Genre: Urban Legend Horror
Director: Shiraishi Koji (2007)
review in one breath
The well known urban legend of a slit-mouthed woman comes suddenly to life in a small Japanese town, terrifying first the children and then adults while wreaking havoc on a few unfortunate victims. This is a modern re-telling with a few unique twists of a century-old tale of a horribly disfigured woman whose vengeful spirit abducts children and submits them to a grisly fate.
This is by far the most polished and effective horror film by director Shiraishi Kôji to date. Earlier films/works by Shiraishi reviewed on SaruDama include Nihon Onnen Chizu: Sugisawa Mura (2001), Honto ni Atta! Noroi Bideo: The Movie (2003), and Ju-Rei 2: Kuro Ju-Rei (2004). The first two of these are filmed in a documentary style involving several interviews and stories centered around a single theme. The third involves a chronologically related series of vignettes which combine to tell a single tale. Each of the later works is progressively better than the ones preceding it and this trend clearly continues with Carved appearing three years later and telling a single unified tale.
Working with Shiraishi on this film is producer Takashi Ohashi whose horror resume is relatively impressive in terms of length but includes jaw-dropping stinkers like Ju-Lei (2000), Akuma ga Sumu Ie (2001) and Onryou (2004). These three notorious flops occupy a special place in the SaruDama Hall of Shame; namely in basement cellar, far back corner. To his credit, however, Ohashi more recently produced the very passable Mizuchi (2006) and now with Carved (2007) has at least earned the right to ascend from the SaruDama cellar.
More than any of these prior works, Carved is a mainstream theatrical release with a fairly impressive cast. The lead female role of school teacher Kyoko Yamashita is played by Erika Sato who you may recognize as Cutie Honey (2004). Fellow teacher Noboru Matsuzaki is played by Haruhiko Kato (from Kairo and Another Heaven) . Also appearing here is Miki Mizuno as the demonic Yaeko and Yurei Yanagi as the flustered detective.
The Japanese title of this film is Kuchisake Onna, referring to a very well known and rather old tale of a hideous and murderous woman-ghoul with a gaping slit mouth. This urban legend comes in several slightly differing versions depending on the era and locale of its retelling, though all versions retain the basic underlying details. In the older and perhaps original version, a beautiful and unfaithful wife of a samurai is cut from ear to ear by her jealous husband. The spirit of the woman returns in all its disfigurement to similarly slay unsuspecting victims as they walk at night. In more modern versions, the woman-ghoul's face is initially hidden from the victim beneath a commonly worn cotton mask (ie, surgical mask, worn frequently by children and adults during cold and flu seasons). From behind the mask the ghoul asks the victim, "Am I pretty?" (Watashi kirei?). Though some local versions suggest there is a proper way to answer and thereby save your neck, most predict that regardless of what you reply, she will remove her mask revealing a horribly massive and gaping mouth and then slay you soon thereafter, usually with a blade of some sort or scissors.
The connection between the question she asks you and the blade she wields is a Japanese word-play on the similarity in pronunciation between "pretty" (Kirei) and "Cut" (Kire). You'll want to keep this tidbit of background info in mind when you watch this, since there is no effective way to portray this connection within the English subtitles.
Rumors are buzzing amongst the school children in a small town in Kanagawa involving the sudden return of the dreaded Slit-Mouthed Woman. The legend of the haunting spirit of a horribly disfigured woman has been around for decades but for some reason has emerged with new vigor in the hushed gossips of local kids. Buzz soon turns to panic when several children soon go missing, with young eye-witnesses swearing that it the Wide-Mouthed Woman herself. As police and adults alike dismiss the legend while diligently searching for a more realistic culprit, teacher Yamashita sees the terrible Slit-Mouthed Woman abduct a child before her very eyes. With the help of a fellow teacher sympathetic to her claims, she sets out to reclaim the missing student.
Armed only with details gleaned from children's gossip and an eery hunch or two, they slowly uncover the identity, location and possible remedy to the murderous Ghoul. In the meantime, grisly remains of the abducted children are gradually discovered.
I guess there are a few things to say about this film. In terms of special effects and effective moments of creepiness, it works very well. The depiction of Kuchisake Onna won't disappoint if you are familiar with the urban legend and have imagined her in your own mind's eye. I also really liked the very localized feel of this tale. Everything is confined to a particular small town without recourse to external themes or entities. It comes across as a local horror story which is precisely how this should be portrayed.
In the first half of the film, it almost feels like a mature version of Gakkou no Kaidan (1995) due to the prominent role played by young children. For much of the first half of the tale we are seeing things almost predominantly through the elementary students' eyes. But the film soon turns far more gruesome and adult-centric once Kuchisake Onna actually starts using her very long scissors on her young victims. In fact I was a little surprised by the film's willingness to depict this degree of violence toward children.
And this brings up a central theme running through this film; namely child abuse. By that I mean that nearly all of the main characters here have a backstory wherein they are either abused at the hands of their parents or were/are themselves the abusers. This thread is so strong and so obvious in the narrative that I was expecting some form of developed moral message to eventually emerge. But such a developed message does not emerge. And what (undeveloped) message we're eventually left with regarding mother-child abuse is exceedingly dreary at best. In essence we're told that (a) such abuse sometimes just happens (b) but your mother loves you and (c) sometimes you just have to do what your abusive mother tells you no matter how creepy/repulsive it is. Just great!
There are a few weak spots in the film which you are likely to notice. Some of the acting is less than dynamic and it may be quite true to say that the best acting here is done by the kids. This is at core a "monster movie" and you will only be minutes into the film before the ghoulie emerges front and center. There's not a whole lotta room for suspense when things are spelled out so early on, resulting in this becoming more a slasher film than anything else toward the end. And with the ghoulie front and center so frequently, you will get a good, long look at her movements and mannerisms which unfortunately are a bit wanting. In some scenes, she is swift and formidable, in others she lurches around like a drunken robot. And in the prolonged scenes where our terrified angst is supposed to climb to new heights, I found myself gawking at the choreography, imagining how it could have been done better.
This film does have an interesting twist on the classic urban legend involving the word-play I mentioned earlier. I'm not sure the twist and its corresponding conclusion is fully satisfying but I'll give Shiraishi and his gang credit for creativity.
I can recommend this as a decent depiction of the well-known Kuchisake Onna legend. It can be visually impressive and has a few effective shock moments. There's nothing truly earth-shaking though and this certainly isn't a genre buster. But it is fun.
Version reviewed: Region 1 DVD (with subtitles). Available at all mainstream US venues.
|Contemporary retelling of the classic Kuchisake Onna legend filled with gossipy school children and a truly creepy Ghoulie..||A very LONG pair of scissors are her weapon of choice and yes, she does use them on kids and adults alike.||No hubba hubba despite the appearance of Cutie Honey..||Visually effective and thoroughly localized urban legend by director Shiraishi who is clearly making strides toward increasingly polished work.|