Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Takashi Shimizu, 2022)

“A story about nothing” is how one middle-aged man jokingly dismisses a local legend about an ox-headed woman. Are urban legends just one big dad joke? Everybody who hears this story dies, so they say, which is obviously true whichever way you look at it though if it really were a curse it would have to move quickly or there’d be no-one to pass it on. As the heroine of Takashi Shimizu’s summer adventure horror movie Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Ushikubi Mura) discovers, however, there may be something to it after all in uncovering the dark history behind the local folklore. 

In her last year of high school, teenager Kanon (Koki) is beginning to experience strange events such as a series of mysterious scratches on her arm, odd bangs and noises at home, and her phone constantly playing a message about bad pennies and their tendency to keep turning up. Her friend Ren (Riku Hagiwara), who has a crush on her, shows her a viral video of some girls on paranormal live stream that goes wrong leading one, who looks exactly like her, to fall down a lift shaft and then mysteriously disappear. To find out what’s going on the pair head out into the country to the abandoned hotel where the shoot took place but end up battling supernatural malevolence born of the cruelty of previous eras. 

Like the previous two films in the “Village” trilogy, Ox-Head Village revolves around rural folkloric beliefs this time focussing on the suspicion cast against twins which in this village at least seems to have continued until the late 1960s. The root of the curse is the unnatural act of dividing something that should be one into two in attempting to separate pairs of twins leaving the one left behind, lonely, burdened with the residual stigma of being one of multiple births, and perhaps experiencing a little survivor’s guilt. In the film’s second sequence, bathed in yellow and shot with a 70s-style soft focus, two little girls kill a butterfly and bury it with its friends because it would just be lonely on its own. The resolution is that that which has been divided must be reunited in life or in death in order to end the curse, though as we later see that may not quite be the end of it. 

Meanwhile, though a supernatural horror film, Ox-Head Village is also part of a grand tradition of teen summer adventure movies. Kanon and Ren are about to embark on the last summer as high schoolers, the trip they take together as so many are is also about self-discovery as Kanon answers a few lingering questions about her past while searching for her doppelgänger. Her quest is also in its way about rescuing herself and laying to rest the sense of loneliness which has always plagued her. Along for the ride, Ren is perhaps more curious while obviously smitten hoping to cement his romance through a romantic road trip only to be blindsided by supernatural intrigue and country superstition. 

Nevertheless, there is something truly creepy about the innocent flowers the little girls draw along with the pre-modern superstition that informs life in the village. Though the sinister presence may in this case be firmly rooted in the past, they are able to mediate their curse through modern technology such as manipulating Kanon’s phone as a means of communication while using lift shafts to mimic the well which becomes the repository for the darkness of the village. As an old man puts it, a prejudice against twins might have been intellectually understandable in a time of famine, though morally indefensible and obviously absurd and out of place in the modern society. Even so, old beliefs have a way of persisting even if they are no longer clearly understood. 

Along with all the folk horror of ox-headed women, headless buddhist statues and “stories about nothing” there is the lingering dread of the lonely incompleteness visited on the little girls in yellow because of the outdated superstitions of an earlier era. Overcoming the curse requires both self-knowledge and self-sacrifice in order to heal the unnatural act of division which has been carried out but even this may not be enough to repair the damage of centuries of cruelty and prejudice. 


Ox-Head Village screens at Lincoln Center 19th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 OX-HEAD VILLAGE Production Committee

Organ (あの日のオルガン, Emiko Hiramatsu, 2019)

Emiko Hiramatsu is best known as a regular collaborator to the endlessly prolific Yoji Yamada. Though his repertoire is more varied than some give him credit for, Yamada is one of several veteran directors to have begun looking backwards with a sometimes uncomfortable nostalgia for the wartime era in tales of maternal suffering such as Kabei and Nagasaki: Memories of my Son, or its legacy of unfulfilled desire in the more complex The Little House, all of which were co-written by Hiramatsu. It’s to the war she returns in her second directorial feature Organ (あの日のオルガン, Ano Hi no Organ), once again chronicling female fortitude as an idealistic nursery school teacher defies governmental advice to evacuate the children in her care to the relative safety of a disused temple outside of the city. 

