Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Akio Jissoji, 2005)

Summer of the UbumeAkio Jissoji has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director to date. In a career that also encompasses the landmark tokusatsu franchise Ultraman and a large selection of children’s TV, Jissoji made his mark as an avant-garde director through his three Buddhist themed art films for ATG. Summer of Ubume (姑獲鳥の夏, Ubume no Natsu) is a relatively late effort and finds Jissoji adapting a supernatural mystery novel penned by Natsuhiko Kyogoku neatly marrying most of his central concerns into one complex detective story.

Freelance writer Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) and occult expert Kyogokudo (Shinichi Tsutsumi) become intrigued by the bizarre story of a woman who has apparently been pregnant for twenty months. If that weren’t enough weirdness, the woman’s husband also went missing a year ago and now her sister has approached the pair hoping they can investigate and figure out what’s really going on. Unbeknownst to him, Sekiguchi has a longstanding connection with several of the people involved and himself plays a role in the central mystery. Demons foreign and domestic, past trauma, infanticide and multiple personality disorder are just some of the possible solutions but as Kyogokudo is keen to remind us, there is nothing in this world that is truly strange.

The mystery conceit takes the form of a classic European style detective story complete witha drawing room based finale in which each of our potential suspects is assembled for Kyogokudo so that he can deliver his final lecture and tick them all off the list as he goes along. The tale takes place in the summer of 1952 and so the spectre of Japan’s wartime past, as well as its growing future, both have a part to play in solving this extremely complex crime. The original supernatural question concerns two otherworldly entities which have become conflated – the Chinese Kokakucho which abducts children, and the Japanese Ubume which offers its child to passersby. Needless to say, the answer to all of our questions lies firmly within our own world and is in no small part the result of relentless cruelty masked as tradition.

The opening scene includes a lengthy discussion between Kyogokudo an Sekiguchi debating the nature of reality. We only experience the world as we perceive it, seeing and unseeing at will. Everybody, to an extent, sees what they need to see, therefore, memory proves an unreliable narrator when it comes to recalling facts which may run contrary to the already prepared narrative.

Jissoji brings his trademark surrealist approach to the material which largely consists of interconnecting flashbacks often intercut with other dreamlike imagery. Filming with odd angles and unusual camera movements, Jissoji makes the the regular world a destabilising place as the strange mystery takes hold. The canted angles and direct to camera approach also add to a slight hardboiled theme which creeps in around the otherwise European detective drama though this mystery is much more about solving a series of puzzles than navigating the dangerously dark world of the noir. That said this is a very bleak tale which, for all its frog faced children weirdness, has some extremely unpleasant human behaviour at its roots.

Supernatural investigator Kyogokudo quickly dispenses with the demonic in favour of the natural but the solutions to this extremely complicated set of mysteries are anything but simple. Making space for the original novel’s author to show up as a travelling picture storyteller with some Shigeru Mizuki inspired illustrations on his easel, Summer of Ubume is not entirely devoid of whimsy but its deliberately arch tone is one which it manages to make work with its already bizarre set up. The enemy is the unburied past, or more precisely the unacknowledged past which generates its own series of ghosts and phantasms, always lurking in the background and creating havoc wherever they go. Occasionally confusing, Summer of Ubume is a fascinating supernatural mystery which takes its cues much more from European detective stories and gothic adventure than from supernatural horror or fantastical ghost story.


Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s source novel is available in an English translation by Alexander O. Smith (published by Vertical in the US).

Original trailer (no subs):

Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

journey to the shoreTime is an ocean, but it ends at the shore. Kiyoshi Kurosawa neatly reverses Dylan’s poetic phrasing as his shoreline is less a place of endings but of beginnings or at least a representation of the idea that every beginning is born from the death of that which preceded it. Adapted from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kishibe no Tabi) takes its grief stricken, walking dead heroine on a long journey of the soul until she can finally put to rest a series of wandering ghosts and begin to live once again, albeit at her own tempo.

The film begins with three years widowed Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) giving a piano lesson to a little girl whose mother goes on to enquire about her daughter’s progress. Wouldn’t it be better if she could learn something a little more cheerful once in a while? Reconsidering, the mother reflects that uptempo doesn’t quite suit Mizuki, and she’s right – it doesn’t. After impulse buying some flour and baking a few Japanese sweets at home, Mizuki receives an unexpected visit from her deceased husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), who drowned himself at sea.

Somehow unsurprised and pausing only to remind him to remove his shoes, Mizuki gives Yusuke some of the dumplings then retires to bed, only to wake up the next morning and wonder if she dreamt the strange events of the night before but, sure enough, Yusuke is still very much present. Promising to show her some of the beautiful places he discovered on his long odyssey home to her, Yusuke takes Mizuki on a reverse honeymoon in celebration and in mourning of all they once were to each other.

