Kwaidan (1964)

An anthology of four short films based on the popular supernatural tales of Lafcadio Hearn. The first film “The Black Hair” tells the story of a former retainer brought low by the death of his lord. After leaving his wife and marrying another woman he begins to regret his new life and returns to his old home to find that things are not as he expects. The second story “The Woman of the Snow” tells the tale of a couple of woodcutters trapped in a blizzard. The older man is killed by a mysterious pale woman who takes pity on the younger man allowing him to live if he swears not to tell another what he has seen. In the next tale “Hoichi the Earless” the spirits of an ancient battle visit a blind biwa player who is led to the spirit world to play for them. The final story “In a Cup of Tea” tells of a man who is troubled by spirits after seeing a face appear in his cup.

The four stories contained in “Kwaidan” are connected by a common theme of the supernatural, though they cut directly between each with no common characters. It is therefore more akin to watching four short films than a single narrative. The film respects the source material of the Lafcadio Hearn book, which provides a great base. Each of the paranormal tales builds to a twist ending or an inexplicable occurrence and with a short running time none of them outstay their welcome. Director Masaki Kobayashi does a great job of bringing the stories to life. There is a sense of theatre to the film with amazing sets and painted backgrounds giving the impression that these are retellings of ancient legends. However, this does nothing to lessen the impact of the drama with good acting and sound design along with the set decoration creating an impressive atmosphere of dread. There is also an interesting use of light, with blues and reds used to great effect. It is a perfect blend of theatre techniques with the medium of film.

Intriguing supernatural stories that are brought to the screen in timelessly beautiful versions. Many of the stories warn of the danger of spirits or focus on the horror of death. I would highly recommend this for fans of folklore and ghost stories. The design elements, music and acting perfectly capture the eerie atmosphere of Hearn’s tales.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009)

Monami (Yukie Kawamura) is a vampire recently transferred to a new high-school where she falls for Mizushima (Takumi Saito). This draws the ire of Keiko (Eri Otoguro) who also has eyes on him. Unbeknownst to all, Keiko’s father, the vice-principle, and the sexually voracious school nurse are conducting experiments to create a living being from a corpse. Monami turns Mizushima into a vampire, feeding him her blood in a Valentine’s Day chocolate. When Keiko falls to her death after finding out about their relationship, her father reanimates her body and the ultimate monster match is on.

Written by Yoshihiro Nishimura and directed by Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu, the film is ridiculous from start to finish. With a title like that you would not expect anything else. What is interesting is how many of the plot points actually do tie together and build toward the climactic showdown, rather than being unrelated set-pieces. It plays with a number of genres, high-school romance, vampire and monster movie tropes, subverting them at every turn. There is a dark sense of humour here, particularly in the “wrist-cutting” club and group that obsess over Black American culture. It offers a twisted look at high-school including the more unpalatable elements. The special effects work is first class, with a lot of emphasis on physical effects and models, as well as CG. Rather than frightening the audience its aim is to disgust and it achieves this time and time again. That being said this felt a little tamer than 2008’s Tokyo Gore Police, which depending on your tastes may be a good or a bad thing. There are sequences of gore, gallons of blood, severed limbs and suchlike but rarely anything as nightmare-inducing as that film contained. Here the comedy and horror are more finely balanced.

The film is an exercise in pushing the boundaries of taste. It’s at its best when at its most outrageous and there are a few scenes where you may laugh in spite of yourself, if nothing else for the sheer effort the film is putting into some of the jokes. The actors do a great job and are clearly relishing the opportunity to act childishly with the off-colour material. The film has the feel of a child’s Halloween drawing brought to life, or a director who has been given the ultimate set of toys to play with and allowed to do whatever he wants. Schlocky horror comedy that isn’t afraid to make a fool of itself.

The Curse (2005)

The film begins with a voice-over explaining that Masafumi Kobayashi, a famous paranormal investigator, died shortly after completing a documentary on a mysterious case. The following film takes the form of a found footage documentary, following Kobayashi as he investigates peculiar occurrences that may have a supernatural explanation. Looking at telepathic children, disappearances, a blood rite, an ancient demon, and other unusual happenings, Kobayashi soon finds himself getting dangerously close to the heart of the mystery.

