Archive for the The Afterlife Category

The Geisha of Gore Looks at Two Classic Films by Nobuo Nakagawa

Posted in 2011, Classic Films, Colleen Wanglund Reviews, Geisha of Gore Reviews, Ghost Movies, Japanese Horror, The Afterlife, Visions of Hell with tags , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by knifefighter

Classic Japanese Horror: Two Classic Films by Nobuo Nakagawa
By Colleen Wanglund, the Geisha of Gore

Nobuo Nakagawa is probably one of the most famous film directors you’re not watching. Nakagawa was a prolific Japanese filmmaker who directed almost forty movies between 1938 and 1982 (he died in 1984). He is a genius of the horror genre and considered by many to be the father of Japanese horror. Nakagawa is known for such movies as SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (1968), THE DEPTHS (aka THE GHOST OF KISANE {1957}) and VAMPIRE MOTH (1956) which is thought to be the first vampire movie in Japanese cinema. The movie which seems to get the most praise and recognition is Nakagawa’s JIGOKU from 1960.

JIGOKU was released in America under the title THE SINNERS OF HELL. The movie was remade in 1970 and again in 1999 under the title JAPANESE HELL by Teruo Ishii (HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN {1969}), a well-known cult film director in his own right. Nakagawa’s version stars Shigeru Amachi as Shiro, a theology student who has just gotten engaged to his professor’s daughter Yukiko (Utako Mitsuya) when his friend Tamura (Yoichi Numata) shows up. Tamura offers Shiro a ride and a drink to celebrate his engagement, but while driving they hit a drunk in the road and leave him to die. Tamura is one nasty a-hole. Unfortunately the drunk was a leader of a gang and his mother who saw the car’s license plate number vows revenge. Shiro is horrified by his friend’s lack of remorse and decides to go to the police and confess. Tamura tries to stop him by telling Shiro that it won’t matter who was driving, that Shiro will lose everything.

Shiro goes back to his apartment to consider his next move but Yukiko is waiting for him there. He tells Yukiko what has happened, after interrupting her as she was about to tell Shiro something. Shiro insists they take a cab to the station but during the ride there is an accident and Yukiko dies. With his life spiraling out of control, Shiro goes home to see his parents, after receiving word from his father that his mother is seriously ill. While there he discovers his father has a mistress who is stealing money from the residents of the nursing home Shiro’s parents own. Shiro also meets the daughter of one of the residents, Sachiko (played by Utako Mitsuya, in a dual role) who is a dead ringer for the dead Yukiko. Shiro has also discovered that Tamura has followed him home, but so has the mother and girlfriend of the dead gangster killed in the hit-and-run accident. Things just go from bad to worse for Shiro, as well for the people around him.

JIGOKU is a beautiful film that is well-written and flawlessly directed with a minimalist quality. Nakagawa wanted to make something different from the ghost stories of the time and he certainly did that with JIGOKU. A somber mood runs effortlessly throughout the film, never deviating from its surreal and horrifying conclusion. At the time of its 1960 release in Japan, JIGOKU was received with shock and outrage as it contained very graphic images of the torments of Hell. The character of Tamura is a bit of an enigma as you’re not quite sure what to make of him. He is diabolical and without a conscience. What’s also so disturbing about Tamura is that he seems to appear out of nowhere and knows everyone’s darkest secrets. Is he human or a demon?

Jigoku literally translates to “hell” and the movie’s final third is a dark and horrifying depiction of Hell based on the teachings of Buddhism. Including traditions from other Japanese folklore and religions, this Hell consists of eight levels of fire and eight levels of ice. A soul’s punishment is determined by the type of sins committed while alive and can consist of anything from carrying the pain of those you have hurt, to being flayed alive. It is shots of live flaying and beheadings that lands JIGOKU a place in the splatter sub-genre and is believed to be one of the first examples of Japanese splatter horror. What is so scary about this is the belief that all souls must spend some time in Hell before moving on to Heaven and eventually reincarnation. As Shiro moves through the levels of Hell he witnesses the torments being suffered by those he knew in life. He witnesses eyes being gouged out and bodies cut to pieces, as well as hearing the never-ending screams of the sinners. Shiro is also being followed by Tamura, who tries to tempt him at every turn. Shiro is determined to prove that he is not a bad person and has a conscience. This last third of JIGOKU is quite intense and frightening. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch, but that is what a good horror movie should do—make the viewer uncomfortable.

Most of the extras in the scenes of Hell are butoh dancers. Butoh is a form of dance combining traditional and modern elements and was founded by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Created out of the chaos of post-World War II Japan, most of the movements involve the distortion of the body. The form is primal, manic and at times sexually provocative. It was exactly what Nakagawa wanted for his denizens of Hell. Their movements capture the torment delivered to them. Hijikata also used butoh when he co-starred in Teruo Ishii’s HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (1969).

