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Curse, Death and Spirit - Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi: Jushiryou (Nakata Hideo 1992)


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Curse, Death & Spirit
[Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi: Jushiryou]

Genre: Early Short Horror Stories by Nakata Hideo

review in one breath

This is a trilogy of very early (short) horror "films" by Ringu director Nakata Hideo. Though produced on a made-for-television budget, Nakata's central intuition regarding the malicious nature of departed spirits comes through loud and clear.


intro

Although this is a collection of three projects by famed Ringu (1998) and Dark Water (2002) director Nakata Hideo, this is in fact VERY early Nakata. We are here back in the (1992) days when Nakata's highest accomplishments were his made-for-TV short horror stories released through the ubiquitous Honto ni Atta series wherin many a great horror director had their experimental beginnings. This is a full four years prior to Nakata's first full-length horror film Joyuu rei (1996) and six years prior to Ringu.

Thus the production quality, the "special" effects, and even the soundtracks themselves are far short of what Nakata will become later known for. In regards to these three, Curse, Death and Spirit lags behind other recently released "J-Horror Collections", predominantly due to the fact that the Nakata tales predate the others by many years. Thus the true value of this collection is not for the shock value nor even perhaps for their being effective ghost stories, but rather as a glimpse into the early evolution of a director who can easily be said to be one of the most influential in the genre.

The actual title of this collection is Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi: Jushiryou, literally "True Terrifying Stories: Curse, Death and Spirit". This collection is comprised of three short works directed by Nakata for the Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi television series produced by Nikkatsu and being aired nationally via Asashi TV. Already by 1992 when Nakata produced these stories, the "Honto Ni Atta" series had become increasingly popular. One of the earliest and primary directors working in the series has been Tsuruta Norio who as recently as 2000 produced stories for the ongoing TV series.

The (sub)title "Curse, Death and Spirit" derives from taking one scary kanji character from each of the titles of the stories in the collection. In order, these titles are:

(1) Norowareta ningyou (Cursed Doll)

(2) Shiryou no taki (Spirit of the Dead)

(3) Yuurei no sumu ryokan (The Haunted Inn )

Each tale is approximately 20 minutes in length and surprisingly pulls in some mainstream talent for some of the roles. The first and third of Nakata's tales are written by Takahashi Yo (高橋洋) who has been an indispensable author in the development of this entire genre. (One recently released film based on Takahashi's work is Shimizu Takashi's 2004 Marebito.)

Each of the three tales here deals quite directly with general yet widely recognized traditional Japanese superstitions. Thus it is clear that Nakata would not haven chosen these particular tales based on their originality, but rather, I believe, on his interest in the nature of the ghosts each tale presents. In other words, despite rather primitive production quality, one thing which struck me quite clearly while watching this is the fact that even at this early period in his career, Nakata Hideo seems drawn toward depictions of horrendously malicious spirits.

Thus in each of these three tales, through one way or another, one of the main characters is deceptively mesmerized and then spiritually overcome by a malicious spirit. This fascination with terrifying spirits which both attract and kill continues throughout Nakata's later major films. You may recall that in both Ringu and Dark Water, the ghoul's malicious destruction of characters does not end even after it is lovingly embraced and caressed. Both tales, as well as the three in the current collection, end with humans emotionally drawn toward a demonic apparition which nevertheless remains malicious despite receiving what the human character feels it wants.

And THIS, I believe is the value of this collection, as it shows a very early snapshot of director Nakata Hideo's development of a characteristic modus operandi.

Below are brief summaries of each of the tales contained herein.

Cursed Doll [Norowareta ningyou]

For as long as Satomi's mother can remember, a mysterious doll has been a part of their family. But when the doll begins haunting and eventually possessing Satomi, there seems to be more to the story than her parents are willing to admit.

This tale is grounded in the very ancient superstition that due to their human-like appearance, dolls are frequently possessed and occupied by spirits and demons as if they were human. This traditional superstition also commonly includes (by logical extension) doll funerals and doll graveyards.


Spirit of the Dead [Shiryou no taki]

After young Yuuta's father suddenly passes away, his worried mother takes him on a camping trip with friends to keep his mind off the tragic loss. Their choice of camping spots, however, is amazingly unfortunate as Yuuta is soon drawn toward a ghostly woman which only he can see.

The literal title of this story is "Waterfall of Dead Spirits" (thus you can find use of an alternative title "Evil Dead's Fall"), and corresponds to a very common superstition found throughout Japan regarding the spiritual consequences of a lovelorn individual committing suicide by leaping from the heights of a waterfall. One eery memory I have of my time in Japan consists of visiting the nearby "Princess Waterfall" (O-hime taki ), named after the legend of a young woman of aristocratic birth who was said to have committed suicide at that location by leaping onto the rocks below. I was half-jokingly warned that no one, including myself, should ever visit that waterfall at night. (But of course I foolishly, one dark and windy night, dared venture to the foot of the fall where to my utter disbelief and horror I saw...          but I digress.)


The Haunted Inn [Yuurei no sumu ryokan]

Three young women set out to enjoy a short vacation at a remote traditional inn (ryokan). The quaint mountainside inn clearly has an extensive history and the patrons soon learn that it was once the home of a wealthy aristocrat and his family. They are given a large room containing a beautifully shuttered antique mirror. However, when one of the girls opens the mirror, their vacation quickly spirals down the staircase of HELL.

This tale is based squarely in the ancient superstitions that a mirror can possess the departed soul of its owner. Stories of haunted mirrors almost always involve the spirits of departed females, the traditional name for which is yuurei. The rather creepy yuurei appearing in this tale has been said by some to portend Nakata's infamous Sadako, which at least in terms of appearances may be an accurate assumption. A slightly broader observation might suggest that most of Nakata's later horror career seems quite enthralled with depictions of formidable female yuurei of various shapes and sizes.


verdict

Well, I hope from reading the review above you understand both the pros and cons of this collection. As far as "horror" experience is concerned, this collection has very little if anything to offer. As far as insight into an evolutionary moment in the development of the J-Horror genre, this is in fact more than satisfying, not because of what it accomplishes (which is in fact very little) but rather due to what it is -- the early creative renderings of a director who would go on to, at least for one film, redefine the horror genre.

I will in fact recommend this for genre fans, and by that I mean those of you interested in the development and history of the genre itself (and not simply its theatrical impact upon you). Although as I've said many times above, these productions themselves are far from impressive, I admit that I walk away from watching this feeling rather satisfied and a bit wiser as regards the increasingly clear currents of japanese horror.

Version reviewed: Region 1 Subtitled DVD (available at all mainstream venues?)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Insightful snapshots of the earliest of horror stories by Ringu director Nakata Hideo. Whether graphically depicted or narrativally implied, each of these tales involves some rather skull-shaking scenarios. Rub a Dub Dub, three BABES in a tub! Unparalleled opportunity to see pre-Ringu works by Nakata Hideo. This is recommendable for genre fans, but please read the disclaimers above.

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