“Angry girl” Kaede Itakura (Erika Toda) is outraged by the news that the schools will soon be closed, not least because of it’s impracticality seeing as the parents of the children in her care have all been mobilised for the war effort and will not be able to look after them. Worried about the intensification of aerial bombardment, she’s considering taking the children somewhere safer but is struggling to convince others that she is right to reject the governmental line. Her greatest challenge is not, however, the authorities, but the children’s parents, many of whom have been quite thoroughly brainwashed and have no idea how badly the war is going. They find Kaede’s suggestion defeatist and are certain that they are in no real danger. Of course, no one wants to be separated from their children, but some begin to wonder if they aren’t being selfish in wanting to keep them close if they’ll be safer elsewhere. Experiencing a serious air raid, most parents ultimately decide that perhaps evacuation is for the best. 

The kids, though obviously distressed to be taken away from their parents, perhaps think of it as an extended school trip. The locals, however, are not universally pleased to see them. A farmer beefed up by militarist credentials, loudly complains about being forced to feed and shelter “unproductive” refugees. He’s only talked round when the sole male teacher explains to him that the children are important because they too are children of the emperor who will someday grow up to become fine soldiers fighting for imperial glory. 

Kaede bristles, but finally cannot argue. A neat mirror of macho male militarist ideology, her philosophy also has its patriotic quality in her constant insistence that they must save their “cultural identity” by teaching the children traditional arts such as flower arranging and folk songs which, while admired by the militarists for their essential Japaneseness, are also regarded as frivolous. She tries to maintain distance between herself and the children, clear that this a school and not a home, but is forced to accept a degree of maternity when it becomes clear that lack of human warmth is causing them to suffer. 

The teachers at the school, all of whom are necessarily unmarried and most of them young, are doubted by others precisely because they have no children of their own even if they are ultimately respected as educators. Caring for the children is also their way of serving, allowing their parents to devote themselves entirely to the war effort in the knowledge that their kids are safe. The country is, however, much more conservative than the city. Also viewed with suspicion is a man who’s come home from the war injured and now finds himself out of place, “unproductive”, and to a degree feminised. When he dares to talk cheerfully to one of the teachers after helping her fix her bicycle, the ultra militarist doesn’t like it, accusing the teachers of being a bunch of loose women in the habit of taking advantage of “vulnerable” men who are apparently both emasculated and infantilised by their inability to serve. The militarist’s complaint gets the teacher sent home, back to the city, and straight into the heart of danger where she may die simply for smiling at a lonely young man. 

Kaede once again doesn’t approve, but is powerless to resist. She is forced to compromise her principles for the greater good to keep the children safe. Her “angry girl” fortitude is directly contrasted with the ethereality of the bumbling Mitsue (Sakurako Ohara) who has a knack with the children but is not exactly a responsible adult. Yet Mitsue too is “serving”, if only as a morale booster, her cheerful attitude helping to carry others through tough times. It’s her organ from which the film takes its title, gathering the children to sing wholesome folk songs including the classic “furusato” with all its evocations of nostalgia for an idyllic pastoral innocence.

Meanwhile, Kaede wonders if she’s done the right thing in separating families, darkly worried that the parents might have preferred to die with their children rather than be glad they sent them away to safety. Many of the children in her care are orphaned, losing homes and family members in the fire bombing, and finally not even rural Saitama is safe, but she has at least saved something in her determination to carve out a space for peaceful innocence far away from the unfeeling chaos of militarist folly.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー, Ujicha, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

violence voyager posterWeird stuff happens out in the mountains, stuff you wouldn’t even believe. Ujicha’s Burning Buddha Man followup Violence Voyager (バイオレンス・ボイジャー) is a pleasantly retro treat, set sometime in the more innocent past when the landscape still held hidden mysteries for small boys to find and anything goes so long as you’re home in time for tea. There are some mysteries, however, that it’s better not to solve and if something seems too good to be true, that’s usually because it is. Little Bobby (Aoi Yuki) is about to become a hero, but his journey will be a one way trip of unwelcome transformations, losses, and betrayals.

