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Friday, Sept. 3, 2010
'Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro: Kaiki (Tales of Terror: The Bizarre)'
J-horror double-bill parodies genre cliches but low on scares
Starting in 1990 as a compilation of 100 "true horror" tales from ordinary folks around Japan, "Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro (Tales of Terror)" has spawned a series of short films broadcast on the BS-TBS cable and satellite channel and three theatrical omnibuses. The franchise is the snack food of J-horror.
The fourth and latest, "Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro: Kaiki" (Tales of Terror: The Bizarre), is directed by Makoto Shinozaki, based on a script by horror specialist Ryuta Mitake. Since debuting in 1995 with "Okaeri," a spare, powerful drama about a woman's descent into madness that was a key film of the 1990s' Japanese New Wave, Shinozaki has cut an idiosyncratic path across genres, from "Wasurerarenu Hitobito (Not Forgotten)," a heartfelt 2000 drama about the vanishing World War II generation, to "0093: Joheika no Kusakari Masao" ("Her Majesty's Masao Kusakari"), a goofy 2007 spy parody, and this summer's "Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island)," a black comedy about a woman alone on an island with several dozen sex-starved guys.
Horror, however, is new territory for him, though his take on the two stories of "Kaiki" will be mostly familiar to fans of J-horror, from the long-haired female zombie who lurches through his first episode, "Tsukimono" ("Demon"), to the little girl ghost of the second, "Nozomi." But Shinozaki, known for his playful way with genre conventions (the "Deka" ["Detective"] series of parody shorts he produced was a movie nerd's idea of relaxation), inserts offbeat notes into both stories, from the comically bizarre ("Tsukimono") to the tearily sentimental ("Nozomi").
Both star Erina Mano, who got her start in 2006 with the pop-group factory Hello! Project; the production company has since had her develop an acting and solo singing career. This dual casting is somewhat confusing, since Mano basically plays the same fresh-faced, tenderhearted girl in both stories, right down to her long bangs, — though in "Tsukimono" she is a college junior and in "Nozomi" a high schooler. Watching the film, I wondered whether Shinozaki was playing David Lynch-ian games with reality, but no. These two exercises in horror are not "Mullholland Drive" and Mano is no chameleonlike Naomi Watts.
To give her credit, she does try to shade the characters — from red to purple (but not, thankfully, to pink). In "Tsukimono" she is Ayumi, who is riding a bus to college when a strange woman, her shoulders slumped and her long hair covering her face, boards and sits nearby. When the woman starts talking to herself and hiccuping in a creepy way, Ayumi kindly asks her, just before leaving the bus, if she is all right.
The reply comes when Ayumi is in class and the woman, looking like death warmed up, appears at the window and commences to bang her head against it. When the teacher comes to investigate, he soon regrets it — but not in time to save his life. Everyone flees in panic save the slow-on-the-uptake Ayumi and a classmate (Rikako Sakata), who fearlessly rescues her from the monster. Relief, however, is only temporary.
Despite realistic notes — including Ayumi's awkward position as a fringe member in a schoolgirl clique — the film is largely old-school B-grade horror, with the tsukimono of the title being a local variant of the good old American zombie, from her weird staring eyes (created with a pair of painted contacts) to her deadly implacability, though she dispatches her victims with steaming burns, not bites.
"Nozomi" is in the typical J-horror line, relying more on atmospherics than shock effects and being rooted more firmly in the everyday, including its tragedies, than a horror writer's imagination. For Shinozaki, "Tsukimono" may have been a fun warmup pitch, but "Nozomi" is a hardball aimed straight at the fear centers.
This time Mano is Megumi, a teen haunted by the accidental drowning of her younger sister, which she feels, with a grief and guilt that never ends, she could have prevented. As her birthday (the fatal day her sister met her end) approaches, Megumi begins to see visions — or is it the ghost? — of the dead girl. Some are little more than spooky glimpses out of the corner of an eye, while others are more frontally shocking, driving the isolated Megumi closer to the edge.
One day her distraught mother (Naomi Akimoto) meets an old school friend (Maki Izawa) and brings her home. The friend, who is psychic, immediately notices a small red-coated apparition following the unsuspecting Megumi. Taking the girl aside, she delivers a disturbing prophecy: If Megumi doesn't lay this tiny ghost to rest, she will soon die.
New Age hokum? Perhaps, but a seance between Megumi and the psychic, with her shock of curled air and no-nonsense manner, is skin-crawling — though no supernatural beings float (or spring) into view.
The ending strikes an incongruously maudlin note, somewhat like concluding a "Friday the 13th" episode with a weepy memorial service for all the slashed teenagers. In the Japanese cultural context, in which the conversation with the dead never quite ends, it makes emotional sense, but scary it is not.
Unfortunately for its many overseas fans, J-horror has found its parodist, but not its savior.