Genre: Child-centric Ghost Story
review in one breath
The original 1995 version of Gakko no Kaidan, directed by Hirayama Hideyuki was an instant hit with Japanese audiences, resulting in a series of direct sequels, TV series, and a remake. Gakko no Kaidan 2 is also directed by Hirayama and, as the name implies, recreates the basic formula of the original, a haunted school which provides the setting for creepy and harrowing experiences. Apart from the director, however, there is very little overlap with the original. The sequel introduces an entirely new cast, again made up predominantly of elementary students. Even the haunted school itself is a different school from the original's.
But the most striking difference lies in the much more mature horror elements Hirayama here utilizes. Unlike the original, which impressively scaled the depiction of horror to ghouls and scenarios its elementary school-aged cast might themselves imagine, Gakko no Kaidan 2 contains scream-moments and grotesqueries which will startle even the adult members of the audience. Whereas the original skillfully proved spooky to children (and adults) without necessarily invoking nightmares (and this is what really makes Gakko no Kaidan an exceptionally fun ghost story), Gakko no Kaidan 2 seems to care little for this artful distinction and pursues instead a more traditional, shock-inclined approach to its horror.
During the summer months, a Tokyo-area elementary group is attending a retreat at a rural Buddhist temple. The elderly monk in charge of the temple takes great pleasure in telling the visiting children the local region's many ancient ghost stories. In fact, the region is well-known for its superstitious traditions, and several of the children excitedly await some appearance of ghostly phenomena. Most memorable perhaps is the creepy tale of Kocho Sensei, principal of the local elementary school who suddenly disappeared 30 years ago, nearly to the day. Rumor has it that at precisely 4:44pm she disappeared, and thereafter strange things continue to happen when the clock strikes that very minute.
Its not long until a group of adventurous students, some armed with cameras, find their way into the school in time to see the precise minute of 4:44pm pass. What they did not foresee, however, was the school's clock would be perpetually stuck at that very point in time through the bumbling of one of their group, thereby holding the ghostly portal open indefinitely. Also stumbling into this situation in an unwitting cat burglar intent on pilfering the temple and school of its valuables during the summer break. What he finds in the school safe is an antique gold pocket watch, the very watch Kocho Sensei had with her the night she disappeared...
What follows is a nearly non-stop series of events which has our cast of characters running and screaming from one corner of the school to the next. The ghouls which appear in the school differ widely in the degree of horror or potential harm they present, and it soon becomes clear that this supernatural realm is anything but a coherent whole. It is as if the 4:44 portal has opened every gate, door and window of the netherworld. In addition to the otherwise kind-hearted Kocho Sensei, who, we learn, continues to search the school for her missing gold (retirement) watch, there are (a) the long dead squadrons of Japanese soldiers (WWI) comprised of nothing more than masses of large, writhing worms, (b) ancient (yet neon) flying demons depicted in traditional buddhist paintings, (c) stone statues which come to life to renew overdue library books, (d) the surprisingly violent hand of satan himself which aggressively grabs the head of a young, mute child, (e) local ghost legends such as the "obake baachan" (ie, "monster grandmother" - and holy cow! She deserves that title!), and (f) ghosts of those children failing to escape the school. Even the school yard is filled with chaotically flying spirits from a nearby graveyard, prohibiting passage out of the school itself.
Far more dangerous and evil than any of these, however, is a malevolent force which the story explicitly depicts as belonging to the traditionally infamous Toire no Hanako-san. (Reviewer's Note: Before there was Ringu's Sadako, or Juon's Toshio, or Shibuya Kaidan's Sachiko, there was (and always will be) Hanako-san.) Audiences of the original Gakko no Kaidan might recall that there also Hanako was attributed with the original incident. When Hanako's rather overwhelming strength is all but unleashed during the prolonged opportunity of the 4:44 window, the entire conclusion to the film revolves around the desperate attempt to escape her crescendoing wrath.
I wish I could read a professional film critic's thorough analysis of the shift that takes place between the orginal Gakko no Kaidan and this sequel. Untrained as I may be, the subtle yet fundamental change in this sequel's underlying philosophy of delivery completely changes the value of the two films.
The almost nonchalant chemistry among the child actors in the original is overblown in this prequel to the point of obnoxiousness and cultural unacceptability. In addition to their constant fighting and bickering, there is a remarkably distasteful scene wherein the unruly students, after collecting (presumably donated) food for a Temple event, engage in an utterly wasteful food fight. Although this outburst might appeal to the very young watching this film, it completely violates Japan's traditional sensibility. Those living in Buddhist Temples generally gather their food through a highly revered ritual of begging, and thus every morsel collected is viewed as a direct donation to the Buddha himself. This scene of the children's utter disrespect for the food offered would seem to be taken offensively.
A second change, which I also mentioned above, is the change in horror presentation. The only way I can describe this is via the following assumptions: Director Hirayama was quite surprised at the popularity, especially with adult audiences, of Gakko no Kaidan. Intending the original to be a child's movie, the widespread enthusiasm by adult viewers undoubtedly caused him to envision his sequels with his (actual) audience in mind. And since he now realizes the actual audience is comprised predominantly of adults, he modifies the film's core elements -- its horror moments -- to appeal to adult, rather than child, audiences. This seems to be EXACTLY what happens between the original and this sequel.
And yet this move toward "adult-relevance" all but obliterates the essence of the original which adult audiences immediately recognized as fresh and fun. Gakko no Kaidan 2 undoubtedly gives us more adult-oriented horror, but at the price of completely annoying and unbelievable child characters and all loss of the truly creative uniqueness of the original.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|I honestly believe film students should study the diffrences between this film and the prequel to understand the ways social pressures can kill unique creativity.||Floating pools of blood. One attack of young boy's head by satanic hand. One worm-infested battalion of long-dead soldiers.||Nope||Despite the noticeable creative decline from the prequel, there are plenty of "bizzarities" to experience here.|