Sweet Home (1989) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

A film crew head to the mysterious country mansion of a deceased artist to uncover his lost paintings, only to be terrorized by the ghost of his wife. Film director Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro), his daughter Emi (Nokko), producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), reporter and host Asuka (Fukumi Kuroda), and crewman Taguchi (Ichiro Furutachi) enter the mansion in the woods unsuspecting of their fate. They are delighted to discover a never-before-seen mural depicting a mother with child, but soon things begin to take a sinister turn. Asuka begins speaking in tongues and digs up the coffin of an infant outside. The crew come to realise that the house is haunted, or ‘cursed’ as they are later told by elderly gas station manager Yamamura (Juzo Itami) who comes to their aid. The terrifying backstory of the Mamiya family is brought to light and the crew find themselves in a fight for survival against the violent spirit of Lady Mamiya.

“Sweet Home”, written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was released alongside a videogame of the same name. This video game was one of the primary inspirations behind the original “Resident Evil” game, which has since gone on to spawn numerous sequels and a film series of its own. Kurosawa’s film is based on a simple premise, a cursed house that the group must survive, one that allows the characters and outrageous action to take precedence. In many ways the reason for them being at the mansion is insignificant, the central story is of what happened to the Mamiyas and how they are going to escape with their lives. Lady Mamiya’s backstory is a gothic, gruesome tale; mostly told in exposition it nevertheless provokes a shudder. The film varies in tone from knockabout comedy, such as when Taguchi nearly accidentally decapitates Kazuo with a hefty axe he found in a shed, to some increidble gore effects in the latter half that stand alongside the best in the splatter film genre. The mix of simple effects, CG effects, and audacious practical monster effects make for an enjoyable watch for fans of fantastical horror. The cast do a great job, both in the lighthearted comedy and the horror action. The relationships between the widower Kazuo and his daughter, and Kazuo and Akiko, are engaging and provide a solid secondary plot thread through the shocks and scares of the main story. Kurosawa’s direction makes the most of the locations, filling them with dark shadows, and making the mansion come alive. It treads several well-worn tropes (the eerie mansion, the local who warns them of danger, the group dynamics of comedic and serious characters), but the skill of the director is in creating something that is fun and engaging even with that familiar premise.

Themes of family run strongly through the film, with Kazuo and Emi having lost a wife and mother, and the story of Lady Mamiya revolving around the loss of her own child in horrifying circumstances. The relationship between Kazuo and Emi is the reverse of Mamiya who lost a child. The loss of his wife has left Kazuo unsure of how to raise his daughter and unable to form new relationships, for example with Akiko. Likewise, Emi seems to be missing her mother, though in subtler ways, perhasp the reason she wants her father to remarry. Their drama is at odds with the events that occur at the Mamiya mansion, almost a completely separate narrative about trying to rediscover love and rebuild a relationship with a bereaved child. However, it is this juxtaposition that makes the film exciting. “Sweet Home” has a knack for turning on a sixpence from chilling to funny to poignant, switching emotional register without skipping a beat. The disparate elements create something that is hugely entertaining, with moments to please horror fans of all kinds.

Ju-On Origins (2020)

Since its release “Ju-On” (Takashi Shimizu, 2001) has established itself as a classic horror, spawning sequels, remakes and a crossover with “Ring” (Sadako vs. Kiyoko, Koji Shiraishi, 2016). This mini-drama, six half-hour episodes, first takes us back to 1988. Yasuo Odajima (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) is a paranormal investigator who is introduced to the story of the mysterious house by a co-presenter, Haruka Honjo (Yuina Kuroshima), whose partner recently visited the place while house hunting. Certain spirits that inhabit the house haunt many people who come into contact with it, often terrifying them to death or causing some violent or fatal misfortune. Around the same time a schoolgirl, Kiyomi (Ririka), is tricked by her classmates into visiting the house and there subjected to sexual abuse. The series then moves forward, to 1995 and 1998, as occurences at the house and in the lives of people connected with it become more gruesome and bizarre.