In each place they travel to, Mizuki and Yusuke help the people there deal with their own walking ghosts. Yusuke is not the only returnee as they discover with a lonely old newspaper seller who doesn’t appear to be aware that he died a long time ago. Walking dead in a realer sense than Mizuki or some of the other depressives they meet along the way who are still living but not exactly alive, Mr Shimakage is a spirit held in place by an inability to reconcile himself with the actions of his past and has brought his feelings of self loathing and regret with him into the afterlife.

Sometimes it’s the living that pin the dead, holding them close with guilt, regret, love or loneliness. If the film has a central tenet, it’s that the past has its place, and it’s not among the living. At one point Mizuki says that perhaps it’s better to leave some things unresolved. Yusuke asks her if she’s really OK with that, and she seems to reconsider but in the end that’s the way it has to be. There are no final solutions, the answers are not at the back of the book. In the end, the best you can do is try to understand and learn to be OK with everything you do and do not know about yourself and about those who are no longer here to tell their stories. Mizuki also says that she hated to practice piano as a child, but her teacher always told her to pay attention to her own rhythm. The music will always be lifeless, until you learn to hear your own song.

Kurosawa creates a beautifully ethereal world, held in a tension between the spirit realm and the everyday. Playing with lighting levels in extremely interesting ways, he allows the supernatural and natural to flow into each other, jostling and merging like waves and shore. Travelling from the grey, ordered and utilitarian city to the unruly nature of the countryside with its ancient, crashing waterfalls and beautiful, if lonely, coastlines we move from static and lifeless existence to a place of perpetual potential as we let go of one thing so that we might grasp another.

As much as Journey to the Shore is bound up with death, it necessarily speaks of life, too. During one of his strange lessons for the village folk, Yusuke delivers some meditations on science and philosophy to the effect that the world is built of nothingness but that nothingness does not lack meaning. He tells us that we are all dying, the universe was born billions of years ago and will end one day just as our species may end when the planet’s temperature exceeds that which we can endure or galaxies collide and take us down with them. For all of that, the universe is young, still growing, still expanding, and we are so lucky to have been born now when there is still so much ahead of us. This is a time of infinite beginnings. Starting again means letting go, but sooner or later you have to step off the shore of this self imposed purgatory and return to the great ocean which is life.


Journey to the Shore is availble on dual format DVD and blu-ray in the UK courtesty of Eureka Masters of Cinema.

The Priests (검은 사제들, Jang Jae-Hyun, 2015)

The Priests PosterThe era of hero priests might be well and truly behind us but at least when it comes to the exorcism movie, the warrior monk resurfaces as the valiant men of God face off against pure evil itself risking both body and soul in an attempt to free the unfortunate victim of a possession from their torment. To many, the very idea sounds as if it belongs in the medieval era – what need have we for demons now that we posses such certain, scientific knowledge? There are, however, things far more ancient than man which are far more terrifying than our ordinary villainy.

The Priests (검은 사제들, geom-eun sa-je-deul) begins with two Italian clerics in the Vatican discussing the somewhat taboo subject of exorcism and demonic possession. They have been made aware of a serious case in Korea and, as they can’t get in touch with the Korean exorcism department, head out there themselves for a little pest control of their own. However, the enemy they were facing proves too strong for them as they become involved in a multi-car pileup allowing the demon they’ve trapped inside a small dog to escape and migrate to a better humanoid host.

Now we turn to the Korean church authorities who are also worried about a young girl who appears to be displaying the symptoms of demonic possession. Their leader repeatedly tells them he will not “officially” sanction any kind of action whilst making it clear he wants them to go ahead and deal with it. No one knows much about exorcism so they reluctantly turn to the maverick preacher Father Kim who, as it also turns out, is a friend of the girl, Young-sin. Matters have reached an impasse as the demon inside Young-sin tries to make her commit suicide by jumping from her hospital room window in order to migrate to a more robust host, leaving her in a comatose state.

Anyone with any basic knowledge of exorcism in the movies knows that you need a young priest and an old priest so Kim gets a sidekick in the form of the equally unusual Deacon, Choi, who is not exactly a model student at the seminary. Choi is initially quite excited to be assisting in such an arcane ritual even if his chief job title is “pig sitter” and his new “boss” is a gruff and world weary man who he has also been asked to spy on just in case this is all down to Kim acting “inappropriately” with an underage girl rather than a visitation from an even more ancient evil. Needlessly to say, Choi quickly discovers Father Kim has been speaking nothing but the truth and he is in way over his head.