The found footage style of the film works well, with certain television personalities playing themselves, and a choppy, cut-up style that adds to a sense of disorientation. It sprinkles in clues as events unfold and keeps the audience watching closely for anything that might help them establish connections between events. Seemingly unrelated or insignificant details are briefly glimpsed and then later return with a moment of revelation. For the most part the film relies on building tension with a series of simple effects, such as rope being knotted by someone in their sleep, or somebody standing stock still and groaning. Most of the gore is reserved for the later portion of the film. The horror aspect relies on you finding the idea of restless spirits, demons, or telepathy, plausible. However, even without that there is a solid central mystery being unravelled that will hold attention.

“The Curse” is a solid, if slightly generic, horror fare. The idea of ghosts or spirits returning from the afterlife is a common feature but given an interesting twist here with the realism of the documentary style. The film creates a believable set-up by introducing you to the investigator and also including fairly mundane interviews along with the more eerie occurrences.

Dark Water (2002)

The film begins with a young girl, Yoshimi, as she waits to be collected from kindergarten, watching from inside the school as the other children’s parents come for them. We then cut to an older Yoshimi, who is going through a divorce and hoping to retain custody of her daughter, Ikuko. Mother and daughter move to an old apartment that seems to have a serious damp problem, with puddles of water in the lift and dripping from the ceiling. Yoshimi soon becomes aware of a dark secret relating to one of the former residents of the apartment block and struggles to maintain her sanity as she investigates.

A psychological horror film that is very tightly written and has some great cinematography. The film plays on a sense of foreboding, slowly building tension and dropping clues about what has happened in the apartment block. Early on in the film we are told that Yoshimi suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated for a psychiatric illness (this is said to be caused by her work as a translator of violent novels). This adds to the film because you are never sure if what you are seeing is a product of her delusions, or whether it is real. The acting from the two leads is good and there are plenty of creative scares, shadows on monitor screens, the appearance at several points of a red satchel, and the presence of water throughout. I would rate this higher than a lot of similar ghost stories as it does have a deeper message and is very stylish.

The main theme of the film is abandonment, specifically dealing with the loss of a parent. There are a number of characters in the film who seem to suffer a similar fate. This definitely falls into the category of creepy horror; rather than going for shocks it is more interested in drawing you into the characters world. At the end of the film I felt more a sense of sadness than terror and I think this is the films major strength: it uses horror as the means to tell a fantastic story that will make you think. Don’t go in expecting blood and gore, this is a slow-burner, but it is rewarding at the end.

Marebito (2004)

When a freelance cameraman witness an unusual suicide in an underground passage he begins a dark journey to find the source of that man’s terror. His journey takes him to a strange subterranean tunnel system, which he believes is the netherworld. There he finds a young woman, or what looks like a woman, whom he takes back to his apartment. As he tries to take care of her things get stranger: she only drinks blood; he is followed by mysterious strangers, and it seems his sanity is crashing around him.

The film is all about creating an unsettling atmosphere. It is not particularly terrifying, but it is certainly an interesting blend of fantasy and psychological horror. There are references to Richard Shaver and deros which might be unfamiliar to some, but I think this adds to the film’s charm. Following the success of Ju-on, director Takashi Shimizu takes a step away from the traditional ghost story to attempt something different. For the most part it’s successful, though it provokes more curiosity than fear. Very simply shot with lots of handheld camerawork, and a suitably ominous sound.

The film is an exploration of fear and madness reminiscent of early twentieth century science fiction and horror novels, with something unusual lurking just beneath the surface.

Onibaba (1964)

The film begins with a hole, a deep, dark hole, that has existed (so we are told) forever. We then see to two soldiers, apparently fleeing a battle. The soldiers are killed by two women, who steal their armour and sell it on to a trader in stolen goods. These two women are our protagonists, surviving by selling stolen armour, fishing, and waiting for their son and husband to return from the war. When their neighbour, a man named Hachi, returns from the war, without her son, the mother is unhappy, believing him to be a coward. The young girl begins an affair with Hachi, visiting him each night in secret. Her mother-in-law, worried about losing the girl as well as her son attempts to end this relationship.

