a wheel Japanese horror movies reviewed a penguin

Theatrical Releases Only

Battle Royale 2
Battle Royale 2
July 2003

This time it's war.

A 3rd year junior high school class is signed up then forced against their will to hunt down Shuya, the male survivor - turned terrorist - of the first film. Starting Christmas day, the class is given a quick brutal explanation of the "rules" from their pill-chewing homeroom teacher (and rugby coach), handed guns, then immediately forced to assault the island where Shuya and his terrorist group Wild Seven is hiding out. Like the first film, the students have explosive collars around their necks which will detonate if they fail the mission objectives - however this time there is a twist which makes looking after their fellow students more important. But once they encounter Shuya and the rag tag Wild Seven, will they stay loyal to a Japanese government forcing them to fight? (No.)

Iconic director Kinji Fukasaku died after one day of filming, and was replaced by his son, screenwriter Kenta Fukasaku. Battle Royale 2 is certainly not as skillfully directed as the first film, but one wonders what even Kinji Fukasaku could have done with this mess even if he had lived. Battle Royale 2 is a huge disappointment. It's short on character development and long on cgi - gore and debris, which never looks quite real. Riki Takeuchi, playing the kids' homeroom teacher, is ridiculous in his overacting. (Beat Takeshi he ain't.) His scenes just get more and more cheezy, passing through painful, until finally they become "so bad they're good," but just barely. The film is full of endless gun battles and many people in the audience I saw this with were constantly checking their cell phones at the 2/3 mark. The almost childishly confusing anti-American message ensures that this film will not get a theatrical release in the U.S. Really, this movie seemed like it was written by junior high school students. There is no comparison between this dreck and the original Battle Royale.

Ju On
(Vengeful Curse) - April 2003

A horrible death awaits anyone who comes within close proximity of the curse...

Nishida, a volunteer at an elderly care center, is forced by one of the paid staff to check up on a hospice patient that the center has lost touch with. No one answers the door at the house, so she enters to find garbage littering the floor, rotting tatami, and a very senile old woman, similar to the old woman in Jigoku - in other words someone you wouldn't want to be alone with in an empty house. But this house is far from empty. Nishida begins cleaning only to hear strange sounds from upstairs. Removing tape from the cracks of a sealed second floor closet reveals a cat, and then a strange, spooky little boy, who says his name is Toshio. Nishida calls the center and informs them about the boy, then finds the old woman muttering to herself, "I didn't see a boy, I didn't see a boy." But there's someone else strange in the house besides the boy, someone evil, someone whose face has been torn out of a crumpled family photograph... and she is going to have her revenge on anyone and everyone that crosses her path.

Ju On is presented in segments (captioned by the name of the character being haunted) which flash backwards and forwards in time (similar to Pulp Fiction). It's a remake of a former film, which also had a sequel. Perhaps it is necessary to see the original (I haven't) in order to understand the full story, because the reason for the curse/haunting is never really explained (there are hints), and the reason Toshio often appears as a cat also remains a mystery. It just seems as if Ju On is an excuse for one ghost attack after another, with the plot just a loose frame on which to hang the scares. Well, there are worse things to base a movie on! No one is safe from the vengeful mother, doing her best Sadako impression. If you even look at this pair of ghosts wrong you're next on their list. There are certainly some good, creepy scares here (a standout being one character attacked in bed while hiding under the covers, and my personal favorite: a flashback of sorts to the (offscreen) deaths of three junior high school students), and despite the lack of backstory and character development it is definitely worth watching, for the scares keep on coming. That said, Ju On goes to great lengths to borrow from Ring, Ring 2, and other similar films, sometimes in excess (ghosts coming out of TVs, faces altered in photographs, etc.) and sometimes at the expense of the overall cohesiveness. But there are plenty of new things here and it moves along at a nice pace. If you can imagine the last 10 minutes of Joyuu Rei expanded to fill 100 minutes, you'll know what to expect. In any case, it's entertaining and damn creepy in spots. My biggest complaint is that there are a few moments where ghosts are onscreen too long, almost becoming comical. For example, the zombie-like junior high school girl ghosts.

Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara
Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara
(From the Murky Depths)
Eng. title: Dark Water - January 2002

The Director of Ring returns to the ghost movie motif...

Yoshimi Matsubara is a young mother fighting her ex-husband for the custody of their six year old daughter, Ikuko. Mother and daughter are forced to move into an old, dark apartment building with no other apparent residents. Things seem to go well at first, but the water in the building doesn't taste quite right. Soon a stain on their ceiling begins dripping onto the floor. Water is coming from someplace... but they often hear the running feet of a child playing in the apartment above theirs, so that apartment couldn't be the source, could it? A red school bag begins turning up again and again, even when thrown away. Yoshimi discovers that a young girl who lived in the apartment above theirs went missing two years ago... could this be the girl in the yellow raincoat that she and her daughter have seen in the neighborhood, watching them? And why is Iku-chan attracted to the roof of the building?

