, into her imagination, through the memories and old footage of the incident, and the constructed set of the film. This perfectly captures her increasingly warped psyche as she tries to establish what is happening to her. The music by Kenji Kawai (Dark Water) creates a dark atmosphere with echoing strings and synth providing an ominous backdrop to the action. The use of creaks and knocks and later the whirring of an old-fashioned camera help to build a soundscape that is terrifying without the need for bombast. The film builds a quiet dread throughout, rarely relying on gore or shock moments, but a creeping terror that draws you in and has you on the edge of your seat. The simplest of effects are done with finesse, such as the child’s doll that comes to life, or the sudden traumatic flashes of murder victims that assault Nagisa when they visit the hotel. Much of this imagery gets under the skin and troubles you long after it has passed, creating that feeling of an ineffable darkness waiting beyond this world. The terror of the unknown is brought to the fore. There are moments that don’t make strict logical sense, such as Nagisa’s casting as a 10-year old girl. However, this matters very little in the overall scheme of things, as we get the full psychological and emotional weight of what Nagisa is going through in a way that may have been diluted if everything was neatly explained. Yuka gives a great performance as the haunted and terrified Nagisa, capturing her descent into fear and panic as she struggles to untangle the strange web of unfamiliar memories she is caught in.

“Reincarnation” relies on familiar tropes, such as restless spirits and revenge, but does everything so well that it is a model of how these stories should be told. The idea of ghosts returning to life to seek vengeance plays on the primal fear of the unknown. Death is the great boundary that people can only cross in one direction and the thought that there may be two-way traffic is disturbing. It also ties into notions of guilt and shame about tragic events that have happened and the inability of people to change them. Nagisa is deeply troubled by the events of the past. We also witness her feelings being dismissed or disbelieved by those around her, again offering a deeper layer of horror to events. Not only is she beginning to lose any solid foundation for her reality, she increasingly has nobody to turn to for reassurance. “Reincarnation” is an excellent example of a film with great scares born of the concept and characters, truly terrifying in parts, with a dark twist.

Cursed (2004) by Yoshihiro Hoshino

On their way back from school, two girls stop outside a convenience store. One of them seems terrified of the store and refuses to enter. As she walks backwards, cowering in fear, she is struck by a passing lorry in a gory  explosion. It is a bold opening for a film that plays heavily on shock and unexpected moments. The story revolves around this convenience store which seems to be cursed, with strange occurrences happening to those connected to it and several customers. The story begins with the owner of another chain of stores, Ryoko Kagami (Kyoko Akiba), arriving to discuss with the owners the joining of their store with the Cosmo Mart franchise. The two owners are peculiar, spending the majority of their time gazing into the security camera feed as they spy on their part-time cashier Nao Shingaki (Hiroko Sato). A disturbing figure in a hooded coat, whose face is permanently in darkness, lingers around the store; and customers whose purchases total 666 or 999 are the victims of terrible and inexplicable happenings.

Based on a short story by Yumeaki Hirayama, “Cursed” is the directorial debut of Yoshihiro Hoshino, who also wrote the screenplay. This low-budget horror uses simple yet effective techniques to create an uncomfortable atmosphere and many moments of spine-tingling terror. A great example of this is a character who sees a white ball bouncing out of a darkened passageway, while a voice tempts him to come forward. These inexplicable moments help establish an eerie tone that keeps the audience on edge. The director uses framing and camera-work to equally brilliant effect, with the horrors often left to the audience’s imagination off screen. This feeling of dread that the film conveys helps the film makers skirt around the need for a larger budget. The film is not particularly gory, despite the sight of blood on occasion, but leans more heavily on the chills of the weird and ambiguous kind. It doesn’t always avoid the drawbacks of budget, with some of the tremendous work in building tension occasionally punctured by less polished effects. The film is packed with ideas; rather than relying on a single apparition it fills the run-time with doppelgangers, ghosts, curses, psychological traumas and more visceral scares. The actors do a good job with their characters. The shop owners are terrifying in their dead-eyed expressions, and Kyoko Akiba and Hiroko Sato do a good job as the protagonists attempting to figure out what is happening.

