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.

Bilocation (2013)

Bilocation is the supernatural phenomenon whereby an individual appears in two places at the same time. Artist Shinobu (Asami Mizukawa) is hard at work trying to finish a painting of the view from her balcony when the doorbell to her apartment rings. The man at the door is Masaru (Yosuke Asari), a blind man who has just moved into her block. After meeting Shinobu the two get married. It is at this point Shinobu’s life changes course, she explains, and we are soon to find out that is in more ways than one. On a trip to the supermarket she is brought up by the check-out staff who tell her that not only was she there 10 minutes prior, but is attempting to use an identical bank note to pay. Suspecting fraud they call in the police. The policeman turns out to be part of a group investigating bilocation and invites Shinobu to their group. Each member is suffering the same problem with a mysterious double appearing at intervals and interfering with their lives. These doppelgangers grow increasingly dangerous as the group works to understand them and then to stop them.

“Bilocation” is based on a novel by Haruka Hojo, with a screenplay by director Mari Asato. It is an intriguing concept on which to base a supernatural horror, with the eerie sense of being followed and the secondary fear of having another being living out your life providing ample chills. The film blends the best elements of creepy ghost stories and mystery dramas, relying heavily on a sense of foreboding and the occasional shock tactics as one of the bilocations appears suddenly. There are several plot turns layered so that even if one is obvious it is unlikely audiences will fully unravel the mystery until the end. There are a few moments that require some suspension of disbelief in order to sustain the conceit, but the film’s greatest strength is in using the central idea of bilocation to explore more primal fears and take a look at the psychology of the individuals affected. Asami Mizukawa gives a great central performance as Shinobu, whose journey from baffled to worried to outraged gives the audience much to enjoy. The film in a similar way shifts gears from suspense to action, constantly wrongfooting the audience. The camerawork in the film shows a deep understanding of horror conventions. A particularly standout scene comes early in the film when the camera drifts from Shinobu to an empty hallway, the importance of this shot only becoming clear later.

The phenomenon of bilocation almost predetermines themes of identity and duality. For Shinobu the true horror of having this double is her loss of self. She becomes increasingly annoyed at the thought of someone else taking her place. There is a deeper significance to this, made apparent by the use of reflections in mirrors and pools of water, which is the notion of self as a constructed reality. What Shinobu sees in the mirror is what everyone around her sees and recognizes as “Shinobu”, but that is far from a complete picture of who she is as a person. There is a horror of the loss of individuality and the idea that you could be easily replaced that will resonate with most people. Through the side characters other themes are explored that hinge on this. The mother whose double takes her sickly child from the hospital, or the man whose bilocation assaults a co-worker losing him his job. This plays to a fear of loss on a more tangible level than Shinobu’s loss of self-image, but helps to emphasise the significance of what is happening. A secondary reading of the film is that the bilocations are representative of something that is kept hidden within the individual. This is most apparent in the police officer Kano (Kenichi Takito), whose double seems to be an expression of his ego, or base instincts, lashing out indiscriminately. Beneath the veneer of civilised society there are atavistic ulterior characters lurking in everyone. A simple yet brilliant concept that lends itself to various psychological interpretations.

Kwaidan (1964) by Masaki Kobayashi

An anthology of four short films based on the popular supernatural tales of Lafcadio Hearn. The first film “The Black Hair” tells the story of a former retainer brought low by the death of his lord. After leaving his wife and marrying another woman he begins to regret his new life and returns to his old home to find that things are not as he expects. The second story “The Woman of the Snow” tells the tale of a couple of woodcutters trapped in a blizzard. The older man is killed by a mysterious pale woman who takes pity on the younger man allowing him to live if he swears not to tell another what he has seen. In the next tale “Hoichi the Earless” the spirits of an ancient battle visit a blind biwa player who is led to the spirit world to play for them. The final story “In a Cup of Tea” tells of a man who is troubled by spirits after seeing a face appear in his cup.

The four stories contained in “Kwaidan” are connected by a common theme of the supernatural, though they cut directly between each with no common characters. It is therefore more akin to watching four short films than a single narrative. The film respects the source material of the Lafcadio Hearn book, which provides a great base. Each of the paranormal tales builds to a twist ending or an inexplicable occurrence and with a short running time none of them outstay their welcome. Director Masaki Kobayashi does a great job of bringing the stories to life. There is a sense of theatre to the film with amazing sets and painted backgrounds giving the impression that these are retellings of ancient legends. However, this does nothing to lessen the impact of the drama with good acting and sound design along with the set decoration creating an impressive atmosphere of dread. There is also an interesting use of light, with blues and reds used to great effect. It is a perfect blend of theatre techniques with the medium of film.

Intriguing supernatural stories that are brought to the screen in timelessly beautiful versions. Many of the stories warn of the danger of spirits or focus on the horror of death. I would highly recommend this for fans of folklore and ghost stories. The design elements, music and acting perfectly capture the eerie atmosphere of Hearn’s tales.

The Curse (2005)

The film begins with a voice-over explaining that Masafumi Kobayashi, a famous paranormal investigator, died shortly after completing a documentary on a mysterious case. The following film takes the form of a found footage documentary, following Kobayashi as he investigates peculiar occurrences that may have a supernatural explanation. Looking at telepathic children, disappearances, a blood rite, an ancient demon, and other unusual happenings, Kobayashi soon finds himself getting dangerously close to the heart of the mystery.

The found footage style of the film works well, with certain television personalities playing themselves, and a choppy, cut-up style that adds to a sense of disorientation. It sprinkles in clues as events unfold and keeps the audience watching closely for anything that might help them establish connections between events. Seemingly unrelated or insignificant details are briefly glimpsed and then later return with a moment of revelation. For the most part the film relies on building tension with a series of simple effects, such as rope being knotted by someone in their sleep, or somebody standing stock still and groaning. Most of the gore is reserved for the later portion of the film. The horror aspect relies on you finding the idea of restless spirits, demons, or telepathy, plausible. However, even without that there is a solid central mystery being unravelled that will hold attention.

“The Curse” is a solid, if slightly generic, horror fare. The idea of ghosts or spirits returning from the afterlife is a common feature but given an interesting twist here with the realism of the documentary style. The film creates a believable set-up by introducing you to the investigator and also including fairly mundane interviews along with the more eerie occurrences.