Hideo Nakata (the director of Ring) brings us a haunted house film, from an original story by Kouji Suzuki (the author of Ring). Honogurai reminded me of a cross between Ring 2 and Kourei (a film about a girl who is locked in a box, dies, and returns to haunt a young couple). The movie has a few creepy moments, but the story isn't very interesting and there's nothing in it that we haven't seen before. The film is sparse on characters, and though the solid acting of the mother (Hiromi Kuroki, known for her stage work) and daughter carry it far, I think it needed more variety or a shorter running time. We are told (not shown) the building is "bad" by being introduced to it with a low camera angle and ominous music. The climax of the movie is, as with all of Hideo Nakata's popular supernatural films, the ghost attack. Undoubtably it will make many in the audience shudder, but it's not as creepy as Ring or as startling as The Woman in Black (the latter almost gave me a heart attack). In Honogurai the ghost attack is prefixed by a nod to a moment in The Haunting, also alluded to in an earlier scene in the apartment building's elevator. The same old predictable ghost scares make for a good popcorn flick but nothing really stands out as original. I found the most frightening scenes to be simple shots of the apartment building's dark corridors. I didn't expect the "10 years later" ending, but I didn't care for it, either.

Eng. title: Pulse - March 2001

When there's no more room in Ghost Land...

Michi is an employee at rooftop plant nursery. Ryusuke is a student trying to get connected to the internet. We follow their separate lives as they come face to face with malignant supernatural ghosts, who are somehow aided by human technology. Michi's friends succumb to suicide and spirit-induced loneliness after investigating the computer disk of an acquaintance that killed himself, while Ryusuke solicits the help of a campus computer lab attendant to explain the mysterious web page that continually appears on his computer. Why are rooms being sealed off with red masking tape? Why does seeing a ghost's face trap people in a spiral of lonely depression? And can society survive?

One wonders if a whispered repetition "help me" is the most frightening thing imaginable to Japanese people. From the director of Cure comes a movie that goes through a lot of trouble just to prove what Ring proved in 1995: people doing strange things on video monitors are creepy. This movie is creepy, too, but only in parts. The story is all over the place, minor characters are undefined at best, and the action seems to be composed of 95% master shots. Locations are undefined - the viewer never gets a "map" of the movie's locale in mind, making the loose plot even more frustrating. There are some great scenes, however. One immediately questions what the internet has to do with the supernatural goings on. We never find out. Unfortunately no one with knowledge of computers or the internet seems to have collaborated on this film, and computer-savvy audiences will find some things ridiculous. Too bad. Ultimately, I think this movie tries to make some sort of commentary on modernation and loneliness, but fails. Look for a few dark ghosts hidden throughout the background scenery.

(Dog God) - February 2001

Supernatural spirits and skeletons from the past haunt a rural town...

A young school teacher moves to a rural town and becomes infatuated with a middle-aged spinsterish paper maker named Miki. (Paper and God are both "kami" in Japanese, while "oukami" is wolf.) Miki begins to appear younger and younger, while strange things begin happening around the village. It seems the women in the town must care for ancient urns housing spirits of the dog gods, a tradition which Miki's dead mother's spirit encourages her to continue. A large cast of characters, including a despicable drunkard, fleshes out the slowly-moving plot. A motorcycle accident reminds one of a scene from Joyuu Rei. Worms emerge from a computer monitor in what might be a tribute to Suspiria. A "warping" effect of the air (similar to Predator, though formless and obviously digital) represents the malevolent spirits. But it's a horrible secret from Miki's past which could do the most damage to her growing physcial relationship with the young teacher and perhaps the community itself...

Howard Hawkes fan Masato Harada directs Inugami beautifully, but what stands out even more is the cinematography by Junichi Fujisawa. Aided by the lush Shikoku scenery, the film is almost worth watching just for the natural beauty itself. The story, however, plods along slowly and the finale is amazingly unsatisfying. In a movie about deadly dog spirits, I expected to actually see some dog spirits attacking people! But there were none, just a cheap warping effect straight out of Adobe After Effects. In fact, I can't remember seeing anything at all frightening in the movie. Inugami is reminiscent of atmospheric films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, yet it's sadly lacking in the creepy imagery which makes for good horror.

Yonimo Kimyouna Monogatari
Yonimo Kimyouna Monogatari
(Tales of the Unusual) - November 2000

An anthology program like The Twilight Zone makes the leap to the big screen.

Four "uncanny" stories of various genres make up this film, set around a group of people waiting at the entrance to a train station for a heavy rain to end (Rashomon anyone?). The mysterious Mr. Tamori entertains the waiting group with his patented "tales of the unusual." His first story, "Yukiyama" (Snow Mountain) tells the tale of five survivors of a mountain airplane crash. Two young women, a photo journalist, a businessman, and an asshole (typical Japanese film character stereotype - think of Mr. Cooper, the father in Night of the Living Dead who refuses to let the others into the farmhouse's cellar). One of the young women is badly hurt. The others bury her in the snow and abandon her just before finding an isolated cabin. (The death of the wounded girl, by shovel, is note-worthy.) Due to the freezing temperature, they take turns sleeping for only minutes at a time, but it seems there are more than four people in the cabin... They wake up to find one of their number murdered. As they succumb to the mysterious presence one by one, the remaining two decide to use the young woman's video camera to record what happens while they sleep. The other three tales are a comedy, a story of suspense, and a romance.

