The Complex (2013) by Hideo Nakata

Atsuko Maeda has restless spirits to contend with in this horror from “Ring” director Hideo Nakata. Asuka Ninomiya (Maeda) has just moved to a decrepit apartment block with her parents and younger brother, Satoshi (Ruiki Sato). The reclusive neighbour begins to take on a terrifying aspect when Asuka hears scratching on the other side of the wall at night. She also meets a lonely boy playing in a nearby park, named Minoru (Kanau Tanaka). Asuka’s strange experience grow even stranger as she begins to suffer from déjà vu and learns that the apartment may be haunted.

Director Hideo Nakata knows just how to build tension from the smallest incident. Everything from the flickering lightbulb outside the apartment and the scratching on the wall,, create a sense that something is slightly off. The script by Junya Kato and Ryuka Miyake blends traditional ghost house aesthetic, with the setting of an old rust-stained apartment block, and psychological terror as we are not sure what Asuka’s experiences really mean. There are moments in the film that are genuinely terrifying without the need for excessive gore or violence, the slow turn of a head, or the sudden cut to the following scene. The use of lighting and colour is also noteworthy, particularly in the later half as it is used more dramatically. This use of simple techniques, rather than the need for outrageous effects, helps the film develop natural scares. Unfortunately, this is undermined somewhat later in the film with a couple of moments that are almost parodic in their excessive attempts to shock. The story also devolves as things progress, beginning as an interesting ghost story with a psychological angle, it seems that too much is expected of it later on and it starts to break apart slightly. Mostly the plot-holes and weaknesses in the story are counterbalanced by the fantastic horror elements, which may not be original but are nevertheless handled expertly.

As with Nakata’s previous work “Dark Water”, “The Complex” breaks down the ghost story and attempts to weave through it something with emotional depth. Ideas of an afterlife and restless spirits are interwoven with themes of survivor guilt and regret. Similar to “Reincarnation” (2005) by Takashi Shimizu, the film becomes an exploration of Asuka’s psyche as she deals with the trauma of her past. The appearance of Minoru seems to be an element that is somewhat misplaced as his story doesn’t tie in exactly with either of the protagonists. It feels a little like a separate film has intruded, one about vengeful demons and infernal punishment. An intriguing horror that lacks a little of the depth of Nakata’s earlier works, but nevertheless delivers its fair share of chills.

Juho 2405 (2013) by Toichiro Ruto

A newscaster begins to see horrifying waking nightmares involving a young girl in this psychological horror. Reika (Yuka Masuda) is troubled by visions of various crimes she is reporting on, seeing the figure of a mysterious ghost appearing at each scene. Following a complete breakdown she is admitted to hospital where she meets a young girl Akane, who appears to be connected to these cases. Reika becomes unable to distinguish what is real as she starts to remember a tragedy that happened 10 years before.

“Juho 2045”, based on a story by Tomokazu Yamada with a screenplay by Erika Tanaka, follows many familiar horror tropes: a vengeful spirit, a mysterious past, and a protagonist with a slowly deteriorating psyche. The acting is melodramatic and the story predictable, but there are things to enjoy here. From the start there are some stunning visuals and solid special effects. It does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. It doesn’t take too long to unravel the central mystery, but with the added psychological elements there are a few surprises along the way. The chilling score by Ken Matsubara (G@me) also ramps up the tension, despite the inclusion of an ill-fitting pop song partway through.

The film leans on several popular themes, such as suicide, pregnancy, revenge and the horrors of the past coming back. It adds an interesting angle to the traditional ghost story in the claim that young spirits are less likely to act morally or logically, their sense of right and wrong being underdeveloped. This may however be a poor attempt to explain away the film’s lack of a logical plot. The story could have benefitted from more character development of Sachiko, the child’s mother, with her story not covered in too much detail. Also, the film sets up an interesting premise with Reika as a newscaster, ideas of the media perhaps pushing people to suicide, or the representation of crimes and tragedies in the news, being an angle that is not pursued in enough detail. Overall, “Juho 2405” is an entertaining horror, with strong visuals and a fun psychological element, but it could have done more with its themes and characters.

My World (2021) by Murantin.

A man (Yoshitaka Ishizuka) wakes up naked in a park. Gathering his clothes from nearby he wanders the streets of an eerie uninhabited world. He seems drawn to a library and when he leaves he looks up at the night sky to see planet earth above him. Later he meets a schoolgirl (Yuka Funahashi) who takes him back to her home. She treats him kindly, feeding him and playing Othello with him, but handcuffs him up in the basement when her boyfriend is coming round. Later the man sees another woman (Misato Akizawa) in a red dress at the library, which stirs memories that threaten to expose dark secrets and unravel the mysteries of this strange world.

