Genre: Mass Transit Horror
Director: Takeshi Ken Furusawa (2006)
review in one breath
On any given day, the number of items turned into the Japan Railway's Lost and Found division is staggering. In most cases, such items are discovered and turned in by honest individuals who soon thereafter forget wholly about the incident. But in a few documented cases in a particularly remote mountainous region, those finding lost items soon go missing themselves.
Ghost Train is the first major directorial debut by Takeshi Ken Furusawa whose resume includes assistant director to Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Cure (1997) and Kairo (2001) and screenplay writer for Kurosawa's Doppelganger (2003). I am calling him "Takeshi Ken" because there seems to be a little confusion over the translation of director Furusawa's real/actual name. The ambiguity stems from the fact that the Japanese character used for his first name can be commonly read as both "Ken" and "Takeshi". In other words Takeshi Furusawa is the same person as Ken Furusawa.
I am telling you this, dear reader, because it is apparently a difficult fact to come by. IMDB makes no connection between the two and attributes all his prior work to "Ken Furusawa" and lists this current film only under "Takeshi Furusawa". The Blockbuster database brings us a step closer by listing BOTH Ken Furusawa and Takeshi Furusawa as writers for Kurosawa's Doppelganger, but does so as if these are two different people. It then assigns Ghost Train to "Furusawa Takeshi", which it views as a completely different person from "Takeshi Furusawa" (the classic Asian first name, last name thing).
This point is not a major one, but in both cases result in a failure to connect the director of Ghost Train, Furusawa's first major, international directorial debut, with a significant collection of prior work with top-notch horror director Kiyoshi Kurosawa. For curious Western fans seeking more on this movie, this naming gaffe creates the appearance that the film is the work of a complete novice with no prior work worth mentioning; an impression which is wholly inaccurate.
Now you know more about this film and its director than 99.5% of Western audiences, proving once again that reading SaruDama will make you a Genius
Ghost Train is very well cast with recognizable stars ranging from teen idols to comedians to a pinku/erotica goddess. The lead female role of Nana is played by Erika Sawajiri and Kanae is played by Chinatsu Wakatsuki, both highly photogenic and aspiring teen idols with a modicum of prior film experience. Aya Sugimoto is also here, who though slightly older than her counterparts is/was no less lusted over via several prior libidinous film roles. The male lead is played by Shun Oguri (whom you'll know from both Azumi films and Neighbor No. 13) with a supporting male role played by comedian/actor Itsuji Itao (who just months prior appeared in One Missed Call: Final.)
The Japanese title of this film is Otoshimono which literally means "Lost and Found", a very apropos description of what takes place in this film at multiple levels. The English title "Ghost Train" is rather misleading since this is NOT a tale about "ghosts on trains" or "haunted trains" or even trains to the Nether World. The simple title "Lost and Found" would have clearly been the better choice. But even the Singapore release avoided such a direct translation and opted for (the more accurate) Ghost Tunnel. Apparently the film title "Lost and/& Found" is all but tapped out in the US and internationally. An IMDB search brings up 27 other films already named/translated "Lost and Found". So we get "Ghost Train".
But it essence, Ghost Train is a film about things "lost and found", a theme vigorously pursued (to the point of sacrificing all plausibility?) in at least the following three sub-plots. First, it is a tale about haunted items whose original owners died tragic deaths and whose finders soon go missing themselves (at the hands of turbulent ghosts). Second, it is about the accidental discovery ("finding") of an ancient and long forgotten ("lost") evil buried deep within a remote mountainous region. And thirdly, it attempts to tie all loose ends up neatly by introducing ("finding") a once-lost, Ass-Kicking-Babe-with-One-Eye (!!!)
The first sub-plot (haunted item) is pretty straight forward and sufficiently creepy. By now we're all familiar with the Japanese intuition that physical objects can be haunted by their previous owners. This is actually a very old belief and has been the core superstition for many earlier J-horror films. Here, the items in question are all found at a train station located beside a tunnel deep into the mountain.
The third (Ass-Kicking-Babe-with-One-Eye) sub-plot is something you'll simply have to see for yourself. At least I will tell you that the one-eyed femme fatale is played by Aya Sugimoto, whom you may elsewhere recognize in all her (two-eyed) naked and hog-tied glory in Flower and Snake 1 or 2.
The second and main sub-plot involving the accidentally "found" Ancient Evil is perhaps the most interesting. There's little worry about divulging spoilers here since this particular narrative thread remains wholly enigmatic and unexplained from start to finish. But a clue or two in the characters' dialog offers, I believe, some necessary explanation as to what is intended here. But first a little background:
In Ghost Train we are told that tunnel construction teams had decades ago stumbled upon something deep within the core of the local mountain. This something proved so devastating and horrific that they were forced to seal the original tunnel and start a second, more circuitous passage through the mountain. Somehow their blasting and excavating uncovered something deep in the mountain which not only terrified them at the time, but has given rise to a series of untimely deaths and turbulent spirits up to the present day (see sub-plot one.)
All of this, thus far, could have easily been drawn within a Shinto Worldview where massive, influential deities inhabit and own the basic elements of the physical world. (For example, see the similarly "suddenly uncovered Ancient Evil" in Mizuchi.) But it is quite clear through use of visual imagery that director Furusawa has in mind something entirely different than old-skool Shinto. Dark, roughly-hewn mountainous caverns are replaced by smooth-walled and eerily luminescent-lit corridors and strange triune pyramidal pylons jut from the floor in front of a glowing-eyed, ancient totem/gargoyle. I am not Japanese, of course, but even I could intuit that director Furusawa was not depicting anything inherently Japanese. He clearly had something different in mind.
