Hell Girl (2019) by Koji Shiraishi

In 1965 a girl gets revenge on the school bully by calling on Hell Girl (Tina Tamashiro), an infernal avenger, and her fellow demons to take her to hell. These demons demand a terrible price however, as anyone who calls on them will also be taken to hell when they die. In 2019, the now elderly woman’s son, photo-journalist Jin Kudo (Kazuki Namioka), is asking to use this story for an article. The woman dies shortly after and the demons come to take her. When an idol, Sanae Mikuriya, (Mina Oba) is attacked by a crazed fan, leaving her with facial scarring, she also calls on Hell Girl (who is now contactable through a website; although only at midnight, and only by those holding a serious grudge). And later when Miho’s (Nana Mori) friend, Haruka (Sawa Nimura) falls victim to a dangerous black metal singer Maki (Tom Fujita), Hell Girl finds herself with another young woman willing to take this demonic bargain.

“Hell Girl” is based on the anime by Takahiro Omori, with the live action film being written and directed by Koji Shiraishi (Carved: The Slit Mouthed Woman). The film’s central premise, of an infernal ‘deal with the devil’ in the form of the revenge service offered by ‘Hell Girl’ is pretty solid horror fare, but unfortunately the film fails to capitalize on it. We rarely see the hellish tortures the victims are subjected too, with only a minimal look at one character being eaten by worms. This means that for the most part the threats of eternal damnation are not particularly terrifying. The tone is often more dark fantasy, with supernatural anti-heroes in the shape of Hell Girl and her band of demons. The film perhaps relies on some fore-knowledge of the manga, with none of these hellish characters fleshed out much, and even Hell Girl herself rarely making an appearance. Later in the film they seem to appear even when not summoned, and they seem to take little joy in their work, simply taking any soul they are asked to. This lack of characterisation is also apparent in the human protagonists, who either have no meaningful motivation or are unlikeable enough that their characters’ fates are no great cause for sadness. The seemingly tit-for-tat, and thoughtless nature of them calling up Hell Girl for revenge, becomes almost risible, requiring no effort and with too few obvious consequence shown to the audience. The film gives us brief glimpses of a psychedelic hell, a teen-friendly Teruo Ishii fairground that is always careful not to be too extreme, limiting itself mostly to decapitation, and where the demons conform to comfortable horror tropes (scars, dark clothes).

“Hell Girl” is a by-product of a successful anime and manga franchise, which doesn’t move much beyond its premise. The demons go through the motions of taking people to hell in a way that give the audience little cause for concern about its protagonists. With more character work and creative depictions of hell it could have worked, but unfortunately it fails to entertain.

Warning from Space (1956) by Koji Shima

A group of scientists work to avert a world-ending catastrophe in this atomic age science-fiction drama. When an observatory sees a peculiar light out in space, followed by electrical outages and sightings of strange star-shaped cyclopean beings, scientists Kamura (Bontaro Miake), Isobe (Keizo Kawasaki), and Matsuda (Isao Yamagata), begin investigating. These aliens, known as Pairans, have come to warn the earth of impending disaster in the shape of a large asteroid on collision course. Realising their appearance is discomfitting to the humans, they take on human forms, including that of a popular singer Hikari Aozora (Toyomi Karita).

Directed by Koji Shima, with a screenplay by Hideo Oguni, from the novel by Gentaro Nakajima, “Warning from Space” is an entertaining film, with a simple plot that nevertheless provides its share of great moments. The appearance of the aliens is slightly ridiculous (though of course there’s no way of knowing what alien visitors would look like). The ability to transmutate into humans means that there is relatively little screen time in their natural state. Most of the narrative revolves around the scientists and their attempts to first understand what is happening and second to come up with a solution. The film builds it’s sense of impending doom, coming to a thrilling conclusion with panicked citizens fleeing disaster. There is also a lot of comedy, perhaps recognizant of the film’s slightly far-fetched story, mostly revolving around the alien disguised as Hikari Aozora and her incredible, inhuman, feats of dexterity, speed and strength.

While the premise is fantastical, the story of “Warning from Space” is deeply human and speaks to widespread societal fears. The film evokes the fear of nuclear catastrophe and the memory of the recent atomic bombings. Characters using geiger counters to detect the aliens, and the initial plan to use the remaining stock of nuclear warheads on earth to destroy the oncoming catastrophe. The detonation of the first atomic bombs began a new age, putting humanity beyond a point of no return, with the capability of eradicating all life on earth now clearly demonstrated. It is this fear that the film speaks to, with the scientists stating their concerns about nuclear warheads, and the development of an even more terrifying weapon by Matsuda. The film balances these fears with a hope that such technology can be used for good, with discussions of nuclear power being a potential boon for humanity. The film’s science-positive message is also evident in the internationalism that it promotes. While the 20th century produced it’s share of horrors it also led to greater globalisation and an understanding amongst many nations that co-operation was preferable to conflict. We see this in the scientists contact with fellow observatories, hinting at the unifying power of science in the wake of a devastating global catastrophe. An enjoyable early science-fiction film that plays on many familiar themes, with a positive pro-peace message of internationalism and scientific co-operation.

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.