“My World” is much like seeing the scattered pieces of a puzzle and being asked to reconstruct the narrative from them. It sets up several intriguing mysteries, adding a few more as things progress. Why is he waking up naked in the park? Why is the world apparently uninhabited besides him and a couple of other people? Who are the girl and the woman in the red dress? All of these questions are answered throughout the film, but it requires concentration to put it all together. On occasion the film slips into more abstract, art-house territory, a visceral, emotional jolt that keys us in to the fact that things perhaps aren’t meant to be taken literally. The film plays with space and time, creating this liminal dimension where we are as disoriented as the protagonist, not sure whether he is alive or dead, awake or dreaming. The soundtrack by Hisayuki Ishikura captures the bizarre, otherworldy tone perfectly, a blend of industrial electronica, and percussion that could almost be the protagonists psyche leaking into the score, at times a scramble of freestyle drumming and at others a sinister metronomic click-clock. The actors do a good job with their characters who remain mysterious but with enough depth to make them engaging.

The film is a fantastic mystery-box for those who enjoy analysing and picking apart clues in the visuals and dialogue. While much of the puzzle is explained, not explicitly but with enough information to grasp what is happening, it does leave a number of things open to speculation. There is a psychological element to the film, with the ‘world’ that the man finds himself in being partly of his own construction. As a short film, just over an hour, it is an entertaining watch, moving along briskly enough that there is always something new to concentrate on. There are also many memorable moments, almost dreamlike in their effect, such as the image of earth hanging silently in the night sky, and the more arthouse moments with the protagonist in a stark white space. Definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of this kind of surreal, arthouse mystery.

Kyoshin (2021) by Keiichi Higuchi

Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) is an incredibly sensitive empath: a man capable of physically experiencing the pain others are suffering. Following a traumatic incident in which Takehiko and a friend (Keisuke Soma) were witness to a violent rape, he finds himself unable to masturbate without severe physical pain. He decides to participate in an experimental therapy. The therapist Shiori (Mitsuki Moriyama) is also an empath, with a traumatic history of her own, and the two of them work together through a series of sessions, often erotically charged, in an attempt to separate Takehiko’s own feelings from those of others. Shiori has been helped by her boss (Kimika Yoshino) with whom she is also romantically involved. Meanwhile, Takehiko’s elder brother (Daichi Yamaguchi) is struggling to please his boss who sees his attempts to help his brother as unecessary coddling of him.

Written and directed by Keiichi Higuchi, “Kyoshin” is a psychological thriller with dark themes of depression, rape, sucide and trauma. Early in the film Takehiko references the 27 club, a group of famous singers who all died at that age. Being 26 himself he wonders if he will make it through his next year. The world of “Kyoshin” is a disturbing one, filled with suffering, death, sexual abuse, and one that someone who can feel the physical pain of others would find hard to live in. The film does a good job of making the concept of this kind of empath believable, even when Takeru is able to feel the physical pain of objects such as a can being crushed. The clinical setting of Shiori and Takehiko’s sessions somehow heightens the eroticism and sense of threat, magnifying the intensity of the emotions by placing them in such a cold, institutional space. The story is unconventional and often experimental in style, drifting into sequences that appear to be set inside Takehiko’s psych. There are a number of things in the film that are left ambiguous and it offers few easy answers to either what is happening or any possible solution. The whole cast do an incredible job in creating believable characters, in the case of Yamamoto and Moriyama they manage to convey a palpable frisson of sexual tension and also pain in their scenes together. Daichi Yamaguchi also excels as Takehiko’s elder brother, whose miserable existence, being constantly harrassed by his boss, and his love for his brother makes him a hugely sympathetic character. In a film that is all about interpersonal relationships and the distance between people, Higuchi’s direction, the framing of scenes and blocking of actors, manages to convey these things subtly and without drawing too much attention to them. Again, particularly in the scenes with Takehiko and Shiori where we see her moving behind him, or circling around him, there is a sense of their relationship developing.

Many films take as their theme the modern fascination with alienation, people who have lost all connection to the world or ability to feel anything. “Kyoshin” looks at things from the other angle and asks what would happen if someone were able to feel too much. With a protagonist who suffers all the evils and harms of the world as if they were happening to him. While the empathic condition depicted may be an exaggeration it is nevertheless a perfect representation of conditions such as anxiety or post-traumatic stress, which may cause similar feelings of distress when being confronted with dangerous situations. The complete disregard and lack of understanding his elder brother’s boss shows to this situation is also a sad indictment of much of societies apathy to mental health issues and sufferers. Takehiko is largely left to suffer alone. The subject matter, including sexual assault and suicide mean it is not always an easy watch, but they are handled delicately in a powerful film that has an important message about mental health.

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.