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Friday, July 31, 2009
Just a scream
Japanese horror movies, under the label J-Horror, were once quite the international thing. Hollywood remade the shockers "Ring" (1998) and "Juon" ("The Grudge," 2002), while foreign video labels snapped up rights to the originals. All that is now a distant memory, though. Fantastic film festivals in the United States and Europe still fill their schedules with scary movies from around the globe — but Japanese films are not often among them.
Naoto Takenaka's new horror comedy "Yamagata Scream" hints at why. After so many repetitions, the natural response to all the long-haired female ghosts, pasty-faced dead kids and other J-Horror cliches is not a startled gasp, but a horse laugh.
Best known abroad as an actor — he was the toupeed Latin dancer in "Shall We Dance?" (1996) — Takenaka has had a long, if spotty, parallel career as a director, starting with "Muno no Hito" ("Nowhere Man," 1991), a comedy based on the manga of Yoshiharu Tsuge that screened at the Venice Film Festival.
As both an actor and director, Takenaka is hard to pin down or, at times, tolerate. His self-infatuated mugging in his more antic moods reminds me of Jack Nicholson's grinning psychotic in "The Shining," minus the homicidal mania: A little goes a long way.
At the same time, he is one of the more intelligent people in the business, as well as a dedicated cineaste and gifted mimic who can channel his sources with an uncanny precision. Also, in his own films, such as the pawky firehouse comedy "119" ("Quiet Days of Firemen," 1994) and quirky relationship drama "Tokyo Biyori" ("Tokyo Fair Weather," 1997), he shows a less hyper, more gently human side — Yasujiro Ozu instead of crazy Jack.
In "Yamagata Scream," both sides of Takenaka's artistic personality are on show — but the weirder one gets bigger play. His heroine is Mikayo (Riko Narumi), a high-school girl journeying with three of her classmates and her self-absorbed teacher (Maiko) to a village in Yamagata Prefecture for their History Club's summer seminar. There they plan to study the events of 800 years ago, when three members of the Heikei clan, fleeing their Genji opponents after their loss at the sea battle of Dannoura, arrived in the village.
They were the tempestuous samurai captain, Tsuzuranuki Tadatsune (Ikki Sawamura), his demure young lover, Mitsubue (Narumi again), and his excitable subordinate, Yamazaki (Takenaka). Instead of welcoming this trio, the villagers cruelly murdered the two samurai, while subjecting Mitsubue to who-knows-what horrors. Their descendants later erected a monument commemorating the victims of this incident while remembering Tsuzuranuki's dying curse, condemning the village to oblivion.
Mikayo has little interest in this hoary tale; instead, she obsesses on the way her father (Ryo Iwamatsu) betrayed her recently deceased mother by taking up with a tarty foreigner (Crystal Kay). She and the other girls, however, are soon shaken out of their personal bubbles by the bizarre welcome they receive from the locals, including scary-looking characters dressed as samurai and a wild-haired beautician (Akira) in a lather about his wandering senile granny (Saori Yuki).
The plot thickens when the avaricious mayor (Katsuhisa Namase) connives with a thuggish real estate developer (Yasuhito Hida) to knock down the monument in perparation to build a theme park. This desecration unleashes the unquiet spirits of Tsuzuranuki, Yamazaki and two other Heikei warriors, who arising from their watery graves,descend on the town determined to take bloody revenge on the living — locals and tourists alike.
In the ensuing chaos, Takenaka tosses in references to everything from classic horror and SF films ("The Shining," "Blade Runner,") to the work of manga great Tezuka Osamu, and even his own old late-night variety shows. He also displays his inventiveness, especially with his own character, Yamazaki, who is less the usual payback-obsessed ghost than an Urashima Taro (i.e., Japanese Rip Van Winkle) in samurai drag. Waking from his centuries-long sleep, he is by turns delighted and appalled by what he finds, with ball caps and roller coasters falling into the former category.
With the dead villagers turning into zombies and the samurai grimly hunting down the survivors, Mikayo flees for her young life, eventually running into her classmates, her teacher, the barber and the granny. There is only one thing that can save this motley crew — and it's not high-powered weaponry.
Riko Narumi, a teen acting prodigy who recently starred in the similarly batty "Tsumi toka Batsu toka" ("Crime or Punishment," 2009), more than holds her own in the midst of this craziness, throwing herself into the role of Mikayo like a real trouper — and screamer.
The film, though, delivers only spook-house approximations of scares, despite glinty-eyed, voice-of-doom performances by Ikki Sawamura and the other actors in his samurai band — with the glaring exception of Takenaka, of course.
"Yamagata Scream" does better in the comedy department. Unlike directors who equate fast with funny, Takenaka leisurely extracts maximum laughs from every take and double take. Some of his gags are simply overindulgent, while others, such as two dead samurai hijacking a ride with a terrified couple in their car, are simple perfection.
More a series of parody sketches than a film, based on done-to-death material, "Yamagata Scream" should have exhausted its thin premise after half an hour. That Takenaka keeps it from flagging for twice as long is a testimony to his talent. But he's still made a pretty silly movie. The ending, to give him credit, is original. All I'll say is, you haven't lived until you've seen a zombie eating shaved ice.