“Cursed” never offers a full answer as to what is happening at the store. While Ryoko and Nao do eventually hear a story that may explain the supernatural occurrences, it is the subtext of the film and the secondary explanation that is more interesting. It appears that Ryoko and Nao are able to see strange things that others cannot. This second-sight is easily read as some kind of sixth sense, but perhaps its significance is in having perception or empathy for those around them. The scene following this exposition sees a sequence that is largely incomprehensible without this reading, when Nao sets out to save her co-worker, Komori (Takaaki Iwao) from this apparent curse. Nao is able to see the horrors of everyday life and the impact they have on others, whether trauma or emotional suffering, suicide, death, or even murder. The focus on a convenience store also lends itself to this reading, as does the overplaying of news stories of crime that accompany part of the film. Horror is something that is almost banal in our society, we are everyday confronted by things that should terrify us yet we are able to compartmentalise them or shrug them off as unavoidable. People think nothing of going into a convenience store, unthinking consumerism is an opiate that means we never fully engage with the world around us and often ignore terrible things that happen to others. The film’s strength is in not fully explaining itself but leaving itself open to interpretation. Worth a watch if you are looking for some inspired low-budget horror.

Black Rat (2010) by Kenta Fukasaku

A low budget slasher flick set in a high school, “Black Rat” begins with a scene that will shock and delight fans of the genre. The agonized groans of a boy, stripped to his underwear and covered in blood reverberate around the empty high-school corridors. The reason for his distress: a figure with a large rat head mask carrying a metal pole who is stalking him with murderous intent. As this figure reaches his victim the credits roll, overlaid by a legend about 7 rats, all of whom had various characteristics, that ends with an enigmatic message asking: “who is the last rat?”. We then see a girl dancing on the school roof, black rat mask before her, before jumping to her death. The suicide of this girl, Asuka (Rina Saito), is followed months later by her classmates receiving a message telling them all to come to the school that night. Our unhappy group include Misato (Misaki Yonemura), Asuka’s best friend, Kengo, Ryota (Hiroya Matsumoto), Saki and Kaneko, all of whom have some connection to Asuka. As they arrive at the school they are met by a female in a school uniform wearing the bloodied black rat mask. She tells them she is there for revenge and one by one they will be killed.

Written by Futoshi Fujita and directed by Kenta Fukasaku (Battle Royale 2), “Black Rat” follows a fairly predictable slasher narrative with a group of unlucky individuals brought together to be bumped off in innovative ways. Flashbacks give us a little detail on them and their relationship with their deceased classmate. The plot’s major weakness is in the reveal of the killer’s motivation. Each flashback  provokes no great feeling of dawning realisation but a shrug. It seems unlikely that their minor indiscretions, being slightly uncaring about Asuka’s end of term project, or cheating on her, would provoke the bloody slaughter they are subjected too. Twists later in the film go some way to explaining what is happening, but again it doesn’t tie together in an entirely logical way. The audience is left to wonder why the students aren’t able to overwhelm their adversary, or run from her. The tenuous plot does not necessarily harm the film, depending on what you are looking for there are still moments to enjoy.

While clearly filmed on a low budget, using a single location and small cast, the film excels in making the most of what it has. The abandoned school at night offers the perfect spot for horror, with deep pools of shadow in every room, the impenetrable darkness gathering in each corner, creating a chilling atmosphere. The eerie silence of the building sets up the tension perfectly in the early portion of the film and as things move into action mode later we see colour shifts through green and red to highlight the change of tone. There is also gothic imagery used to good effect, with the dissected animals of the biology class and the uniformed schoolgirl with a rat’s head creates an instantly unpleasant and iconic antagonist.

While it is generic and the plot leaves something to be desired, “Black Rat” is an entertaining diversion. From the very beginning you know exactly the type of film you are going to get and it delivers that. The concept of a masked killer and a high-school grudge is hardly new to the genre, but the film knows this and wastes little extraneous time attempting to be anything other than a cheap slasher flick. The art direction makes it worth a watch and it is clear that much of it is intended to be tongue-in-cheek fun.

Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.