Greatful Dead (2013)

Nami is a young girl who lives at home with her elder sister and her parents. Her mother is obsessed with giving money to overseas charities and one day decides to leave the family and travel to help these suffering children in person. This leads to Nami’s father taking up with a mistress, who eventually leaves and her father commits suicide. Nami’s sister also leaves home to go and live with a boyfriend. Nami’s only companion seems to be the television, and in particular a sales channel from which she purchases various items. Years later, living off her inheritance from her father, Nami has taken up watching other lonely individuals. From her vantage point on the roof she spies with binoculars or telescope these people who seem set on a path of solitude. She also follows them around the city, noting down their activities in a diary and is excited to discover a new “solitarian”. Her behaviour is charmingly eccentric, but takes a dark turn when she enters a man’s home and is delighted to find him dead, taking a photo with the corpse. She then discovers another lonely man, whom she begins stalking, camping out nearby his house. When this man begins to reconnect with the world, first with Christian community volunteers, and then with his own family, Nami takes matters into her own hands to ensure that he remains alone.

Directed by Eiji Uchida, “Greatful Dead” with a screenplay by Uchida and Estuo Hiratani is a film of two quite distinct halves, that seem stitched together down the middle. The early part of the film where we see the young Nami ignored and eventually abandoned by her parents, is a tragic portrayal of a neglected child. This segment also gives us a hint at later developments when she unexpectedly cracks a mop around a classmates head. The film then moves into a lighthearted comedy, complete with bouncy music, and a joyful Nami cataloguing all the lonely people she sees around the city. The second half of the film moves into dark horror and doesn’t hold back on the violence and gory sequences. However, both parts bleed into one another. There are elements of dark humour in the first half, and slapstick in the second. Kumi Takeuchi manages both parts exceptionally, being likeable and fun and shifting gear into creepy and terrifying later. Even when it is clear she is beyond helping, she still manages to evoke a degree of sympathy and is a joy to watch. Takashi Sasano, who plays her elderly stalking victim, likewise goes through a transformation, from irritable old man to a kindly grandpa and later to a victimised person who has had enough.

The film explores loneliness and isolation in a tongue-in-cheek way. Nami’s story is a sorrowful tale of neglect leading to later inability to function in society. Even as her sister constantly tells her “normal is best”, Nami is set on a path of abnormality, seeking out similarly lonely individuals who have given up on society. She is lacking attention and emotional support from those around her. Loneliness is a huge social issue and this film does a great job of showing the reasons for it, but also offering hope that this is not a path that people are tied to. The finale of the film seems to be a rejection of the mindset that isolating yourself is the best option. It entertains as comedy and horror-comedy and leaves much of the thinking to the audience. For example themes of religion, in particular Christianity, consumer and media culture, and the rigid social norms of marriage and family are all there for viewers to unpick. However, you choose to enjoy it, as an off-beat black comedy, or social satire, it is definitely unique in both style and outlook.

Kwaidan (1964)

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.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)

Monami (Yukie Kawamura) is a vampire recently transferred to a new high-school where she falls for Mizushima (Takumi Saito). This draws the ire of Keiko (Eri Otoguro) who also has eyes on him. Unbeknownst to all, Keiko’s father, the vice-principle, and the sexually voracious school nurse are conducting experiments to create a living being from a corpse. Monami turns Mizushima into a vampire, feeding him her blood in a Valentine’s Day chocolate. When Keiko falls to her death after finding out about their relationship, her father reanimates her body and the ultimate monster match is on.

Written by Yoshihiro Nishimura and directed by Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu, the film is ridiculous from start to finish. With a title like that you would not expect anything else. What is interesting is how many of the plot points actually do tie together and build toward the climactic showdown, rather than being unrelated set-pieces. It plays with a number of genres, high-school romance, vampire and monster movie tropes, subverting them at every turn. There is a dark sense of humour here, particularly in the “wrist-cutting” club and group that obsess over Black American culture. It offers a twisted look at high-school including the more unpalatable elements. The special effects work is first class, with a lot of emphasis on physical effects and models, as well as CG. Rather than frightening the audience its aim is to disgust and it achieves this time and time again. That being said this felt a little tamer than 2008’s Tokyo Gore Police, which depending on your tastes may be a good or a bad thing. There are sequences of gore, gallons of blood, severed limbs and suchlike but rarely anything as nightmare-inducing as that film contained. Here the comedy and horror are more finely balanced.

The film is an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste. It’s at its best when at its most outrageous and there are a few scenes where you may laugh in spite of yourself, if nothing else for the sheer effort the film is putting into some of the jokes. The actors do a great job and are clearly relishing the opportunity to act childishly with the off-colour material. The film has the feel of a child’s Halloween drawing brought to life, or a director who has been given the ultimate set of toys to play with and allowed to do whatever he wants. Schlocky horror comedy that isn’t afraid to make a fool of itself.

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.

Dark Water (2002)

The film begins with a young girl, Yoshimi, as she waits to be collected from kindergarten, watching from inside the school as the other children’s parents come for them. We then cut to an older Yoshimi, who is going through a divorce and hoping to retain custody of her daughter, Ikuko. Mother and daughter move to an old apartment that seems to have a serious damp problem, with puddles of water in the lift and dripping from the ceiling. Yoshimi soon becomes aware of a dark secret relating to one of the former residents of the apartment block and struggles to maintain her sanity as she investigates.

A psychological horror film that is very tightly written and has some great cinematography. The film plays on a sense of foreboding, slowly building tension and dropping clues about what has happened in the apartment block. Early on in the film we are told that Yoshimi suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated for a psychiatric illness (this is said to be caused by her work as a translator of violent novels). This adds to the film because you are never sure if what you are seeing is a product of her delusions, or whether it is real. The acting from the two leads is good and there are plenty of creative scares, shadows on monitor screens, the appearance at several points of a red satchel, and the presence of water throughout. I would rate this higher than a lot of similar ghost stories as it does have a deeper message and is very stylish.

The main theme of the film is abandonment, specifically dealing with the loss of a parent. There are a number of characters in the film who seem to suffer a similar fate. This definitely falls into the category of creepy horror; rather than going for shocks it is more interested in drawing you into the characters world. At the end of the film I felt more a sense of sadness than terror and I think this is the films major strength: it uses horror as the means to tell a fantastic story that will make you think. Don’t go in expecting blood and gore, this is a slow-burner, but it is rewarding at the end.