Happy Halloween! This is the time of year when people celebrate the supernatural and ghoulish aspects of popular culture and national myths. I do my part by highlighting horror movies on Halloween night. So far I have reviewed Nightmare Detective, Strange Circus, Shokuzai, POV: A Cursed Film and Charisma. This is the fifth year of this strand
and I am doing it in Tokyo, Japan. The last two weeks has seen the city go into Halloween overdrive and I am told it is a recent phenomenon. For my part I have viewed things from afar (such as from on top of Roppongi Hills and down onto a parade) rather than get stuck in what looks like a proper melee in jam-packed crowds (boring, I know, but I want to eat my ghost cakes and pumpkin Kitkats and drink my Halloween juice).
Anyway, this year’s film is from the ‘90s and it came from a young director who is now a familiar name thanks to a scary person who curses people via VHS. This isn’t Ringu, it’s an earlier film…
Release Date: March 02nd, 1996
Running Time: 75 mins.
Director: Hideo Nakata
Writer: Hiroshi Takahashi (Screenplay), Hideo Nakata (Original Story)
Starring: Yurei Yanagi, Yasuyo Shirashima, Kei Ishibashi, Ren Osugi, SABU, Daisuke Iijima, Naomi Kojima, Reita Serizawa,
We are in Japan in the ‘90s. A promising young director, Toshio Murai (Yurei Yanagi), and his beautiful lead actors Hitomi Kurokawa (Yasuyo Shirashima) and Saori Murakami (Kei Ishibashi) and the crew are working hard on a film in a studio that has been around since the Second World War. It’s a huge place with a set that is built like a traditional house from the 1940s, props and scenery and other feature both modern and from the time of the studios construction as well as a lot of film canisters containing rolls of films from forgotten television shows and movies. It is an ideal location for the war drama being filmed and also place with a lot of memories. There is nothing so out of the ordinary at first glance and with so many people on set it looks like a lot of fun. Unless one looks up.
Hanging above everyone is rigging that looks like it dates back to the construction of the studio. It actually seems older, an ancient-looking wood and rope ensemble that groans with the slightest pressure that sprinkles dust with the slightest movement. Worse still is the darkness pooled above the platforms. It is like an empty gulf that light cannot pierce. Who know what lurks in it, where it leads or maybe where it connects to. It might be best not to look up.
Of course, when someone senses something from up there, maybe a stare or an emotion, they will look up to see where it emanates from. That is exactly what the cast and crew do, breaking scenes as their gaze drifts up into the rigging and stays rooted in place, a look of intense dread developing on their faces as they experience something.
A scene can be reset and the set and props put back in place but the negative feelings linger amongst the people drawn to look. What is even more noticeable is the way that their film seems to be infected with the negative energy of the studio, from up in the rigging. When watching the rushes, the crew witness scenes from an old drama shot there that was thought to be destroyed. The footage bleeds into Murai’s movie and shows an unknown actress on a similar set screaming in terror and clutching her throat as a woman with long black hair, pale skin, and a white dress laughs behind her. Said woman is out of focus, a blur, but the fear on the actress’s face is unmistakable and it is clear that the blurry woman in the background is causing the pain. There is a tragedy linked to that film which was thought lost but people don’t quite know what.
People are disturbed and the fear spreads amongst the crew. There’s a sense that something evil is lurking in the pitch blackness and it is corrupting the film’s production. That corruption is clear to see from the film’s rushes and this makes the director desperate to get to the bottom of the mystery while finishing his film. He does a little detective work, driven by the growing unease of the people he is leading and his own scarred memories since he seems to recognise that mystery film which has leaked onto his. An editor, an older member of staff gives stern warnings about the old footage.
“The film felt evil. Who knows what went on here. This place is 50 years old. Best let sleeping dogs lie, and throw out the film.”
That may not be an option since whatever lives in the old studio is awake and the director and his actors are determined to finish the film even if death strikes the set…
Nakata wrote the story and set/shot it in a location that he knows well, Nikkatsu’s Chofu film studio. Nakata worked at the famed production company Nikkatsu in the ‘80s and was familiar with the Chofu film studio so he was able to shoot Don’t Look Up on the abandoned stages after the company went bust.
Who knows what sort of superstitions and history had built up in the place by the time Nakata worked there with but he toys with the fascination that there is something intriguing about the history of a place, the idea that some psychic trauma is so strong it leaves an impression and ghosts spring up from that impression. Imagine rummaging through things whether it’s a stack of books, a box of toys, or reels of film, and imagine all of the human imprints that have been left on them. Why not technology? We are all familiar with film, cameras and the like and the idea that these things take our images and may steal souls or how televisions, in being able to receive information broadcast through thin air can access some other realm, a supernatural one. This sort of use of technology to make horror stories is always cool and actually makes a great hook for audiences since it roots them in a familiar place and with familiar things. While Don’t Look Up’s story is as thin as a white sheet worn by ghosts it is a very reasonable and schematic simple story for seventy minutes that showcases the skill Nakata has at evoking atmosphere.
Nakata ably sets up the atmosphere of the film-shoot with a limited cast and a few locations (the studio, a couple of exteriors and an apartment) and through clever use of camera angles on a set he clearly has control over. The mise-en-scene is perfect since the location is the real deal and must have been filled with the objects used in real films. Nakata uses all of the creepy parts to increase the terror and does so through strong direction of camera movement and framing – low-angle shots aimed at the ceiling and rigging of the studio to show the vulnerable POV of the crew as they stare into the inky-blackness and high-angle shots to show the ghost stalking its prey, reaction shots and movements where strange things are glimpsed. These simple but effective things are harnessed to the idea that technology is facilitating the haunting. The strange occurrences increase as equipment breaks down (usually signalling some ratcheting up in the haunting) or records the weirdest things and people are stalked by shadows or hear voices. Technical feats such as overlapping audio tracks and blending of film negatives in editing suggest the film is inviting horrific entities into the lives of the characters as represented by the shadowy figures glimpsed in the background of scenes. It’s all great and when you keep in mind that it’s from 1996 there is a lot to admire.
The big surprise is that this film isn’t scary. It features chilling scenes but suffers too much from seeing the monster which is a spin on the traditional yurei – long limp black hair and a white kimono folded the way dead people have them folded. Her laughter is unnerving and the blurred sight of her hair-raising but seeing her in all of her glory blunts her terror by the end as we come to recognise the human aspect of her. The more terrifying thing is the way technology acts as a conduit for the dead. There is one really memorable bit and it is the old grainy black and white footage of the ‘lost’ film which is a disturbing set of images as we see the terrified actress, the unknown threat, and a child ascend a set of stairs to an attic where horrors lurk. Like Ringu, that old film is the thing that will stick in the mind.
“There’s an attic at the top of the stairs. Inside the attic is something so terrifying”
This video, the use of technology in hauntings and the way the supernatural is rooted in a recognisable world and bringing the traditional yurei into this world are all hallmarks of Nakata’s style. The film serves as a fun way for audiences to see the nascent skill of Nakata and how this is clearly a forerunner to Ringu in many ways. Actors reappear in Ringu such as Yurei Yanagi and the technology angle is also covered. I like it. It reminds me of a time when J-horror wasn’t a cash-cow for idol projects and there was solid direction and ideas. It is a relic from an earlier time and audiences will get something from it regardless of scares.