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Friday, Nov. 25, 2005
There be ghosts in the house
Among the hottest Japanese genres now is horror, with Hollywood producers snapping up remake rights to hits like "Juon (The Grudge)" and "Ring (The Ring)" and local video shops feeding a growing demand for cheap DVD chills.
Film companies here are accordingly churning out fright fests by the dozen. Two playing now at late shows in Tokyo illustrate the range of the genre, as well as its difficulties.
Often derided as mechanically formulaic -- "Friday the 13th" forever -- horror is actually hard to get right. The distance from the genuinely scary to the laughably cheesy can be short indeed.
Yoshihiro Nakamura's "Booth," which runs until Nov. 25 at Shibuya's Cinema Rise, attempts to rework genre formulas, while illustrating why they exist in the first place. The set-up -- a radio DJ hearing the voice of a dead girlfriend through his headphones -- is intriguing and somehow more credible than the J-horror scenarios of evil spirits inhabiting computers or video tapes. (Not that I believe ghosts are broadcasting through the ether, but I remember sitting alone at a cab stand late at night and flipping the radio dial [and somehow tuning to] strange, quavery voices from half away across the country -- or another dimension.)
The execution, though, violates the first rule of commercial script-writing: Heroes, even the hardest cases, must be basically sympathetic. The DJ, played by Ryuta Sato ("Sayonara Kuro," "Kisarazu Cats Eye"), has all the negative attributes of show-business celebrity, including limitless self-regard and barely disguised contempt for the little people around him. His talent, meanwhile, consists of a bright manner, a glib tongue and an ability to BS as easily as he breathes.
His loathsomeness becomes apparent early in the film and, instead of identifying with the horrors that befall him, the audience is more inclined to celebrate them.
With little of what Hollywood calls "rooting interest," there is also less of the sweaty tension that makes for good horror. Even so, "Booth" is an eloquent object lesson on how a workplace can become a hell for the unwary -- or rather the terminally insensitive.
The DJ, Shingo Katsumata, hosts a popular late-night advice show, "Tokyo Love Collection." One night, to his irritation, the station temporarily shifts him to an old studio, closed since a former DJ hung himself there three decades ago. His program, on the theme of "unforgivable words," is soon interrupted by an eerie female voice coming through his headphones, calling him "a liar, who tells nothing but lies." Shingo shrugs off the voice as some sort of scrambled signal, but it keeps coming back until he, as well as his listeners and staff, can no longer ignore it.
The voice is that of Mihoko Mabuchi (Hijiri Kojima), an announcer Shingo dated, dumped and apparently killed, pushing her out his car after a violent quarrel. She survived the fall but not, evidently, the subsequent tumble into the sea.
Then, what looks to be her ghost, appears in the studio, shaking Shingo to his rotten core.
As the night drags on, he realizes that, not only Mihoko, but also the staff, listeners and cops all apparently have it in for him. His phony on-air mask slips and he dissolves into a puddle of fear (while a real puddle of urine forms around his quaking feet).
Given that Shingo richly deserves his fate, the justice meted out to him should be appropriately cosmic and chilling. Instead, in its last act the film becomes a prosaic whodunit with a twist -- and the audience leaves feeling had.
* * * genre formula more faithfully is Ryo Moroe's "Shizue" (the kanji for "death" is used for "Shi"), which also ends Nov. 25 at Uplink theater in Shibuya, but will soon be available on DVD. Shot in two parts on videotape, with zero budget, it aspires to the realism of the "Juon (The Grudge)" films, which were set in a ordinary wood-and-stucco Tokyo house, not the standard-issue haunted mansion.
The house in "Shizue," however, is traditionally Japanese -- and is thus more stereotypically suited for horror.
In Part One, a music producer (Daiki Ooyama) working on the debut single of his idol-singer sister (Natsumi Takenaka) rents it as a living-space-cum-studio. Over house-warming beers, a subordinate tells him he lived in the neighborhood as a kid and heard rumors that the house was haunted. They have a good laugh, but the ghosts -- a girl who committed suicide and her grief-stricken mother, who was run over by a passing car -- are real enough, as a series of shocking events soon make clear. Part Two is more of the same, only this time the ghastly joke is on a cab driver and his two grown daughters.
Most of "Shizue's" scares are standard for the J-Horror course, though its taxi-riding ghost is something new for the genre. Also, the cheapo effects, including a sinister doll that keeps popping up to signal impending doom, verge on risible. But newcomer Moroe hammers away with the implacability of his mother and daughter spooks until, with audience nerves suitably jangled, he springs his biggest, most claustrophobic shocks. I walked out of the theater a little faster than I would have usually, glad that I had never put a lock on my garage door and reflecting that, with horror, it's often better to be sincere than clever or cute. Ghosts never wink.