The story is told in quite a minimalist way, similar to a play, with a small cast of characters and each scene teaching us something about them, or advancing the plot in some way. I also found it very similar, in some regards, to a fairy-story, especially so in later scenes when there seems to be a fantastical element introduced. The film does not shy away from sex and violence, being the primary drivers of the plot, and there is also a lot of discussion about hell and sin that was interesting to see. The music at the beginning of the film I felt was a little out of place, with almost a jazz soundtrack playing, but it seems to get better as the film progresses. The acting from the leads was good, and there were some moments of incredible emotion. The cinematography was excellent, and the director really utilises the environment, swaying grasses, wet paddy fields, caves and rivers to emphasise what is going on, or how you should be feeling. There is a sense of desolation of the two women, living alone among a vast field of tall grass that perfectly captures without words their feelings of being left behind by the men who have gone to fight the war. This is further emphasised by the hole that is shown at the beginning of the film (a pit into which the women throw the bodies of soldiers they have killed). This is a fantastic metaphor for death, evil, and perhaps even a certain emptiness at the heart of humanity. We see the hole at the beginning, throughout, and in the final scene. I feel that using these more abstract techniques the film raises itself above others in the genre.

I found that the message of the film, and its take on sex, was surprisingly refreshing, as we see at the end of the film which offers a very different conclusion than you might expect. This is far from being a horror film in the modern sense, more of a psychological thriller, with the true ‘horror’ being in the behaviour of the characters. It offers a unique take on lust, sex, and war, and the feelings of loss and abandonment by those left behind in wartime. I would highly recommend this film, as it is a great example of somebody with a clear vision bringing it almost perfectly to the screen.

Ju-on: The Grudge (2002)

Home-carer Rika is assigned to an old lady, Sachie, in suburban Tokyo. On arriving at the house she finds the lady motionless and soon becomes aware of an evil presence in the house. She finds a deathly pale young boy, Toshio and later witnesses a dark figure hovering above Sachie. The film then cuts back to show the events of Sachie’s son and his wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. It seems there is a curse on this house brought about by an earlier murder of a mother at the hands of her husband. The house is now haunted by the ghosts of Kayako, the mother, and Toshio, her young son who went missing and those who enter are destined to be haunted and killed by the curse. The detective who investigated the original case, Toyama, is brought back to try to explain. And his daughter Izumi who sneaked into the house with her classmates also becomes a victim.

The story unfolds through a number of chapters detailing the various experiences of the characters, Rika, Hitomi (Sachie’s daughter), Toyama and Izumi as well as other minor characters. This chaptered approach keeps the film moving along, feeling more like a compilation of short stories building on a central idea. It can be hard to work out who is who and what order the stories are taking place as the time-line is non-linear. The film is not as scary as it’s reputation might lead you to believe, instead building an air of quiet unease and growing terror. The scares are largely one of a kind, i.e. either Kayako or Toshio being glimpsed in the background, or appearing suddenly.  It is very well shot and the music really adds to the sense of creeping dread. It is a great example of how to direct low-budget horror, as most of the fear is produced through very simple camera movements or positioning.

This film is a cinematographic representation of an old-fashioned ghost story. From the look of Kayako and her son -pale white, lank black hair and white-less eyes -to scenes which are reminiscent of old Kabuki theatre (people being pulled backwards off-stage) it is  interesting as a glimpse at a traditional ghost story being modernised and set in a claustrophobic suburban house.

Ringu (1998)

The film opens on two high-school girls sharing ghost stories about a cursed videotape. Rumour has it that those who watch the videotape receive a call soon after and are told by a mysterious voice that they will die in one week. One of the girls admits to having seen the tape with three others a week before. When they all die unexpectedly on the same day a reporter, Reiko Asakawa, begins to follow the case of the cursed tape. When she watches the tape herself the phonecall comes shortly after and she must race to discover the secret of the tape in order to prevent her own death.

