Directed by Takahisa Zeze
Distributed by AsiaVision
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Not Rated. Recommended for mature audiences
By Jon Minners
AsiaVision has just made an impact in the live action Japanese import market and it has had its hits with Curse, Death, Spirit; a well crafted anthology of Twilight Zone-like horror; and its misses in the form of Kill Devil, an attempt at a hip version of Battle Royale, which came up short. With the saying going that the third time’s the charm, I had high hopes for their latest release Kokkuri, but the film did not meet my expectations – it exceeded them.
The DVD release of Kokkuri is based on Asia’s most feared urban legends – Kokkuri-san. Inspired by the real-life cult ritual that enthralled teenagers in Japan, Kokkuri succeeds in delivering the edgy Asian horror that AsiaVision and its parent company Urban Vision hoped to achieve.
The film begins with a late night radio program, Midnight Bluebird, whose teenage host Michiru encourages her listeners to try to conjure up Kokkuri-san, a spirit who can answer any question. If you want to understand what Kokkuri-san really is, one need not look any further than a Ouija board. It is basically the same concept and the bad mojo involved in summoning the spirit is very much alive in this film.
Michiru has a subconscious ulterior motive for bringing up this risky game. Her real name is Mio and her troubled past involves the loss of her mother and a strange desire to die like she believes she was supposed to when her mother drowned so long ago. She shares a connection with Hiroko, who once had a childhood friend named Midoru that drowned in a bathtub and reminds her of Mio. Mio’s connection to Hiroko is continuously explored throughout the film.
Rounding out the trio of friends is Masami who hears the words of Michiru on the radio and believes them; convincing Hiroko and, strangely, Mio to play the game Kokkuri. The successfully summon the spirit and some shocking truths are uncovered. Mio will die before her 18th birthday, Masami will break up with her boyfriend Akira and Hiroko will be with her true love. Through further exploration, we discover Hiroko’s fondness for Akira. A simple game of Kokkuri ends up revealing instances of jealousy, betrayal, suicide and much more, but when what looks like the spirit of Midoru seems to come back to exact revenge, that’s when the true horror unfolds.
This movie is one to watch more than once. At first, you will feel a bit of confusion, but watch it once more and realize that this is not a straightforward horror film at all. Kokkuri is intelligent horror, one with an interesting play on the life of young teenage girls. The horror brings this to the surface, but when you peel away the layers of this film, it is really a drama about the feelings and emotions young female students in Japan experience on a daily basis, whether it is feelings for someone of the same sex, suicide or sexual intimacy. All this plays out in the film with the horror that is Midoru playing as a backdrop, setting the table and allowing the drama to unfold until its eventual disturbing conclusion.
Takahisa Zeze, who previously made himself known to North American fans for writing and directing the Japanese gangster film Moon Child and the Japanese underground film Tokyo X Erotica, really shines in this film. True, you can see a knack for horror, but Zeze really knows how to tell a story without being all up in the viewer’s face. You need to think a little and this is the type of film that will definitely get you thinking, talking and wondering about what it all means.
Zeze also uses colors and objects to bring out story plots. Most noticeably, red is used in various scenes, most strikingly in the form of Midoru’s outfit, as a way of expressing guilt and revenge in the film. The only way Mio can get over her guilt is to revisit the object most prevalent to her feelings – water. The end result leaves the viewer satisfied and yet distraught all at the same time; at least it did for me.
Quick little history note: according to Zeze, Kokkuri and other spiritual games achieved huge popularity among Japanese teenagers (particularly impressionable female teens) in the 1970s, so that schools eventually prohibited their students from taking part in séances. However, fascination with the supernatural still exists to this day there and in many other places, which makes the How to Play Kokkuri feature on the DVD a very attractive extra after watching the film. Other special features include optional English subtitles, an image gallery, preview gallery and weblinks.
The film is shown in its original Japanese dialogue so viewers will get to see the film as it was meant to be seen, so pay careful attention, watch the film once and then all over again. Enjoy, but please leave the Ouija board in the closet.