The film itself doesn't offer much more in the way of explanation regarding this (alien) Ancient Evil other than a rather innocuous passing comment in a seemingly irrelevant conversation in which Nana (Erika Sawajiri) divulges she has been accepted by and is ready to travel to a higher-education institution in the USA, Miskatonic University.
For those unfamiliar with the universe of author H.P. Lovecraft, Miskatonic is a fictional university frequently (and solely) appearing in his sci-fi/horror literature. The reference within this film seems to be the sole clue for audiences that the unnamed Ancient Evil is based on the Cthulu mythology of Lovecraft's novels -- an ancient, immense, extraterrestrial being which has slept for eons deep within the Earth but will someday be awakened and initiate an age of Chaos upon humanity.
The Cthulu connection helps explain the alien-like appearance of the film's sub-terrain and the obviously non-Shinto origin of the fiery-eyed totem. It also helps fill in the otherwise missing connection between the discovery (and "awakening") of the Ancient Evil and the malevolent ghosts/zombies permeating the entire storyline.
There are plenty of other Japanese films which build upon non-Japanese literary works, including perhaps most notably Marebito's use of Richard Shaver's "Hollow Earth" and "Deros" fictions, or Eko Eko Arazak 3's use of the "Homunculus" legend. But both these films provided enough explanation or reference so that audiences could easily see the connection even if they were unfamiliar with the Western works.
In Ghost Train however any viewer unfamiliar with the highly esoteric "Miskatonic University" or who happens to blink and miss that particular subtitled word will miss this film's ONLY direct reference to its fictional source. And so, in a film dealing with "lost and found", the recipe here seems to ensure that the vast majority of viewers will remain wholly lost as to director Furusawa's tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.
While her mother is hospitalized with a heart condition, Nana is given responsibility for her little sister Yoko. Things go smoothly until little Yoko finds a woman's train pass at the station and promptly goes missing. Not wanting to put her mother through any more stress for fear her condition might worsen, Nana sets out to find her sister herself. She eventually enlists the help of a young train engineer recently given a desk job due to his repeated claims of seeing strange things in the railway tunnel through the adjoining mountain. ("Seeing" them wasn't the problem. Slamming on the train's brakes and getting out to look around was.)
After a bit of investigative work, they discover the train pass belonged to a Yaeko Aonumu, and that this same pass has been found by numerous people in the past and returned to the station's Lost and Found office. It also seems that everyone returning the pass has themselves gone missing. Yaeko, it seems, died a tragic death on the tracks many years prior and now haunts anyone coming across her discarded belongings, creepily following them while demanding they return what is hers.
Clues eventually lead them to investigate the massive tunnel through the neighboring mountain, the site of an unusually high number of accidents and a local tale regarding something deep in the rock which construction teams inadvertently uncovered to their horror and demise.
As I mentioned above, there are three prominent sub-plots here. Maybe they could be fit together into a coherent and meaningful whole, but it certainly doesn't happen here. The plausible connection amongst them is tenuous at best and so the film needs to go out of its way to create implausible, if not simply comedic connections.
Personally, I would have been satisfied with a simpler ghost story involving demonic Yaeko abducting children and returning them to their families days later in the highly altered state we see them here, kind of a a new twist on Stephen King's Pet Cemetery. This theme could have easily been expanded on and made into something rather impressive.
But director Furusawa clearly wants to incorporate an almost independent Lovecraft-Cthulu tribute which, in my opinion, muddies the waters beyond intelligibility. The only way these two threads (Yaeko and Cthulu) can be reconciled is through the introduction of a completely bizarre and wholly out-of-place character -- the one-eyed, ghost-hunting Lady in Black. (Huh?) And wait til you see what her ultimate place in the grand scheme of things must be in order for these two threads to come together. Wow!
In terms of visual cinematics, I have no doubt Furusawa is skilled and will accomplish greater works in the future. The writing, which he also is responsible for, is not bad. The undeniable weakness here stems solely from his desire to incorporate a Lovecraft tribute into the midst of his first major directorial debut. As I said earlier, perhaps this could be possible, but here Furusawa's eagerness to give homage to an obviously favorite influence of his in his first film outstrips his ability to manage the complexity it involves.
This is worth watching in terms of cinematics and a few creepy moments. If you are a thorough J-Horror fan with an analytical bent, you may also enjoy watching this just to see how Furusawa tries to put all his pieces together. In any event, you should rent this rather than buy, for it would undoubtedly be a purchase you immediately regret. And renting should be quite easy. Its available now in R1 subtitled format throughout the US.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (with subtitles). Available through most US mainstream venues.
|The first major film by director Furusawa wherein he pays tribute to HP Lovecraft and the Cthulu Mythology.||Some on-screen tragic demise and a mountain of corpses (which soon start wriggling!).||Despite the front and center role of teen idols and the Japanese matron of erotic bondage, no hoo-hahs here.||One green skull for the potential of ghostly Yaeko, and (yes) one for Furusawa's chaotic attempt to accomplish an overly-ambitious storyline.|