Though this is a Catholic crisis bound up with Christian cosmology and centuries old rites, this is still Korea and so Eastern concerns seep into the Western religiosity. The night Kim has chosen for his final assault coincides with the Buddhist feast of the Hungry Ghost when the dead return to visit the living and one of the criteria that made Choi a prime choice for the role of the assistant is that he was born in the year of the Tiger and therefore supposedly more spiritually sensitive. In a quest to help the girl, all avenues are being explored so shamanistic rites are also performed (though with little success) and Kim seems to have a kind of professional respect for his shamanic counterpart even if the two obviously disagree on some quite fundamental things.

Thanks to its double layer of exoticised mysticism, The Priests quickly works up a supernaturally charged atmosphere though its eyes are strictly on entertainment rather than exposing any deep seated social concerns.The possessed girl calls forth animals, speaks in tongues offering bizarre and disturbing prophesies, and eventually projectile vomits blood and snakes all over a painting of the Virgin Mary yet the film never aims for the shock factor that defined Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Though tagged as horror, The Priests is not particularly frightening (jump scares aside) but does manage to evoke a kind of ever present dread in the face of this unfaceable threat.

Despite the heavy atmosphere, Jang is careful to allow the occasional comic episode providing a welcome break from the seriousness of the war against ancient evil. Impressive action sequences including the early serial car crash and later chase sequence add to the urgency of the situation whilst also alleviating some of the ever increasing tension. Though he visits some dark places, Jang’s world view is not as bleak as Friedkin’s as we’re left with a feeling of restitution, once the original threat removed, though we obviously know that other such threats remain. The heroic ending allows us to forget this for a moment as we enjoy the right and proper victory of good over evil, neglecting that this is but one of many battles in an eternal, celestial war.


Reviewed at a Teaser Screening for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival to take place in November 2016.

US trailer with English subs:

The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1969)

haunted castle 1969These days, cats may have almost become a cute character cliche in Japanese pop culture, but back in the olden days they weren’t always so well regarded. An often overlooked subset of the classic Japanese horror movie is the ghost cat film in which a demonic, shapeshifting cat spirit takes a beautiful female form to wreak havoc on the weak and venal human race. The most well known example is Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko though the genre runs through everything from ridiculous schlock to high grade art film.

Daiei’s 1969 genre effort The Haunted Castle (秘録怪猫伝, Hiroku Kaibyoden) sits towards the high art end but remains firmly within the realm of entertainment. Displaying the high production values the studio was known for, the film paints its 18th century tale with a plush opulence and makes fantastic use of the nighttime gloom to evoke a gothic, supernatural atmosphere which is at least extremely unsettling even if it stops short of actual terror.

As for the story, it’s another take on the classic Japanese supernatural tale The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima. Events are set in motion when blind monk Mataichirou and his sister Sayo run into their lord whilst out walking one day. Lord Tangonokami Nabeshima takes a liking to Sayo and wants to add her to his collection of concubines. He despatches an underling to ask Mataichirou about it, but Mataichirou understandably refuses, offering the excuse that Sayo is “too awkward” and the the lord wouldn’t find her very good company anyway. Nabeshima is angry at this affront to his authority and summons Mataichirou for their regular round of Go where Mataichirou once more resolutely refuses to surrender his sister. When Mataichirou realises Nabeshima and his aid are cheating, the pair argue and Nabeshima loses his temper and kills him.

This is a big problem for several reasons so they pretend not to know anything about it and dump the body in a well. Fearing discovery, they also banish the sister, Sayo, but she opts to commit harakiri and begs the weird cat that had been attached to her brother to drink her blood and become a demon to enact their revenge! Soon enough, two maids are dead in the Nabeshima household and the lord’s favourite mistress is refusing to take baths and has developed a liking for fish which she previously could not stand….

Ghost cats mostly come at night (mostly) so the majority of the film takes place in the intense darkness of the pre-electric world. The cat begins to stalk its prey quietly with only the tinkling of its ghostly bell and then tiny, bloody paw prints left as evidence of a supernatural killing. Tanaka opts for a floating, dreamlike shooting style weaving a degree of hypnotic confusion into the proceedings which also manage to keep up a high level of tension as the demonic cat spirit goes about its bloody business.

Of course, the moral of the tale is to live your life in a more altruistic manner – stop trying to take things which aren’t yours, respect the views of others, and don’t lose your temper and rashly kill people for no reason at all. All good advice there. The “hero” of the story is the more sympathetic vassal, Komori, who is trying to broker a satisfactory outcome of this complex situation right from the start, but finds himself frustrated as the servant of an unreasonable lord whose will cannot be restrained. Komori can’t avoid the supernatural retribution but manages to ride the waves well enough to ensure a morally satisfying ending where corruption is exposed and the land returned to its rightful owners rather than remaining in the hands of a lascivious usurper. It’s an old story, but a good one, and is presented with such a degree of sophistication to make The Haunted Castle one of the better horror offerings of the late ‘60s.