Written by Hiroshi Takahashi and Takashige Ichise, and directed by Sho Miyake, “Ju-On Origins” creates several interwoven stories that all converge on this same ill-fated residence. The short half-hour episodes and multiple narratives mean it is fast-paced, moving swiftly from one story to another, often more of a detective drama that straight horror. The mystery of what is happening in the house twinned with genuine concern for the characters makes it gripping from start to finish. For fans of the original films there is also interest in seeing these new characters and revisiting the cursed residence. The scares are a mixture of bloody body horror, more visceral and shocking than anything in the original films, and the more familiar creepy moments. These subtler moments are often more effective, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere from often simple things: mewling cats, ringing telephones, small details in the background. However, when it does go for more disturbingly graphic scares, it hits the mark, reinventing and exploring the more gruesome aspects of the “Ju-On” myth, including spousal and child murder, and sexual assault. The direction uses some of the techniques of the original film, off-kilter angles, holding on a scene until the audience realises there’s a figure in the background, but also features great use of light and colour, with scenes shifting from light to dark. There are more special effects involved in this series, which can be hit and miss, but are nevertheless audaciously extreme. The cast all do a great job in bringing the curse of the house to life, creating real characters in an unreal situation. In particular Yoshiyoshi Arakawa in a rare serious role, and Ririka whose complex character is one of the most intriguing.

One of the things that makes “Juon Origins” interesting is the meta reading of the film. In several episodes we hear or see news reports of real-life crimes and tragedies, two very high-profile murders, the Sarin Gas Attack, and the Kobe Earthquake. These add a disturbing aspect to the film, almost drawing horror from these true crimes into the narrative, providing an uncomfortable reminder that horror and evil exist in our own world. Odajima, one of the first characters we are introduced to and one whose story is intricately linked with the house, is asked on a number of occasions why he is writing a book on the paranormal; and this question could also be asked not only of this film, but horror films in general. The question of human fascination with evil, whether real-world or supernatural, is a pertinent one, especially considering the inclusion of the genuine stories mentioned above. The idea of the cursed house, spirits calling for revenge, unsatisfied rage, anger, despair, are things that are seen as resulting from the violence and abuse that took place there. In part, the series is not questioning the origin of this cursed house, but the origin of the film “Ju-On”, and indirectly all horror. That is, why do writers, artists, and film-makers, make disturbing works. It does not spring from some imagined fear, but from the horrors they see in the world. Whether this is a form of escapism or an attempt to explain our relationship with evil is up for debate. “Ju-On: Origins” is a series that takes it’s subject matter seriously, creating a potent dread that is as much to do with our own fears as the supernatural horror.

Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) by Koji Shiraishi

Based on a playground urban legend, this slightly silly horror sees a monstrous figure begin a terrifying rampage of kidnap and killing. The film begins with groups of children telling the story of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, who removes her mask to reveal a face sliced from ear to ear, and who cuts her victims in a similar way with a pair of large scissors. After an earthquake strikes the town, this woman begins to appear and snatch children in plain sight. When her student Mika (Rie Kuwana) is taken by the Slit-Mouthed Woman, teacher Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato) along with Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato) set out to try and stop her and save the children that have been taken. They are helped by a schoolboy who has collected data on the woman, and Noboru’s personal experience as a child.

Directed by Koji Shiraishi (Noroi: The Curse) and written by Shiraishi and Naoyuki Yokota, “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is standard horror fare, with a supernatural monster coming after young children, a dark backstory, violence and even a spooky old house in the woods. Part of the problem is in making such an urban legend into a believable figure. The Slit-Mouthed Woman’s appearances seem random, happening in broad daylight, witnessed by everyone, before equally sudden and inexplicable disappearances. This robs her actions of any tension in the buildup, often happening before you’re aware that there was even a threat. As a villain she also seems remarkably easy to stop or simply shove aside, as any character who attempts it ably demonstrates. The second narrative problem is in her motivation, which is muddled at best and non-existant at worse. The film may work better for children, with the children being the main victims and the non-supernatural horror revolving round mistreatment of children. It is this balance between a slightly spooky fable for children (watch out for strangers) and a genuinely terrifying horror for adults (keep an eye on your children) that sees the film perhaps pull back in certain moments, never fully developing the more troubling themes it hints at. On the positive side the film does have a great, if comfortably familiar, third act, when they finally track down the monster to her hideout and a fun showdown ensues. The sound design and score by Gen Wano and Chika Fujino also does a good job of evoking the eerie, sinister atmosphere of a ghost train.

