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.

Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell (2012) by Shinichi Fukazawa

Bodybuilder Shinji (Shinichi Fukazawa), his ex-girlfriend (Asako Nosaka), and a psychic (Masaaki Kai) enter a haunted apartment in this low-budget splatter horror. 30 years after his father’s death, killed by an angry girlfriend, Shinji and the others head there, led by his ex-girlfriend who is investigating the paranormal. Not long after arriving they disturb the ghost of his father’s vengeful lover and are forced to do battle with the evil spirit. This film apparently had a long production period, with filming beginning in 1995 and editing in 2005.

Written and directed by star Shinichi Fukazawa, the film’s shoestring budget give it a homemade charm, with shaky physical effects, blood spatter, and dodgy CG, creating a wacky, over-the-top tone that is more comedic that terrifying. The film is firmly tongue-in-cheek, the bodybuilding protagonist reminiscent of typical action hero types, and the surreal slapstick of much of the story and the effects raises a few smiles. Moments such as the heroes being unable to burn a corpse because one recently quit smoking on the advice of the other; or severed limbs attacking independent of a body, all play into the blackly humour tone The film is shot on grainy film stock that also adds to the feel of a throwback horror. The apartment setting does lend a claustrophobic attitude and ensures things keep moving. A a little over an hour in length there is no time to rest as the trio attempt to fight their way to safety. There are rarely moments of respite given they are never more than a room away from a demonic spirit. If you are a fan of silly low-budget splatter films then this does the job, with an outrageous premise and some fun effects work.

Parallel (2021) by Daiki Tanaka

A gory, shocking, stylised crime drama with themes of revenge and abuse. The film begins with a young girl, Mai, being abused by her parents, putting out cigarrettes on her, locking her in a cupboard, and hints of sexual molestation. The girl is saved from this despicable situation by a cross-dressing murderer who breaks into their apartment and slays her parents. Years later Mai (Momona Naraha) is working as an escort with her friend Kana (Koyuki Sugasawa), when she meets Mikio (Sojiro Yoshimura), who unbeknownst to her is the notorious ‘cosplay killer’ responsible for several murders. Mikio is a reclusive figure, whose shy demeanour gives no indication of his criminal activities. He is also the anonymous author of a popular anime show, which is a colourful metaphor for his crimes and an attempt to reconcile the evil in the world and his own past traumas.

Written and directed by Daiki Tanaka, “Parallel” combines a superhero narrative of a young girl rescued from depraved parents and a man fighting to redress the balance of good and bad in society, with a gory exploitation flick, with lashings of blood and brutal slayings. The film’s stylish cinematography and use of colourful lighting creates an oddly joyous atmosphere, distancing the audience from the horror of many of the killings. Along with the techno soundtrack, an excellent score provided by Kenji Kato, they become more entertaining than disturbing. This strange contrast is also seen in Mikio’s wearing a cutesy character mask and wig during the crimes, offsetting the violence with an unsuitably cheery aesthetic. Momona Naraha and Sojiro Yoshimura do a great job with their characters, both struggling with bitter memories from their past, deeply broken individuals who nevertheless have hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow. The scenes between the two of them are a thrilling mix of danger, vulnerability, romance, and youthful uncertainty.

On the surface the film has an exploitation feel, with many of the killings being extremely gory and over the top. However, this contrasts with Mai’s story, which is deeply upsetting and the film does not hold back with its depictions of violence and the psychological distress that follows. The opening sequence is hard to watch as they feature a young girl being tormented, but it sets up perfectly Mai’s later difficulties in coming to terms with what happened and who she is. Her path, becoming an escort, turning inwards, is vastly different to Mikio, who sets about killing those he considers a negative influence in society. Both of these individuals see their suffering as external, something to be shied away from or attacked, rather than accepting their own vulnerabilities and attempting to change themselves from within. The film discusses transformation as an important part of the process of recovering, moving beyond defining yourself solely as a victim, and it is this capacity for change that both are attempting to discover. “Parallel” also discusses the role of media in constructing stereotypes or escapist fantasies to deal with difficult situations. Mikio’s anime is a thinly veiled allegory for real world events, even using the transvestite killer as one of the characters. In one scene we see Mikio dancing with the television, capturing his desire to escape into that world, and his crimes are also reflective of a revenge fantasy. In this regard the film has its cake and eats it, being both a contemplative discussion of victims recovering from abuse, and media as an unhelpful distraction, while also being a gory revenge thriller that sees bad people get their comeuppance. Highly entertaining, “Parallel” will appeal to those who enjoy gory crime films, but be warned that the subject matter can be distressing.

Gantz (2004)

Based on the hit Hiroya Oku manga, the “Gantz” anime follows the story of Kei Kurono (Daisuke Namikawa), Kato Masaharu (Masashi Osato) and Kei Kishimoto (Hitomi Nabatame) as they battle aliens and attempt to survive a deadly world. Kei and Kato are struck by a subway train and killed, after Kato jumped on the tracks to save a homeless man who had fallen. They are then transported to a mysterious apartment room where they find a large black sphere which hands them guns, high-powered suits and a mission to kill aliens that are living on earth. The missions see them again transported to the Tokyo city streets, where they are invisible to regular people, and they are thrust into do or die combat against vicious opponents.

For those familiar with the manga, the anime follows the plot closely early on, diverging from the source material later. The episodes vary between high-octane sci-fi action as the team fight against these weird monsters, that take various forms, and more reflective moments as we see them in their everyday lives (between missions the team is allowed to return to the world of the living). The show does a good job of balancing these two tones, with great characters that have just enough to their personalities to keep you invested in their survival. The animation uses a mix of CG and traditional hand drawn techniques to create an interesting look to the show, allowing for shots to zoom in or swoop around the digital environments. This also enables the animators to produce incredible action sequences. The anime, much like the manga, pushes the boundaries in terms of sexual and violent content, with many scenes cut in the original television broadcast. The extreme nature of the deaths along with a adolescent fascination with female anatomy is something that will appeal to certain viewers, but it is not without thematic importance. The show heightens awareness of the human condition by distancing itself from the sanitized version of reality often served to people. The gore and nudity are justified in what they are trying to say about the key drivers of human interaction.

At the heart of the “Gantz” story are several mysteries that are never fully resolved, but allow the writers to explore various facets of the human experience. Gantz offers the people who are drawn to the room a second chance at life, although the motivations of the sphere and the figure inside are never revealed. We see people put in a high-pressure environment where they are forced to reveal their true nature. Kato’s philosophy of non-violent altruism is put to the test by the violent struggles he is forced into. Kei’s petulance and lack of authority are also exposed as he takes on the missions. Kishimoto is almost a laughable airhead in the early episodes, but as the series progresses she is shown to have great depth. With all its ambiguity, political and social satire, and themes of suicide, societal violence, death, and religion, “Gantz” is amenable to any number of interpretations. In the end, questions of what Gantz is, what it wants, or why any of this is happening, are largely unimportant. What is more fascinating is the examination of society. “Gantz” poses difficult moral questions about violence and killing and the value of human life.