The Vanished (2006) by Makoto Tanaka

A journalist travels to a remote village to investigate supernatural happenings in this suspenseful horror. Sota (Soko Wada) works at a magazine specialising in extreme content. While he wants to expose the truth about the stories he covers, his boss is more interested in selling exciting stories to increase sales. His boss suggests Sota take on a case involving a drowning victim who was discovered without any internal organs. While sceptical at first, Sota takes the job, travelling to meet the mortician who performed the autopsy, who informs him that the child appears to have never had organs. When this body then returns to life and flees, Sota travels to the remote village of Hinoemura to look into the circumstances surrounding a previous mystery. Years earlier a group of children disappeared on a school trip in the area; but it seems that some of them still roam the woods nearby. Whether ghosts or something more sinister, Sota has no choice but to follow the trail of clues, finding an elderly couple who remained behind in the village along with their son Sadohiro, and who are repeatedly visited by the vanished children.

Based on a short story by Hideyuki Kikuchi, director Makoto Tanaka, who also wrote the screenplay, develops an intriguing horror mystery. In the opening scenes we see an old man mourning his wife’s death when the figure of a child begins tapping on the opaque glass of the door asking to be admitted. It draws in the audience to question exactly what is going on, layering the mystery with the disappearance of the group of children; the body without organs; the existence of unaging children; and a figure who seems to want to kill these children, melding the best of the detective and horror genres. The film falls off significantly after the revelation of what is actually happening, the special effects and rush to the ending not doing justice to the slow build and quietly suggestive horror of the preceding investigation. Soko Wada’s Sota is a likeable protagonist, a typical skeptic drawn into a world of unnatural terrors, although there are hints of a paranoia that are not fully developed. Similarly, the film largely leave the characters as shallow archetypes, instead focussing on creating an eerie atmosphere. When it is at its best, in the dread-filled silences and disturbing peculiarities of Sota’s investigation, it does create a suitable unsettling tone. This is aided by Koji Endo’s score of low strings and ghostly woodwind.

“The Vanished” plays on several tropes of traditional horror: vanished children and supernatural forces. Rather than the usual child ghosts, this film takes on post-mortem demonic posession, with the children being used as bait to lure out others. We also see the difficulty of the bereaved adults to let go of their children, or accept that they are gone. This underlying tragedy provides a degree of emotionality to the standard supernatural monsters, but the film shies away from making this more of a central theme. Sota also feels like a character that should have been more developed. We see briefly following the conclusion of the mystery that he is suffering from a sort of paranoia and visions of his own. It almost feels as if this is an idea that should have been developed in a sequel, as the skeptic suffering doubts about the nature of his reality, but instead it is thrown away as a cheap topper to the main story. Overall, “The Vanished” offers a fun mystery-horror that builds tension and an intriguing story, but is let down by a resolution that fails to tie together the various ideas suggested by the premise.

Homunculus (2021) by Takashi Shimizu

Susumu Nakoshi (Go Ayano) is suffering from amnesia, homeless and living out of his car, when a strange man named Ito Manabu Ito (Ryo Narita) taps on his window. Ito asks Nakoshi for seven days in which to change his life and give him something to live for. Nakoshi goes along with Ito, who tells him his plan to conduct an experiment: to drill a small hole in the front of his skull and see if he experiences any supernatural abilities. Nakoshi agrees to the trepanation and soon finds himself able to see the inner form of people, their deepest traumas. These take the form of a homunculus, which can appear in any shape relative to the trauma the person has experienced, from bizarre monster-lie figures, to more abstract manifestations. Nakoshi sets out with his newfound ability and manages to help some individuals, but things take a dark turn when he is forced to confront a trauma from his own past.

“Homunculus” is based on a manga by Hideo Yamamoto (Ichi the Killer) and directed by Takashi Shimizu (Reincarnation). A dark fantasy, toying with elements of psychological horror and traditional monsters in the form of the homunculus, it is an intriguing premise and the scenes where Nakoshi wanders the streets of Kabukicho seeing the various representations of inner turmoil, with some very inventive designs, is fun to watch. It would have been great to delve into more character’s psyches, but with the constraints of a film’s running time we are limited to only a handful of problems for Nakoshi to solve. The special effects on the homunculi are mostly good, showcasing a variety of creative designs. The homunculus comprised entirely of an ever shifting torrent of jewellery charms was particularly unique. The film touches on a number of dark issues, in particular violence and sexual violence. It is a film that also has a number of uncomfortable moments that will no doubt spark debate or contemplation, mostly concerning the schoolgirl character, where the film leaves perhaps a little too much unsaid about the intended message. The acting by Ayano and Narita is exceptional, giving themselves over to the weirdness of the premise and making it as believable as it can be. Shimizu’s stylish modern direction, using text message overlays for example, brings us right into the story in visually interesting way.

The film offers a unique look at psychological trauma, by turning it into something tangible in order to tackle it. We see that behaviours are conditioned by past actions and how these inner sufferings are often hidden from the rest of the world. While it deals with difficult subjects of mental health, sexual abuse, violence, neglect, suicide, miscarriage, death, and other issues, it smuggles these things in to a story that on the surface is a straightforward supernatural mystery. The blend of supernatural and psychological is an interesting one, drawing comparisons between ancient belief systems of spirits and modern science around neuropathy. The film touches also on ideas of ethics in science. A fun adventure drawing on mythology and psychology to deliver a fascinating look at the inner-workings of the human mind.

Alter Ego (2002) by Issei Shibata

A trio of schoolgirls, Mizuki (Nobuko Sakuma), Yuka (Chieko Kawabe) and Maya (Sena) are gathered for a photoshoot at an empty high-school. While working on the shoot they begin to notice strange occurrences, beginning with the talent scout, Isaka (Kanji Tsuda), seeming to appear in two places at the same time. There is a old rumour that if you see your doppelganger you are doomed to die. Hisaka is chased by his own double and falls from a window at the top of the school where they are shooting. Other doubles soon begin appearing and the group are tracked down one by one.

Director Issei Shibata (The Chasing World) is working with a small cast and a micro-budget on this film. The cast do what they can with the material, but once the central concept is set up it’s a straight line to the finish as they are picked off one by one. There is minimal character development before the plot begins and later in the film, when we learn a little more about some of the characters, it is too late to form a real attachment with them. While the supernatural killings are given some explanation it is a fairly rote idea. Being made on such a small budget, the film is limited in what they can do in terms of the direction. While it is competently directed it rarely shows signs of brilliance. The special effects are poor and largely unnecessary. With a film of this type it would have been much better to suggest the horrors and traumas that are besieging the characters, rather than attempt to show them. In parts the laughable effects even undermine the tension that is established. This twinned with the drama being set entirely during daylight hours means that it is unlikely that the film will frighten anyone with even a passing acquaintance with other horror films.

Doppelgangers are an old horror trope and one ripe for allegorical interpretation. However, the film never really delves into the characters in any significant way. We learn that Maya was abused as a child, but again this is used only to service the plot rather than offer any emotional weight to proceedings. A largely forgettable film that struggles to provide anything in the way of originality or scares.