SHIKOKU (1999)




Michitaka TSUTSUI

Country: Japan

Year: 1999


'Shikoku' could easily be discarded as 'yet another long-black-haired-ghost story from Japan' but please bear with me. It is much more than a mere derivative attempt to cash-in on J-horror craze. While it was one of the first ghost stories to follow 'Ring' (1998) and was actually playing a double-bill with 'Ring 2' (1999), it is actually based on a novel by Masako Bando, and its literary origins are visible in its greater complexity and subtlety.

Unlike 'Ring' and most of its successors ('The Grudge', 'Dark Water', etc.), which were mostly urban tales, 'Shikoku' is firmly rooted in the depths of Japanese countryside and its ancient folklore. Shikoku is the name of the smallest of the four islands that make up Japan: its meaning is 'four kingdoms', but a very slight variation in spelling, depending on the type of kanji used, can turn it into 'land of the dead'. Still, before you think 'George A. Romero' be reminded that Japanese dead folks are more polite and subtle, and much less bloodthirsty than their Pittsburgh counterparts.

The film is based on an actual traditional belief that Shikoku is where the gateway to the Land of the dead lies, and in order to contain the spirits therein, the believers would go on a pilgrimage along the entire island, visiting one by one all 88 Buddhist temples there. But here is the catch: if one goes in reverse direction, visiting the last temple first etc. then… who knows?... perhaps the dead will walk the earth again? And that's exactly the kind of pilgrimage a certain woman goes on in order to resurrect her prematurely deceased daughter, Sayori (Chiaki Kuriyama).

The plot starts when a young woman, Hinako, comes from Tokyo back to her home, a secluded village in the mountains, to take care of her old house. She learns that her childhood friend, Sayori, had drowned. She is accompanied by Fumiya, the boy who used to play with these two girls, now a young man whose help will be vital when the mysterious events start taking place in the vicinity. Childhood romance is rekindled between these two, but also a certain bitterness and envy from the past on the part of Sayori, whose spirit is hovering over her ex-friend and ex-boyfriend, understandably displeased with their coming together.

'Variety' described this film as 'supernatural drama', and while I hate when horror films are labelled 'supernatural-this' or 'thriller-that', in this case that might be a more suitable label. At least it won't make you expect a full-blown horror and be disappointed by the rather restrained approach. The pace IS deliberate and the scares are subtle and quiet ones, mostly lacking the exploitative shock-value. In other words, SOME viewers might find this film boring or devoid of frights. However, for this reviewer at least, the first two thirds of 'Shikoku' were almost perfect. The opening provides a fine prologue of a childhood friendship and the anguish when one of the kids departs for the big city. It is followed by Hinako's elegiac return to her hometown and her past some fifteen years later, and the contrast between Tokyo and quietly creepy countryside in the misty mountains is pitch-perfect. The same goes for the unspoken, but very much present sentiment of meeting one's childhood friends still stuck in their backwater small-town existence, and their resentment towards the one who 'made it in the big city'. This point is most obvious in the vaguely-insulting words that a grocery girl reports to Hinako: apparently, she merely repeats what she'd heard from Sayori, but the relish with which she reiterates the insults speaks volumes. Hinako is not welcome: she obviously belongs to another world now.

The frights come unforced, naturally arising from the beautiful setting and its atmosphere: statues with their heads cut off in the woods, a shady shape behind the window of an abandoned house, a boy who glimpses his dead grandfather in the middle of the day (shot in a very simple but effective way), a visit to Sayori's house where hundreds of papers proving her mother's visits to all of the 88 temples are dancing in the night breeze… A scene in which Sayori stands unnoticed over Fumiya's shoulder is comparable to a similarly spooky scene from the original 'Ring' when Sadako visits Reiko in the park, in the middle of the day. 'Shikoku' makes an excellent use of such quiet moments to instill the chill down your spine. Sadly, in the last third of the movie, when one expects a worthy climax, it goes slightly downhill. Not so much to ruin the whole movie, but enough to make it a 'flawed classic'. I'll try not to spoil it, as this film deserves to be seen: suffice to say that the ending consists mostly of a lengthy discussion with Sakuya's ghost and clumsy attempts (by a grotesque-looking priest) to return her where she came from while our heroine Hinako stands passively out of the way.

'Shikoku', at least, will not insult your intelligence with some silly plot-twist in the last minute and, if you give it a chance and invest some patience, will provide some solid and lasting chills long after the anti-climactic ending. If you like your horrors (sorry: 'supernatural dramas'!) slow and creepy like an autumn mist, go for 'Shikoku'. It provides the kind of scares that are rarely attempted –or achieved – nowadays. The countryside setting is the real star of this film, and it is competently lensed. As for the human stars, their roles are rather thankless, as they have to convey a lot of the unspoken with their expressions and body language, but their acting is fine. A special reason to see 'Shikoku' is certainly to enjoy one of the first roles of the exquisite Chiaki Kuriyama ('Kill Bill', 'Battle Royale', 'Azumi 2', 'MPD Psycho', 'The Great Yokai War'…), here playing the most beautiful ghost of Japanese cinema.

The film is available in a recently released DVD box set 'The Kadokawa Horror Collection' (together with 'Inugami', 'Isola: Multiple Personality Girl' and 'Shadow of the Wraith'). The colors are slightly muted, but in this case it only adds to the misty feeling of the visuals. In the extra department the disc boasts (unimpressive) trailers for all four Kadokawa horrors, a 3-minute 'behind the scenes' feature (shooting a scene toward the end of 'Shikoku') and approx. 10 minutes worth of not-too-revealing interviews with the director and two leading ladies.

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