Bobby, an American boy with a blond bowl cut living in a little rural town with his distant dad and bedridden mum for otherwise unexplained reasons, has impressed his best friend Akkun (Shigeo Takahashi) with his high-tech pinball baseball computer console he made for the science fair, even if it has put the strange monster toys Akkun and his brother Yakkun entered with the intention of masking a lack of skill with pure strangeness to shame. Ostracised by the other kids, Bobby and Akkun long to cross the mountain and find their other friend, Takaaki (Daisuke Ono), who moved away to the next village. Akkun has heard tell of a secret mountain path which would take them there for free and it’s only *slightly* dangerous even if it does take time. Luckily it’s the summer holidays so time is something the boys have plenty of.

Setting off despite the warnings of Old Man Lucky Monkey (who actually lives with a chimpanzee as a “friend”), the boys are sidetracked when Bobby spots a fallen sign for something called “Violence Voyager” which sounds like too good an opportunity to miss. Ending up at an abandoned theme park, the boys are surprised to find the proprietor (Tomorowo Taguchi) still hanging around and overjoyed when he offers to let them in for free seeing as he rarely gets any business owing to the rapidly declining number of children in the area (alarm bells should be ringing right about now). Handed a “voyager suit” (an anorak and pair of wellies), the boys are shown an informational video explaining that the world has been invaded by aliens in the form of robot soldiers who shoot alkaline from their plant-like hands. Choosing a “weapon” (water pistol) each (Bobby a rifle, Akkun a tiny little dolphin), the boys set off but it’s not long before they start to suspect something isn’t quite right. Discovering another little girl lying injured, Bobby and Akkun plan an escape only to find their bullying classmates also facing the same dilemma.

It will come as no surprise that there really is something not quite right going at Violence Voyager. Like a combination of Westworld and Soylent Green, the park exists to strip the young of their innocence by exploiting it. A mad scientist desperately trying to save his only family is literally eating his young – sacrificing the souls of innocent children and “remaking” them in his own image to feed his ruined son. Meanwhile, Bobby’s dad fights equally hard to track down and rescue his own errant boy from an obviously bad situation.

Bobby emerges scarred and fundamentally “changed” mentally and physically but with his humanity fully intact, carrying a pretty bunch of flowers to take to his mum to cheer up her sickbed (and presumably lessen the shock of seeing him as he now is). An extreme coming of age tale, Violence Voyager runs from exposing the cynicism of businesses aimed at children to the desperation faced by a parent prepared to protect their offspring at all costs (including their remaining family).

Ujicha’s trademark “geki-animation” is a perfect fit for the bizarre tale at hand, filled with beautiful hand painted backgrounds and accompanied by the sonorous narration of comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (Symbol, Big Man Japan). The retro design from Bobby’s bowl cut to the ‘70s musical score and noticeably old-fashioned composition (one shot even seems to reference the poster for Fukasaku’s Virus) allows the warmth of nostalgia to mix with its less positive elements all while indulging in a surreal B-movie adventure which starts with “aliens” and ends with the horror that men do. Whether a metaphor for the conformist meat grinder which strips children of their individuality to trap them in the straight jacket of the salaryman world, the ravages of grief, or just a B-movie body horror adventure, Violence Voyager is a surreal fever dream of bodily corruption but undercut with its own sense of fantastical whimsy and an oddly innocent heart for so dark a tale.


Violence Voyager was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)