* * *

TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN (THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA {1959}) is based on the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, which was written by Nanboku Tsuruya in 1815 for Japan’s Kabuki Theater. Iemon Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi, who also starred in JIGOKU) is a ronin, a masterless samurai who has been refused the hand of Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi), the woman he loves, by her father. Usually a samurai becomes a ronin when his master is killed—it is then up to the ronin to avenge his master’s death and then commit ritual suicide. Iemon is not one of those devoted samurai. Enraged by Iwa’s father’s refusal, Iemon kills the father along with another man. Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), a servant and the only witness, tells Iemon he will help him hide his crime. They tell Iwa and Yomoshichi (Ryuzaburo Nakamura),the young man Iwa is betrothed to, that another man attacked and killed their fathers. Iemon ultimately marries Iwa and vows to avenge her father’s murder. While on a pilgrimage to pray at a shrine, Iemon and Naosuke stab Yomoshichi and throw him over a waterfall. They then tell Iwa and Sode (Noriko Kitazawa), Iwa’s sister, that the same man who killed the girls’ father has also killed Yomoshichi.

Some time has passed and Iemon and Iwa are living in Edo (Tokyo) and they have had a son. Naosuke and Sode are also in Edo, but neither of the sisters knows this. Naosuke has been promising Sode that he will avenge her father’s death. Sode has promised to marry Naosuke when the task is completed. Iemon and Iwa are poor, and he has grown tired of Iwa asking when he will avenge her father’s death. Iemon meets the daughter of a wealthy samurai and wishes to marry her; but he is already married. Oh, that pesky wife just getting in the way. Naosuke devises a plan to get rid of Iwa and clear the way for Iemon’s marriage. Iwa is poisoned and dies, but not before the poison has disfigured her face. Iwa knows she is dying and why, so she takes her son to the grave with her. Her body is disposed of and Iemon marries his new bride. Out of grief and betrayal Iwa’s spirit haunts Iemon and it affects everything he has lied, schemed and murdered to attain. Iwa has vowed revenge and she will have it.

TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN is not the first film adaptation of the original play but it is the most faithful, following the story almost exactly as it was first written. It is a beautifully directed movie with a suitable dark atmosphere throughout. The sisters are very sympathetic characters and Iemon and Naosuke are truly villainous. The special effects are fantastic with Iwa’s face becoming “monstrous” after drinking the poison and her ghostly image is very scary, appearing quite often to sabotage Iemon’s plans. Nakagawa seemed to have taken inspiration for the filming of TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN from early Hammer Studios films. This was a low-budget movie but it certainly doesn’t look it. TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN is a movie for the horror purist and fans of good old-fashioned ghost stories. What also stands out is the story itself (both the original and this movie) is based on two real-life murders that took place during the samurai period in which it is set. The first crime involved two servants who murdered their masters and the other involved a samurai who murdered his concubine after learning she was having an affair. The story also takes place during a time when women were seen as merely possessions and they suffered greatly. The ghost represents the spiritual power of the woman, allowing her to take revenge for her bad treatment (come on, now, I’ve told you this before).

Both JIGOKU and TOKAIDO YOTSUYA KAIDAN are excellent movies from Nakagawa and if you get the chance to see them, you really should. They are each beautiful, dark and haunting in their own ways and great examples of early Japanese horror cinema.

© Copyright 2011 by Colleen Wanglund



Posted in 2010, Michael Arruda Reviews, Paranormal, The Afterlife with tags , , , , on November 16, 2010 by knifefighter

By Michael Arruda

What happens after we die?

That’s the question posed by HEREAFTER (2010), the new movie by director Clint Eastwood. It’s a question that begs for a poignant answer, and while the movie does well to ask the question, it strangely doesn’t seem all that interested in answering it.

The story begins with a French journalist Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) who gets caught in a tsunami and suffers a near-death experience. Afterwards, she finds herself changed, unable to clear her head of the images she experienced while she was unconscious, images of a place she can’t describe as anything other than the hereafter.

Then there’s a young boy (Frankie and George McLaren) living in London with his twin brother and drug-addicted mother. When his twin gets hit by a car and dies, he’s taken from his mother and placed with a foster family. His brother’s death leaves him with such a void he can’t think of anything else but contacting his dead brother.

