This is a TV film made on a whim for Kansai TV execs who wanted to cash-in on the J-horror craze started by Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, it says a lot about the quality of its director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, that Séance uses intellectual and cinematic rigorousness to create a compelling character study light on scares and more about a seemingly normal couple buffeted by the supernatural and feelings of alienation and aimlessness borne from their frustrated ambitions and failed family life.
Junko Sato (Jun Fubuki) is a psychic medium who is married to a sound effects engineer named Koji (Koji Yakusho). After a university turns down the opportunity to test her abilities, Junko finds herself returning to normality doing occasional séances for others. When a girl named Yoko is kidnapped the police call upon Junko to assist their investigation. Meanwhile Koji is in the woods collecting sound effects, his equipment surrounding him. Also in the woods is Yoko who, whilst fleeing her kidnapper, locks herself in Koji’s equipment case. Koji returns home transporting the girl home with him. He leaves the case in the garage for some days and it isn’t until Junko senses Yoko that they find her unconscious. Fearing that the police would never believe the coincidence and sensing an opportunity to exercise her psychic abilities in a far grander manner, Junko hatches a plot to keep Yoko in their home whilst she feeds information and evidence to the police leading to Yoko’s eventual rescue. The plan soon goes wrong.
Adapted from Mark McShane’s novel, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Kurosawa patiently shows the world the Sato’s exist in. The opening of the film sets up its themes and supernatural parameters as a psychology student and lecturer discuss parapsychology, mentioning out of body projection and doppelgangers. During this discussion Jun is in a waiting room undergoing contact with the dead. The establishment isn’t interested in what it sees as frivolous experiment and so Junko will not get social recognition for her remarkable gift. Everything mentioned here comes into play later as the film progresses and reveals the character’s lives.
The Sato’s seem happy as they spend time together, worry about each other and rely on each other for courage but this is undermined by the alienation felt by Junko as her powers go unrecognised and the spectres she sees every day prevent her from living a normal life. We never doubt that she can see ghosts and as a result we empathise with her when others consider her a joke and her ability to see ghosts hamstring her attempts at normality. In a brilliant sequence, working in a restaurant and seeing a ghost leaves her emotionally and physically drained and we understand the extent of her powers and how she is trapped by them.
Thus when she gets the chance to prove her powers through the kidnapping it is understandable as she can overcome her alienation and become successful.
Acting is pitch-perfect. Koji Yakusho goes from normal to baffled, shocked, to bitter as he tries to keep up with events and make his own fate and support his wife whilst Jun Fubuki brilliantly conveys the bitterness of being denied recognition and the desperation to take advantage of the girl’s kidnapping. I also got a sense of her being manipulative in some of the emotional scenes.
This brings me back to the direction which is subtle and intelligent. Kurosawa allows the camera to linger on scenes conveying information of life, making it believable. This works when meshing the supernatural into the everyday. In a brilliant scene balancing the mundane and supernatural Koji arrives home from work and eats snacks whilst Jun conducts a séance in another room. As Koji attempts to go to sleep his snacks are moved and the temperature drops. Koji rolls over in bed and his breath steams out – a sign that ghosts are around.
There are details of a family life they tried to achieve in shots where the couple try to care for the girl with children’s utensils that were in the house long before the kidnap victim, relics from a more hopeful past
The film is full of brilliant and intelligent touches like this in a compelling investigation of the supernatural and alienation which raises the film above its TV origins and makes an intense character study.
Japanese: こうれい 高齢
Release Date: May 12th, 2001 (Japan)
Running Time: 118 mins.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Tetsuya Onishi (Screenplay), Mark McShane (Original Novel)
Starring: Koji Yakusho, Jun Fubuki, Sho Aikawa, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, Kitarou, Ittoku Kishibe, Hikari Ishida, Hajime Inoue,