The urban legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman references a childhood fear of strangers and a parental fear of their children going missing. This film also weaves in a secondary horror that is more interesting than that primary narrative. We learn that Yamashita hit her young daughter, meaning that she is now no longer in contact with her. Her daughter lives separately with her father. Mika also suffered violence at the hands of her mother, as did Noboru. This theme of maternal child abuse provides a dark undertone to the film, and one that makes parts of it an uncomfortable watch. It is never made clear why the women act this way, presumably due to mental health issues, post-natal depression and multiple-personality disorders are hinted at. Instead the film seems to suggest that women occasionally turn violent for little reason. The depiction of such women as evil seems a step backwards in the understanding of such conditions. “Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman” is a fun horror that doesn’t expect too much from its audience, but could have used its platform to tell a more interesting or more nuanced story.

Over Your Dead Body (2014) by Takashi Miike

Dreams and reality begin to merge during preparations for a stage production of a popular ghost story. Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki) and Kosuke (Ebizo Ichikawa) are playing the lead roles of Iwa and Iemon in a production of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories. The story is one of infidelity and revenge which seems to have a peculiar resonance with Kosuke’s own life as he begins an affair with another actress. He starts to experience strange visions as Miyuki’s behaviour becomes more erratic.

“Over Your Dead Body”, written by Kikumi Yamagishi and directed by Takashi Miike, focusses on the central story of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”. While the story is famous in Japan, it may not have the same resonance in other parts of the world. The film assumes a certain degree of knowledge of this tale, showing large parts of the play they are performing and scenes that are not always explained or run consecutively, which can make little sense if you don’t know who the protagonists are or what is happening. The sequences of the performance are so beautifully shot on exquisite sets that you could quite happily have watched the play itself without the modern take on it. “Yotsuya Kwaidan” features a vengeful female spirit who seeks justice for her untimely death on her former lover. This film takes that premise and mixes in the idea that the actors are going through the same story as the characters, again in the expectation that you are aware of the original. The music by Koji Endo features traditional instrumentation of string and percussion that creates that eerie ghost story feel. It is rarely excessively gory instead relying more on creepy moments such as the slow realisation of a figure standing in the dark, or unnatural occurrences.

Life imitating art is an interesting theme, but unfortunately the film doesn’t make the most of its premise. In utilising so much of the stage performance of “Yotsuya Kwaidan”, while also telling the story of Kosuke and Miyuki we end up not really getting a satisfactory version of each, too little of the performance for it to make sense and too little of the actors to feel fully attached to their plight. Early on we see the various production staff watching the stage, but the film seems to offer little commentary on much of what is happening. That is not to say that it is not entertaining, there is plenty here to thrill fans of sinister ghost stories, and it is a unique way to tell the story, but it fails to go deeper than pure entertainment.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) has recently bought a computer to get connected to the Internet. When he turns it on he is taken to a peculiar and disturbing website that seems to show people sitting alone in rooms and a message asking if he would like to see a ghost. He asks at the university computer department if they have any idea what is happening. Computing teacher Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) attempts to help him. Another student tells him that there is a theory that the spirits of the dead, having becoming too numerous, have begun to pass over into the world of the living. In a parallel story, Michi (Kumiko Aso), an employee at a flower shop, is also made aware of this unusual phenomenon when she goes to find their co-worker who has been missing for several days. The appearance of these figures, both on computers screens, and in the world, grow increasingly frequent and events threaten to overwhelm those involved.

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Pulse” takes inspiration from traditional ghost stories. Many of the scares in the film revolve around eerie happenings, such as dark figures appearing or disappearing suddenly. The music by Takefumi Haketa is disturbing, representing the howls of disturbed spirits. The sets used also give the impression of an old-fashioned ghost story, with abandoned buildings, and even a laboratory packed with various leads and devices. “Pulse” transposes these elements onto the modern world of computers and the internet, using techniques such as image manipulation and the idea that the screen may not be as much of a barrier as people think.

The film underscores its ghost story thrills with a deeply disturbing sub-strata of existential angst and fear of isolation. The concept of the Internet as a tool to connect individuals, but which will actually result in them becoming ever more distant from one another is interesting. Throughout the film there is a clear separation between the living and the dead. Kawashima is a young man who utterly rejects the notion of ghosts. He is forced through these occurrences to confront his fear of death. The character of Harue fears being left alone. The finale of the film is unexpected, bringing the story full circle to the opening narration, and making us question our assumptions of what has gone before. There is discussion in the film about the difference between life and death, about the imperceptible line between the two. Enough space is left for interpretation although as with much of the film it seems to be more about thematic exploration that any literal interpretation of events.