After watching so many J-hora films that shamelessly ape the Ringu’s ghosts and tech formula, Shikoku feel very old fashioned with its slow-moving plot and use of Shinto ceremonies and Japanese folk-lore over psychic powers and videotapes.
As a child Hinako lived in a small town named Yaku on the island of Shikoku and had two best friends, Fumiya, a boy Hinako had a crush on and Sayori, a spirit-medium who is destined to be the local shrine priestess. One day Hinako’s father gets a job in Tokyo and she is separated from her friends. Many years later she has returned in order to sell her parent’s house but she also encounters many memories and childhood friends who have moved on. Apart from Sayori who drowned during high school. Hinako is troubled by visions of Sayori but a romance blossoms between her and Fumiya. Bad things start to happen as people begin to get haunted and decide that Hinako’s return is to blame.
This film does so much right in building up atmosphere with the opening ten-minutes effectively setting the scene and establishing the character study which explains the motivations revealed later on when Hinako returns. This aids the central ghost mystery which is well handled in a rather low-key way and explores how the death of a loved-one might make people react.
One of the more interesting themes I picked up on was of the alienation one feels when entering a closed community. Yaku feels like it is outside of time and very traditional and close-knit. The type of place where an outsider will never fit, it is also one that can stifle its inhabitants so one admires Sayori when she states “I want to get out of this village. There are so many things I want to do.” One can understand her jealousy directed at Hinako when it is she who leaves.
Hinako’s re-entry into the town felt like she was going back in time and things have changed very little but she’s an outsider being watched not just by a demon subjective camera but her former neighbours. At one point she’s even told “You’re not one of us,” and bitter truths and secrets are learnt. This isolation wonderfully adds to the tension in the film.
Having little knowledge of Shintoism beyond anecdotes in text-books and brief scenes in films, I found the focus on Japan’s native religion to be very intriguing. The film spares no time or effort in creating a Shinto ceremony and elaborate costumes. It then expands into wider beliefs with Jizo statues and annual pilgrimages, prayer seals and other fascinating elements. This as well as the scenes of research helped to create a believable sense of mystery and encroaching horror. The director’s decision to try and make this a monster movie is what ultimately brings it down in tone. This film is not Chiaki Kuriyama’s finest hour. For the first half the director wisely keeps her presence brief where she manages to be both beautiful and creepy but when she becomes the monster of the film towards the end I found it hard to take her seriously and found her acting stiff. By that point proceedings had become slightly farcical. Far more effective was Michitaka Tsutsui as the guy torn between Sayori (who wouldn’t be?) and Hinako. He manages to maintain believable presence throughout the film.
Overall a decent ghost film that is well told up until the end. If proceedings had been a little more dignified it would have helped.
Release Date: August 19th, 1999 (Japan)
Running time: 100 mins
Director: Shunichi Nagasaki
Writer: Kunimi Manda, Takenori Sento (Screenplay),
Starring: Yui Natsukawa, Michitaka Tsutsui, Chiaki Kuriyama, Toshie Negishi, Ren Osugi, Taro Suwa