(2001) Horror (Kadokawa/Asmik Ace) Yuki Amami, Atsuro Watabe, Eugene Harada, Shiho Fujimura, Kazuhiro Yamaji, Keiko Awaji, Koichi Sato. Directed by Masato Harada
Japanese horror movies have grown in great leaps and bounds since the days of big lizards made of rubber suits. This new style of horror, nicknamed “J-Horror” by fans, relies on folk traditions, subtlety and atmosphere for horror. They also are known for delivering a knock-out punch in the sex and gore departments, something modern American horror movies have become awfully timid about in this day and age.
Akira, a young teacher (Watabe) assigned to a middle school in the town of Ikeno, runs out of gas on the way there. He is picked up by young Seiji Doi (Harada) and is brought to the idyllic little village of Omine. There he meets Miki (Amami), a 40-something spinster who is part of the Bonomiya family. She has a little workshop where she hand-makes specialized high grade paper for calligraphy for the Doi family paper company, run by the aging harridan Katsuko (Awaji).
Akira quickly develops feelings for Miki and as school starts, is able to walk back and forth between villages for romantic liasons with Miki. The romance is obviously agreeing with her, as she begins to look younger and happier even as her family is tormented by nightly bad dreams, even matriarch Tomie (Fujimura).
As the relationship between Miki and Akira begins to grow, she confesses to him a dark secret – when she was younger, she had a romantic fling with “the wrong man” who left her with child. She had the baby with the intention of giving it away, but it was stillborn. She has remained a spinster all that time, burdened with guilt and tending the newborn’s grave every day.
The Bonomiya clan is having problems. Patriarch Takanao (Yamaji) is something of a Luddite, forbidding television or radio in the home and yet, inexplicably, allows computers since he is developing an Internet business that eventually fails. Drowning in debt that is complicated by a gambling addiction, the brutish Takanao agrees to sell off Bonomiya land to a country club, a deal brokered by the Doi family, to retire his debts. This will also force Miki to move elsewhere, something she cannot bear since she loves the mountains so much.
The villagers tend to steer clear of the Bonomiyas and with good reason; as Tomie and Katsuko explain, the Bonomiya women are cursed with the Inugami, imp-like demons who reside in an urn who when loosed, bring the wrath of the dog gods on those who displease the Bonomiyas. A string of misfortune is blamed on the Inugami and the Bonomiyas and the villagers are growing restless and violent. Akira longs to take Miki away from all of this, especially since she doesn’t believe in the curse, but something ancient and sinister ties her with bonds harder than steel to the village.
The movie is brilliantly photographed, lush and beautiful. The village of Omine is an oasis of tranquility near a modern highway and railway line, depending on a river and ancient customs to make a slow-paced lifestyle for those who live there. Watching this, I could long for a village like Omine to decompress in.
There is little of overt gore and horror here, depending more on a sense of unease that something is not quite right. There is a great deal of sex in the movie and as is not unusual with Asian movies, subjects that are normally taboo for American filmmakers are breached almost casually. When the horrific climax begins, the movie changes from color to black and white, returning to color again when the events of the climax are concluded. The change is far more effective than showing blood and gore in living color.
The plot line is somewhat confusing, so you’ll need a lot of concentration to keep up with all the subtitles, and you’ll occasionally be lost in the beautiful cinematography of Junichi Fujisawa. There are no monsters here, except the ones we ourselves create, and no ghosts except the ones that were already there in the first place. Inugami is a marvelous find, a J-horror movie that received little acclaim (as far as I can tell) when it was released in 2001, but one worth seeking out and certainly well worth the effort..
WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous cinematography and dependance on an uneasy feeling for horror before the real shocking acts begin in the final reel.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot can be overly complicated for having to read subtitles throughout.
FAMILY PLANNING: There is a good deal of sexuality in the movie as well as a healthy amount of violence and gore in the final reel.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The inugami are actual figures in Japanese folklore; they have inspired a manga and anime of the same title that has nothing to do with this movie.
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
FINAL RATING: 8/10