Selected Reviews

After Sadako:  Women in J-Horror

“Everybody betrays me” (Miki Sakai, “Tomie Re-Birth:  Another Face”)

“Tomie:  Re-birth” (2001)

Takashi Shimizu’s adaptation of the Junji Ito manga is one of the most effective of the “Tomie” series.  This is partly attributable to Shimizu’s directorial eye for close-ups and facial expressions as the keys to viewer response in horror, as well as to television actor Miki Sakai’s portrayal of an adult “Tomie Kawakami.”  With relentlessly chilling enthusiasm she regenerates from repeated frantic butchery to insinuate herself into the lives of a group of adult friends, eventually colonizing the body of “Hitomi Kitamura” (Kumiko Endou).

“Tomie’s” mysterious appearance and seeming familiarity drive an immediate wedge between “Hitomi” and her boyfriend, unleashing the combination of irrational passion and paranoia that are the hallmarks of the “Tomie” series.  Here, the adult “Tomie” is that much more persistent.  Her suitors fall in a series of grisly suicides until only the possessed “Hitomi” is left standing after a lovers’ leap over a waterfall.
Shimizu’s direction yields a substantially darker and more violent narrative than other “Tomie” titles, with greater emphasis on cinematic shock.  As such, “Re-birth” stands as one of the better “possession” films – serving as a metaphor for the folly of assumed entitlement that fuels both desire and infidelity.

“2LDK” (2002)

Yukihiko Tsutsumi wrote and directed this bizarre tale of paranoia and violence that takes place entirely within the confines of a two-bedroom apartment, with a cast of only two.  Maho Nonami (“Scarecrow”) and Eiko Koike (“Kamikaze Girls”) play flat-mates “Lana” and “Nozomi.”  Both are struggling actors auditioning for a part in an upcoming installment of “Yakuza Wives.” As their competition for the part establishes increased rivalry, personal quirks and details of background fuel increasingly frenzied animosity that culminates in bouts of lethal violence involving physical combat and weaponry alternating with almost sensual calm.

Such pacing of the narrative, together with “Lana” and “Nozomi’s” toxic intimacy, suggests how both emotions and conduct are subjected to the pull of powerful yet unseen forces.  Since the entire narrative is bounded by the thoughts and actions of the two women, “2LDK” privileges female perspectives on such themes as professional and romantic rivalry, class and background, taste and decorum, collaboration and competition in a manner unadulterated by the on-screen “look” of men.  The off-screen “look” of the director who may choose between them constitutes an implicit patriarchal backstory.  Ironically, it is he who chooses a collaborative solution, while they – unable to play according to patriarchal rules – openly express relief by an act of mutual homicide/suicide.  As they are about to die “Lana” says, “That feels nice” while “Nozomi” responds, “We’ll regret this.”  It is this ultimate discovery of common ground in the act of escape from the pressures imposed by patriarchal expectations that constitutes the film’s subversive import.

“One Missed Call” (2003)

Takashi Miike delivers possibly the most compelling Japanese variant on the basic “Ringu” narrative.  Kou Shibasaki (“Battle Royale,” “Scarecrow”) plays “Yumi Nakamura” whose friends begin to die in bizarre ways such as jumping from a railway bridge, falling down an elevator shaft or twisting into a spiral.  Three days beforehand they receive calls on their cell phones that appear to come from their own number and include their own voices at the exact moment of their impending deaths.

After “Yumi’s” best friend “Natsumi” (Kazue Fukiishi) agrees to an exorcism broadcast on live television – but dies on camera at the appointed hour nonetheless – “Yumi’s” own phone begins to ring.  She then teams up with “Hiroshi” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) whose sister was killed by the same vengeful female spirit that has been taking over people’s cell phones.
Their investigation eventually leads to an abandoned hospital where they confront the reanimated corpse of the spirit.  In a shift from suspense to the grotesque, the rotting flesh of this figure slips from its skeleton in audible plops.

“Sky High” (2003)

Ryuhei Kitamura and Norio Tsuruta craft an entertaining mélange of crime drama, horror and supernatural swordplay in the manner of a live-action manga.  When genetic scientist and serial killer “Kudo” (Takeo Osawa) has six hearts torn from the chests of young women, he will be able to summon demons from Hell and resurrect his deceased wife.  Yumiko Shaku (“Princess Blade”) plays “Mina,” the fiancée of the detective “Kanzaki” (Shosuke Tanihara) who is investigating the case.

When she is killed by “Kudo’s” martial artist assistant “Rei” (Kanae Uotani), “Mina’s” spirit enters Hell and becomes the guardian “Izuko” of the ‘Gate of Rage.’  When “Kudo” is killed in a confrontation with another female martial artist and occult practitioner “Shuho,” played by Yumi Kikuchi, “Izuko” as the Guardian of the Gate of Rage is forced to confront “Kudo’s” spirit in a mortal contest to prevent darkness and evil from being released.
Although scarcely weighty, this entertaining saga nevertheless privileges three female action performers (Shaku, Uotani and Kikuchi) in the expression of martial skill, self-sacrifice and heroism.

“Cursed” (2004)

Yoshihiro Hoshino’s eerie, well executed genre ghost film is adapted from a short story, and is set in the seemingly mundane setting of an urban convenience store.  Despite the modesty of its conception and budget, “Cursed” is a competently realized work that combines elements of vengeful spirit tales with conventions of the contemporary slasher.  The narrative follows two female protagonists – a part-time teenaged student employee “Nao Shingaki” (Hiroko Sato) and “Ryoko Kagami” (Kyoko Akiba), the representative of the store’s parent company.  Each delivers a convincing performance as representatives of iconic female figures in contemporary Japanese horror – a cheerful schoolgirl with too much responsibility and a coolly aloof, business-suited professional.

Although the store where they work seems normal enough, there is a terrible odor in the back yard and the store’s managers appear to have quietly become deranged.  Worse, customers who shop there may not come back, since they are pursued to grotesque deaths by a variety of mysterious spirits released from the graveyard on which the store was built.  Although “Nao” catches glimpses of these spirits, and is nearly killed by one at a rail crossing, it is “Ryoko” who supplies perspective and solutions.
The familiar device of the female protagonist as portal for the uncanny is neatly finessed here by allowing “Ryoko” to express acceptance of what she encounters.  Her support and direction allows “Nao” to choose for herself as well as save one of her co-workers whose spirit has literally been sucked out of him.  Such references to service workers becoming the living dead and seeking a solution to everyday hell through acceptance elevate this simple narrative.  Well filmed, well acted and delivering some genuine chills, “Cursed” is a solid genre entry.