With a simple plot and small cast of characters the film builds a believable mythology surrounding the cursed tape and the audience is drawn into the story immediately. From the eerie opening violin stings the score is enjoyable and adds a lot to the character of the film. Although the film is regarded as a horror, it is more of a mystery thriller with horror elements than flat-out terrifying. Director Hideo Nakata does a fantastic job of creating tension and the film is strongest when it relies on subtle camera angles or eerie situations.

A well-made ghost story which uses minimal gore but a great deal of atmosphere and suspense. This is worth a watch as it has become one of the most famous horror films of all time, and the character of the ghost, Sadako, is perhaps one of the best known characters in Japanese film.

Based on the book by Koji Suzuki.

Vital (2004)

Tadanobu Asano stars in this tense thriller about love, loss and dissection. After waking up from a car crash suffering severe amnesia Hiroshi Takagi (Asano) restarts his medical training, something which he had given up on. He takes to the subject with a great degree of dedication and skill. When the class begin on dissecting corpses, he is surprised to see that the body they are working on is that of his former girlfriend, killed in the same car crash that resulted in his memory loss. As Hiroshi dissects the body, he has recurring dreams in which he sees the woman, Ryoko, spending time with her in that otherworld beyond life.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), this film is more accessible than his earlier work. Despite its seemingly macabre and gruesome plot, it is a surprisingly charming film, largely concerned with themes of grief and human relationships, albeit told in an unconventional fashion. The direction uses a number of tricks to disorient the viewer, jumping from real-world and dream-sequences to create a sense of unreality to everything you are seeing, and including seemingly unrelated scenes of factory chimneys that cause you to ponder their significance. One of the most effective shots in the film, for me, was the image of elevator doors sliding up and down beside each other, a simple but chilling effect that puts you in mind of left-right brain dichotomy, and is subtly troubling. Tadanobu Asano does a good job at portraying the lead, who is not only suffering memory loss, a sense of isolation and alienation from the world following his girlfriend’s death, but is also a studious person who is keen to analyse his own psyche as he examines the corpse on the table before him. If there was problem for me with the film it was in some of the more experimental shots, such as a car crash filmed in negative or the aforementioned inserts of smoking chimneys, but these can be forgiven when experiencing a singular vision such as this. The film is far from generic, so some eccentricity is to be expected in the direction.

A fantastic analysis of the relationship between the conscious and subconscious worlds, and how people are able to deal with grief and loss. I would definitely recommend this film to fans of more bizarre stories. There are a few scenes of autopsy that might not be for the faint-hearted, but overall the film does not rely on shock horror allowing you to get involved in what is essentially a tragic love story.

The Machine Girl (2008)

Ami is an ordinary high-school girl. She and her younger brother are orphaned. When her brother, Yu, is bullied and killed by a local gang, whose leader, Sho Kimura, is the son of a violent Ninja/Yakuza boss, Ami vows to take revenge. She begins killing the bullies responsible for her brothers death. When her arm is cut off after being caught by Sho’s father, she approaches Miki, a mother grieving the loss of her own son at the hands of Sho’s gang. Miki, a mechanic, makes a machine-gun arm for the girl and the two of them set of together for revenge.

The film is an over-the-top splatter comedy and shouldn’t be taken seriously at all as any form of high art. The plot is paper thin and characters are painted very broadly and show little development. But the villains are suitably repulsive and the heroine suitable likeable. The violence is extreme, blood fountaining from arteries, severed heads, limbs and other gruesome spectacles abound. The direction is pretty good at capturing that frenetic comic-book style and there are many cruel jokes that cross the bad taste line in staggering style. In places the film lacks a certain sheen and looks very amateurish, but it is low-brow in the enjoyably inventive sense and never lacks pace even if it lacks a coherent narrative.

Not for the squeamish or those looking to be intellectually challenged, but if you’re a fan of gore and violent spectacle and can appreciate the tongue-in-cheek black humour this might be for you.