Of the four tales in this film, I liked "Snow Mountain" the least. The premise was interesting, but certain elements of the story necessary for the plot (the sleeping positions, for example) could have been illustrated better. The surprise ending seemed forced. Probably because Tokyo rarely sees brutally cold winters, the production design didn't include breath effects, which in this day and age are necessary to sell the illusion of freezing temperatures. "Snow Mountain" was basically a shuffling of films like Ring, The Blair Witch Project, and of course the "Snow Woman" story from Kwaidan. The best story in this anthology is by far the last, the romantic "Kekkon Simulator" (Marriage Simulator). Its charming and over-sentimental tale of modern Japanese marriage hurdles brought a tear to my eye. Finally, if you're like me, you'll expect some sort of interesting ending involving the mysterious Mr. Tamori and the people waiting out the rain in the train station. Nope. Speaking of Mr. Tamori, will anyone ever crack the fiendish encryption in his name? What could "Tamori" possibly mean?

Ringu 0
Ringu 0
(Ring 0) - February 2000

The tragic story of Sadako Yamamura.

A prequel of sorts to the most famous horror film to come out of Japan in years. Both The Ring and The Ring 2 were disturbingly creepy films with imaginative, frightful scenes. If you haven't seen them, you don't know what you're missing! Ring 0: Birthday takes place 30 years in the past, showing us how Sadako came to her terrible end. An actress in a play, she becomes suspected of murder by others in the cast and crew. It seems that the only person on her side is the play's sound technician. Things are further complicated when a reporter starts to dig into her past. Is there more than one Sadako?

The big question is, can Ring 0 match the first two theatrical films? Unfortunately, Ring 0 is not nearly as horrifying or dreadful as the first two. It is pretty good however, especially about 30 minutes from the end, when things really start to get interesting. Part of the reason why it sometimes falters is due to the story; the deaths in the first half aren't very interesting, not to mention the unneeded romantic subplot! One group action undertaken by characters really stretched credibility. Also, I can't help but feel that, had Hideo Nakata returned as director, Ring 0 would be a much more frightening film. There are a few lost opportunities, some camera angles that deflate the building fright... Finally, do we learn anything else about the origin of the mysterious videotape? Well, maybe we do. It's hard to tell.

Kuroi Ie
Kuroi Ie
(The Black House) - November 1999

An insurance claims investigator gets what he deserves for meddling with a death house!

Weird morbid film. A high strung insurance investigator is called to verify a suicide, but the strange actions of the husband and wife who own the house (most notably their constant insistence on the insurance money) make everyone wonder if it really was a suicide. His girlfriend gets involved and their lives are threatened. It dropped out of the theatres in two weeks. A man savagely bites his own hand. Another guy gets his palm slashed, then his calf. A bowling ball with glass shards sticking out of it causes many painful injuries to many people. A woman forces a man she is strangling to suck her breasts. A man discovers a murder pit.

Lessons are learned the hard way. It is apparently unwise to constantly call and harass an insurance company about not yet getting the money from an insurance settlement if one doesn't want to raise suspicion about a possible murder. Secondly, one shouldn't cut off someone's arms, then immediately call and harass the same insurance company about not getting the money for a disability settlement if one is being investigated for insurance fraud and/or murder. Based on Yuusuke Kishi's book of the same name.

Gakko no Kaidan 4
Gakko no Kaidan 4
(School Ghost Story 4) - September 1999

Can two city kids new to a coastal town stop the string of ghostly deaths?

Ultimately for kids. Years ago, four children were killed in their beachfront elementary school while playing hide-and-go-seek. (Four is a number significant with death in Japan.) A tsunami struck and they drowned in their hiding places. Flash forward to the arrival of two Tokyo children to the new school (built much further inland). A storm raises the ghosts of the tsunami victims, who begin killing the town's children one by one. Can the watery ghosts be stopped? And who is that old man always standing on the pier?

This film isn't serious horror - in fact the ending is pretty sappy - but there are a few good moments, including the opening tsunami. The fantastic ending set piece is nearly ruined by cutesy *batteries not included-like cgi. The best scene: A group of children visit a boy who is recovering from a close call with the spirits. The boy's mother serves them lemonade, but brings one too many glasses. Meanwhile we see a pair of dripping sandles in the genkan with the other shoes. In the boy's room, all the children momentarily see a doll (which had belonged to one of the ghosts) sitting on one girl's shoulder. She doesn't see it. They stare at it in horror, but then after it vanishes they don't tell her about it! Of course this girl is later murdered by the doll-carrying ghost. (Yes, the extra glass of lemonade is mysteriously empty at the end of the scene.)

Sorry, previous reviews lost in the fire.

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