If 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)