Japanese Horror Film (1999, Asmik-Ace Entertainment)
Some things are better left dead...
Disclaimer: I have done my best to prevent any spoilers from entering this writeup, and I don't think there are any. Readers with a strong allergic reaction to spoilers read at their own risk.
The Japanese language is a delight for lovers of wordplay—it is absolutely full of sound-alike words and many words may be combined and/or pronounced in several ways, depending on context. Shikoku is the smallest of the four main Japanese islands—its name 四国 means "Four Lands" (alternately: Land of Four), referring to the four provinces that were traditionally part of the island. However, with a different kanji character 死国 the name can mean "the Land of the Dead." Shikoku island, with its misty forests and remote villages, far from the hustle and bustle of big cities like Tokyo and Yokohama provides an eerily beautiful backdrop for this atmospheric tale of secrets, love, death and ghosts.
It starts with three children: lively Hinako, ambitious and somewhat gloomy Sayori and a boy named Fumiya. These three friends lived in the small town of Yaku, on the island of Shikoku. Through flashbacks, we see how young Sayori (portrayed by the beautiful and talented Chiaki Kuriyama—familiar to a somewhat wider audience as the psychotic martial-arts schoolgirl Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill) dreamed of moving away, escaping the small-town boredom, but Hinako was the one who got out, when her family moved to Tokyo. Sayori, the daughter of a priestess who can commune with spirits, dreamed of leaving the village and became extremely jealous of her friend who moved away.
Ten years later, Hinako has matured into a successful young artist (played by the very fetching Yui Natsukawa). When she comes back to Yaku, she discovers weird and unhappy goings-on in her hometown. Her friend Sayori never answered Hinako's letters, now she discovers that Sayori drowned in an accident a few years after Hinako's family moved away. Ghosts seem to be appearing and a creepy forbidden valley near the village may just hold the answers; the old folks of the village claim that it contains a gateway to the land of the dead.
What follows is a very intriguing tale of family secrets—unfolding a bit at a time, in the manner of a well-paced mystery story. The breathtakingly beautiful rolling hills and misty mountains of Shikoku provide a moody backdrop for this strange tale, which is at once interesting, engaging, and spooky but also deeply emotional and at times even quite sweet.
As Hinako and Fumiya (Michitaka Tsutsui) struggle to make sense of the weird happenings in the village (and as the paranoid people of the small town begin to blame her for them—proving that small-town folks are about the same where ever you go), the audience is treated to some outstanding acting. The two leads, Hinako and Fumiya have terrific chemistry and watch for a delightfully insane performance from Toshie Negishi as Sayori's bereaved mother.
Oh yes, and then there is Makoto Satō as Sendo, an old monastic pilgrim who kicks ass for the Buddha—I can't begin to describe how cool this actor is in this role. Like Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, this role is not the entire story, but the actor and the character turn the story into something much greater than it would have been without them. The holy man provides a small but vital part of the tale and Satō's understated performance brings a dignity and gravity to a role that could have been a 'throwaway' type of character.
What People Thought
Viewers who see Shikoku in hopes of the kind of visceral scares offered by Ringu (or its even scarier sequel) may find themselves a touch disappointed. This is a different kind of ghost story, a well-made supernatural mystery-thriller, with far more in common with the works of Alfred Hitchcock than, say, the Exorcist or Poltergeist. As a result, a few viewers were not happy with the film, feeling it was softer and less terrifying than expected.
Some viewers saw the characters, apart from Hinako, as a little thinly realized, but I do not agree. Shikoku is basically a story about three young people and the ways in which rivalries and obligations have shaped their lives—as such the chief interplay is between Hinako and Fumiya, the two survivors of the trio. Still, the minor characters are richly portrayed and perfectly fitted to the story.
My Reactions and Observations
Shikoku is a heck of a great movie—I put it in a category with the Ringu movies and the work of Hayao Miyazaki as far as wonderful, recent Japanese films are concerned.
Like some other recent scary movies from Japan, notably Ringu, Ju-On, and Inugami, Shikoku has some of the classic elements of Japanese ghost stories: pain and jealousy, madness, magical blurring of the line between real and un-real and really pissed-off teenage spooks. Still, Shikoku is at least as different from those fine flicks as they are from one another.
In addition to being a delightful and subtle thriller movie, Shikoku has some fascinating cultural elements and overtones. One is the Japanese love/hate relationship with the water. As an archipelago surrounded by ocean (and shot through with rivers and lakes), the people of Japan have always been dependant on the water for many elements of their lives. The ocean is a fickle friend, however, and often greets its human pals with storms, accidents, and other dangers. As a result, the ocean and water in general is often treated with respect, awe, and a kind of grudging reverence in Japanese folk tales. This film is no exception (although the attitude is even more obvious in Ringu). Two drownings or near-drownings are integral to the story and provide the framework for the tale. There is also some icky, nifty, nearly Lovecraftian birth/death imagery which involves water...
Another important bit of cultural context is jealousy as the cause for ghosts. This is a big theme in many Japanese ghost stories (and a fair number of European and American ones as well, I will note). Watching people we love succeed can sometimes cause feelings of jealousy which may, if unchecked, fester and turn into hatred and rage. The theme of these feelings being strong enough to bring the dead back to avenge the perceived wrong is one that should be familiar to people of many cultures around the world.
There are also some bits of familial obligations and the question of whether love can outlast death ... I've said enough, just see the movie already!
imdb, of course!
At home with John and Debbie, Shikoku movie review (they found the kanji so I did not have to! Thanks, John and Debbie! http://www.hartnup.net/wordpress/archives/2005/11/08/%E6%AD%BB%E5%9B%BD-shikoku/
Shikoku movie review at Snowblood Apple online: http://www.mandiapple.com/snowblood/shikoku.htm
Watching the movie again, of course!