Directorial credit for Prayer Beads is given to Masahiro Okano who wrote and directed five of the nine episodes contained herein and supervised the production of the remaining four. Okano’s primary work has been within the field of visual and special effects for such films as Senrei (aka Baptism of Blood, 1996), Shiryoha (aka Dead Waves, 2005) and Jame Cameron’s Abyss (1989). With Prayer Beads he makes his directorial debut into mainstream Japanese horror.
This anthology originally aired on Japanese television in 2004 and shortly thereafter hit Japanese theaters through Shibuya Cine. It was released in a Region 1 subtitled version in early 2007 by Dark Sky Films. The Western release consists of a 2-disk set containing nine 30-minute episodes for a total running time of 270 minutes.
As with all anthologies, the collection runs the gamut in terms of content and narrative. Stories here range from the humorous to the strictly horrific and offers audiences a variety of cinematic styles, all of which come across as quite polished presumably due to Okano’s skilled hand at visual presentation. At 30 minutes apiece, there is sufficient room for each narrative to be adequately drawn and depicted (unlike some other horror collections whose tales are mind-numbingly brief). Amongst the genre of “Japanese Horror Anthologies”, a few have stood out above the rest including the Kadokawa Horror and Mystery Tales (2003) and Kazuo Umezz’s Horror Theater (2005). Due to its polished cinematics and decent range of entertaining tales, Prayer Beads rightly belongs alongside these upper-tier exemplars.
Joining Okano in the director’s chair are Shigehito Kawata who has worked previously with the Gundam: Evolve anime films, Toshikatsu Kubo and Naoki Kusumoto. Relatively speaking, these three all have far less experience than Okano in terms of work in Japanese film and similarly are making their directorial debuts here.
The Japanese title of this collection is “Omoinotama Nenju”. “Omoinotama” is a colloquial term and “nenju” a formal Buddhist term, both of which can be translated “memory beads” referring to Buddhist Prayer Beads normally used for Buddhist meditation or prayer. Most nenju contain 108 beads (or fewer beads with 108 facets) representing the 108 earthly desires or “bonno” which must be overcome according to Buddhist theology. Adherents meditate consecutively upon each bead, specifically aiming their prayers at overcoming the particular desire or sin the individual bead represents.
Each tale within this collection is referred to as a “bead” and so we are given here a narrative string of “nine beads”. I’m afraid I don’t know what the intended relation between the original 108 and the limited nine are, other than 9 x 12 = 108. (??)
There is perhaps one clue to this, which I have not yet been able to fully unravel. Prior to the title and credits of each of the nine stories, a large bead is displayed marked with a very archaic Chinese/Japanese character. By archaic I mean so old that the characters no longer belong to spoken or written Japanese, nor are found in modern kanji dictionaries. These archaic characters now generally exist solely within the texts and literature of Buddhism. And this fact makes sense since we are here dealing with Buddhist Prayer Beads whose meanings have been laid out long ago. This piqued my interest, wondering if perhaps each character refers to a specific desire or sin somehow depicted in the story itself. Unfortunately I have not been able to locate a list of the 108 sins with their corresponding archaic terms, so the conclusion to this puzzle will have to wait. The folks in charge of subtitling the collection seem to have taken a much easier approach, settling on a suggested (and simple) transaltion of “bead one”, “bead two” and so forth.