Sunday, November 11, 2007

Takashi Shimizu

So, for Halloween, I've been watching some horror movies. I try to be fair and watch a decent variety of movies, but I have a slightly different definition of variety than most people.

So, in the spirit of variety, I checked out: 1 big budget zombie movie (28 Weeks Later), 1 low-budget, Australian (well, it's probably from New Zealand) zombie-sheep movie (Black Sheep), 1 low-budget Japanese ghost movie (Reincarnation), 1 low-budget American ghost movie (Unrest), 1 big-budget Japanese-American ghost movie (The Grudge 2), and 1 low budget '80s John Carpenter ghost movie (The Fog). Oh, I guess I also rewatched Blade II and saw 30 Days of Night in the theaters.

I think that's a pretty decent amount of variety. Admittedly, I still have 3 more horror movies coming in on my queue (a big-budget Japanese ghost movie, Ju-On 2, a low budget independent zombie movie, Fido, and the original zombie-comedy: "The Return of the Living Dead"). Once those come in, the variety level kind of sinks a little bit.

Anyways, if you were paying attention, you might have noticed three different Japanese ghost movies, of varying budget size. I picked these three for a very specific reason. The director is named Takashi Shimizu, and, well, I think he is something special, and so I keep watching his movies, typically against my better judgment.

It all started years ago. Back before I regularly watched Japanese horror movies. My brother and I had seen The Ring and had agreed that it was pretty much one of the scariest things we'd ever seen, bar none. However, being lazy, isolationist bigots, we never bothered to see Ringu (because we couldn't really imagine it being better than The Ring). Then, we heard about Ju-On. Apparently, this movie was even scarier than Ringu. And, well, in that case, we had to see it.

It was only playing on one screen in a theater way away from home and the earliest show we could make was pretty late (like 10-ish). So, we went and saw it. And it totally blew our minds.

We honestly weren't even sure if we liked it, when we got out. We agreed that it was crazy freaking scary (at least on par with The Ring). But, we had no clue what was going on through at least 60% of the movie. My complaint was that basically every single victim in the movie was either a pretty, young Japanese woman, or a Japanese Schoolgirl. So, they all pretty much looked the same (plus, many of them were supposed to be related, so they REALLY all looked the same). Plus, the movie skips around through time (without being kind enough to tell you), which can really play hell with the viewer, since then you're not really sure if the character you're seeing is a new one who looks just like another victim, or that previous victim in the past.

Anyways, it was crazy. And most of the credit goes to Takashi Shimizu. In researching this masterpiece, I learned that it all actually started out as two direct-to-video movies that were crazy freaking scary. The movie, in fact, is more like a sequel to those (which explains some things associated with the ridiculous amounts of confusion involved in watching the movie).

What I liked about the movie, though, was how it played with the viewers. It is clear from the beginning that entering the haunted house is sealing your own death. There is no escape. But, the ghost toys with the victims. A lot. Especially at the beginning, it acts like there are rules and if the characters had just made the right calls, they might have survived. Then, we do get to see later characters make the right calls. In fact, we see characters completely lose their minds, doing everything they can trying to avoid the ghost's wrath, but it's always all for naught. The slow erosion of hope over the course of the movie is totally cool.

Takashi Shimizu was also recruited to do the American version (and the sequel to the American version). These are both really disappointing. The American version is still set in Japan (which is a weird call, but it works since they use the same actors to play the ghosts), but the main character is a foreign exchange student or something. Yeah, it's already lame.

Anyways, my complaint with it was that they regurgitate the exact same scares, but got rid of anything resembling confusion or the sense of losing your mind or everything else that is key to Japanese horror. The result, not surprisingly, was just stupid.

I recently watched the American sequel (and the Japanese sequel is arriving soon). I actually liked this one more, than the previous American one. It did manage to capture a lot of what was best in Ju-On (while totally screwing some other stuff up, but beggars can't be choosy). It did play with the viewers sense of time a little bit. It did include characters going insane trying to keep themselves safe. It even included the people all around a marked person going crazy as the rage of the ghost just turns everyone around the target into murderous and suicidal psychopaths. That whole section was, really, an excellent addition to the story (as the ghost follows a victim back to America).

It was for scenes like that, that I bothered to watch it at all (hoping against hope for something half that awesome). Thankfully, Takashi Shimizu delivered. I wasn't too surprised, though, because he delivered in both his other low budget flings I've checked out as well (Marebito and Reincarnation). Marebito does a great job of following the main character's trip into insanity (although it doesn't do too much else right). Reincarnation doesn't have the scares of Ju-On, but it does a great job of playing with the audience's sense of reality and time (where we start to really wonder whether the stuff that's happening in reality or in her ghost-inspired dreams is the bigger threat to her life...the answer: both).

So, yeah, I'm going to keep checking out his movies, because I think they embody the best of Japanese horror. The good guys probably aren't going to win (and they might not even be the good guys). The scares are going to be simple, but effective thanks to the excellent mood he is able to generate (an example of excellent mood, but no scares would be the Japanese version of Pulse, not the one starring Veronica Mars and not directed by Takashi Shimizu). But, most importantly, I'll be challenged as a viewer. I'll be able to try to formulate rules that the ghost follows or explanations of what's going on and I'll know that there's more than one right answer, because he's toying with me just as the ghosts are toying with their victims. And I enjoy that.

That is all.


PS - I'm currently faced with a tough decision, since the one movie he's made that I haven't seen, is the third in a series called Tomie. Reviews say you really need to see the earlier ones if you want to be able to follow, but that his is the best by far (not surprising). On the other hand, the reviews also say you need to be Japanese to understand most of it anyways, so I could just ignore those recommendations (so maybe I can get away with just watching his... or maybe I should just rent the whole series... or maybe I should move to Japan and study the culture and then watch the whole series... or maybe not).

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