The third story takes place in San Francisco, where psychic George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who has the ability to speak with the dead, is desperately trying to put this part of his life behind him. He describes his ability to speak with the dead as a curse rather than a gift, and we see this firsthand when he meets a woman named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) at a night school cooking class who he likes a lot and begins to fall in love with. When she learns about his ability, she begs him to do a reading with her. He reluctantly agrees, and when he relays to her a very disturbing message from her deceased father, it proves too humiliating for her, and she breaks off the relationship.

The driving force of HEREAFTER is the anticipation that these characters are going to meet, and that somehow their lives will intertwine and their fates will change because of it. The problem is this much anticipated meeting takes forever to happen.

We watch Marie meander around Paris wondering just what it was she experienced, decide to write a book on the subject, and then struggle to find a publisher and conduct her research.

We watch the young boy struggles in his new life with his new foster family, unable to clear his head of the drive to speak with his dead brother. This drive takes him to one psychic after another, and ultimately to one disappointment after another.

We follow George to his night school cooking class, as he struggles to overcome his loneliness. We watch him argue with his brother, who tries to convince George to quit his low-paying blue collar job and go back to making money as a psychic.

We watch these stories and we know that nothing is going to change, no one is going to learn anything new, until these characters meet, and yet, the film meanders through their stories with little or no sense of urgency. By the time they do meet, it’s much too late to be effective.

And the answer to the poignant question, what happens when we die? According to this movie, we just don’t know. Well, I knew that going in!

It pains me to criticize a film by Clint Eastwood, because he’s been one of my favorite film talents forever. I’ve enjoyed him immensely as an actor, and I’ve enjoyed his work as a director just as much. His recent films like MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004) and GRAN TORINO (2008) were highly entertaining, and in the case of BABY, Oscar- worthy. But HEREAFTER is a misfire, I’m afraid.

But as disappointed as I am with Eastwood, I’m even more disappointed with screenwriter Peter Morgan. Morgan wrote FROST/NIXON (2008) and THE QUEEN (2006) two films I enjoyed very much, mostly because I thought they had excellent screenplays and had terrific stories to tell. Here, HEREAFTER just isn’t much of a story. You know things are bad when some of the more entertaining scenes in the movie take place during a night school cooking class!

But even worse in terms of the story is that it does next to nothing with answering its big question, what happens when we die? “I don’t know, kid” Matt Damon’s psychic George tells the young boy towards the end of the movie. That’s as poignant as it gets. Even the actual process of seeking out answers is taken on superficially. George communicates with the dead, yet he doesn’t talk about what that actually means. If he’s talking with the dead, then they still exist some place. This isn’t discussed.

The French journalist Marie believes there’s a hereafter based upon her experience after the tsunami, and her research leads her to believe that a hereafter exists, but just what that research teaches her isn’t fully disclosed. She speaks of a conspiracy of silence, but this conspiracy isn’t revealed. She implies that the world’s scientists have documented that a hereafter exists, but the mainstream media and organized religion have suppressed this information. Why? We’re not told. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not developed at all.

The most compelling story is that of the little boy, but it’s compelling because we feel so bad for him. This story eventually shows us that the dead don’t really leave us, but this plot point comes so late in the game that it’s not why the story works. It works because the boy’s life is so tragic, and we’re moved by his ordeal.

Bottom line, while I enjoyed Peter Morgan’s screenplays for FROST/NIXON (2008) and THE QUEEN (2006), his screenplay for HEREAFTER is too lightweight for its subject matter. For such a big question “what happens to us when we die?” its answers are small.

The acting is fine. I like Matt Damon a lot, and he’s good here, but I’ve seen him in better roles. Bryce Dallas Howard, who we’ve seen in lots of genre films in recent years, from TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE (2010), TERMINATOR SALVATION (2009) and SPIDER-MAN 3, is stuck here in a small, thankless role that pretty much goes nowhere. Cecile De France is okay as French journalist Marie LeLay, but she’s not all that memorable.

Real life twins Frankie and George McLaren probably fare the best as twins Marcus and Jason, and they’re listed in the credits as playing both boys, so I guess they spent time in the movie playing both parts. You can’t tell, since they’re identical twins. Anyway, they’re very good, and were my favorite characters in this movie.

I will say that the special effects during the tsunami scene at the beginning of this movie were excellent. It’s a very realistic sequence with convincing CGI effects.

But I was expecting bigger and better things from HEREAFTER. At the very least, I was expecting to be moved by this movie. I was not.

HEREAFTER is a misfire from start to finish, a slow-moving vehicle that fails to inspire. More interested in asking questions than answering them, its much-needed poignant answer never materializes, remaining hidden in the shadows like a quiet unassuming ghost. As a result, what could have been a powerful story remains mired in the mundane.

I give it 1 knife.


© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda gave HEREAFTER One knife!