Stare (シライサン, Hirotaka Adachi, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Stare 3If you’re attacked by a bear, the advice is not to run, but to stand your ground before backing away slowly while calmly explaining to the bear that you mean it no harm and would like to go home now. Similar advice will serve you well if you’re unlucky enough to be cursed by “Shirai-san” (シライサン), the vengeful ghost of an all-powerful shamaness who, for some reason, really doesn’t like for people to know her name. One crucial difference, however, is that Shirai-san demands a different kind of respect. She can’t abide deference, and will kill all those who look away from her extremely large eyes.

This three young people learn to their cost after indulging in an ill-advised scary story session in a quiet inn. An oft repeated piece about a creepy wedding photo invites a visiting liquor store delivery boy, Watanabe (Shota Sometani), to recount a tale of pure horror he was told as a boy about a man chased by a strange woman who claimed to know him and wanted to take her revenge for his supposedly knowing her name (which he apparently didn’t until she told it to him). The man tells her to pick on someone else who knows her as “Shirai-san” which is how the story ends, with fingers pointing at the horrified listeners. Of course, it’s just a silly campfire story, but before long all three of the students are dead of supposed heart attacks of such magnitude that they caused their eyes to explode.

Meanwhile, the left behind – friend Mizuki (Marie Iitoyo), and brother Haruo (Yu Inaba), begin an investigation which will eventually see them too cursed by the figure of Shirai-san. Later they are joined by equally dejected reporter Mamiya (Shugo Oshinari), still grieving for his young daughter killed in a traffic accident some time ago. All modern people, none of the three really believes that their loved ones died because of an ancient curse, but their investigation leads them to just that conclusion, leaving them to ponder how exactly they might be able to survive if not actually break it.

In any case, Shirai-san’s wrath is directed at all those who know her name no matter how they came to learn it. Like many a J-horror ghost, what she feeds on is fear. As Haruo’s father told him, perhaps in cold comfort, there is one upside to death – that by dying you lose your fear of it. Thereby you can come to accept the idea of death and pass peacefully with no need for further anxiety about the end. It’s an ironic statement, but not without its truth. Picking apart the mystery, Mizuki wonders how exactly you might write the name “Shirai”, working under the assumption that it’s the most normal way which means “white well” (白井) only to wonder if it’s not a way of saying “death coming” (死来) rather than actually her name.

Shirai-san might be, in that sense, merely the evocation of mortality, stalking dark corners and striking seemingly at random. One victim thinks they find a way to placate her, that if you can bear to stare her in the eye long enough she will eventually disappear, but you cannot escape “death” by facing it down only meet it with dignity. Our heroes are plagued by visions of the people they’ve lost, haunted by possibly imagined grudges and irresolvable guilt over human failings, the way they fear they may have made people feel or otherwise let them down. Shirai-san plays on their mortal insecurities, luring them to their doom with a mix of relief from suffering and guilt-ridden atonement.

Well known horror maestro Hirotaka Adachi (AKA Otsuichi) injects new vigour into the classic J-horror ghost with Shirai-san seemingly unafraid to strike in broad daylight and public places while her presence is eerily felt in the most tranquil of locations, echoed in the innocent tinkle of bicycle bells. A cruel curse spread by resentment and negativity, Shirai-san’s revenge is one which offers only an ironic escape and remains frustratingly inscrutable even at the very end. Nevertheless, she does, perhaps, come for us all in one way or another. The least you can do is look her in the eye.


Stare was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Saiji Yakumo, 2017)

dark maidens posterThe world of teenage girls is often arcane and impenetrable to those outside of its extremely exclusive bubble, but The Dark Maidens (暗黒女子, Ankoku Joshi), Saiji Yakumo’s adaptation of the Rikako Akiyoshi novel, takes duplicity to new heights. When the school darling dies by falling (oh so beautifully) off a roof, speculation is rife and a rumour quickly spreads through the otherwise repressive educational environment that her very best friends are somehow to blame. Each implicates the others in turn, indulging their petty grudges and jealousies seemingly falling over themselves to express their closeness to the departed “sun”, but all is not quite as it seems and these collective acts of fantasy perhaps expose a little more than they were first intended to.

Itsumi Shiraishi (Marie Iitoyo) is dead. The daughter of the chairman at the elite all girls Catholic high school, Virgin Mary Academy, Itsumi was loved by all as the radiant sun whose innate goodness was the very embodiment of the school’s Christian aims. Immediately before the school holidays, the literature club – the most prestigious and exclusive of school associations of which Itsumi had been founder and president, are to meet one last time presided over by Itsumi’s best friend Sayuri (Fumika Shimizu). The girls will each read a story they have written “inspired” by Itsumi’s death, each of which attempts to tell her story from their perspective but ultimately paints themselves in a favourable light whilst casting doubt on the others. 

The sole clue to the mystery is the lily of the valley Itsumi clutched to her breast, Snow White-like, as she lay pale and wan amid the flowers, elegantly arranged as always despite an apparently violent death. Quickly the girls run through a series of possible motives each with a degree of internal consistency but veering off in their own particular directions. Three of the girls awkwardly hint at their (unrequited?) love for their dead friend, insisting on a kind of ownership of her memory and of their rightful place at her side while the fourth descends into a xenophobic horror story casting the half-Bulgarian girl as a “vampire” come to suck the life out of the previously warm and vivacious Itsumi.

Yakumo delights in sending up the ever present girls school trope of repressed lesbianism and passionate friendships, but it remains true enough that the love card was apparently not one which Itsumi was afraid to play. The stories are all, in part at least, fabrications intended to cover up the various skeletons each of the girls has in their closets, but what they reveal is the series of manipulative machinations which underpins this seemingly sweet and elegant collection of conservative young ladies indulging a love for literature and the Christian virtues. Affairs, blackmail, inappropriate sexual relationships, forced abortions (at a Catholic school!), arson, all of these precede the presumed murder of Itsumi in a vast web of deception and illicit activity.

Teenage girls are often desperate to fit in, to be accepted by the “elite”, at the best of times but especially in an environment as otherwise repressive and exacting as an all girls Catholic high school. Adolescence is a time for trying on different personalities, but there can be something inherently plastic about the identity of a high school girl wanting in to the popular club. Hiding their true feelings, their fears and jealousies, the girls play the parts of they’ve been assigned – supporting cast in the tragic history of Itsumi, a girl betrayed who remained beautiful even in death. Then again, there might be some push back from those growing to resent their peripheral status and beginning to wonder if the spotlight was not theirs for the taking all along. A sun, however, will always need its lesser stars to demonstrate how much brighter it can shine.

Adapted from the novel by Rikako Akiyoshi, The Dark Maidens is a perfect mix of European drawing room mystery and gothic melodrama. Yakumo ups the camp fantastically with the girls sitting round a mysterious pot of stew in a room lit only by candlelight while a storm rages outside and each revelation is accompanied by crashing thunder and flashes of light. The setting is oppressive and sinister, but the only horror in the room is entirely human as each of these young women eagerly submits themselves to someone else’s control in fear of being, in some way, exposed, while those who seek to play the lead have to stoop to underhanded methods just to make “friends” who are really just minions rather than true believers. A sad and sorry state of affairs – who knew teenage cliques could be so, well, dark?


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 February 2018
  • Macrobert Arts Centre – 19 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 1 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)