Japan (2019) Dir. Otsuichi
Considering the amount of horror films, folklore tales, and urban legends in Japan are based on vengeful women, you’d think the Japanese would learn to treat women better so they wouldn’t need to haunt people after they pass on. Just a thought…
Kana (Manami Enosawa) is having a meal with her friend Mizuki (Marie Iitoyo) telling her a ghost story. Suddenly, something spooks Kana and she cowers in horror before dying from heart failure and her eyeballs exploding. Three days later, Kana’s work colleague, Kazuto (Yutaro Watanabe) calls his older brother Haruo (Yu Inaba) in a panic, then he dies the same way as Kana did before Haruo could get to him.
Haruo and Mizuki team up to investigate the cause of these deaths, starting with Eiko (Sawa Nimura). She reveals that on a trip to a resort with Kana and Kazuto, another guest, Watanabe (Shota Sometani), told them a story about a woman with large eyes who killed people that knew her name, Shirai-san. By telling this story, Watanabe placed a curse on them and with two of them already dead, Eiko is in grave danger.
Ringu has a lot to answer for and Stare is the latest evidence of this. Almost copying the formula to the letter with some updating for the modern era whilst keeping one foot in the past, this is J-Horror 101. It is this familiar sensation that might deter some people from giving this a watch, but this earnest retread is done well enough to suggest maybe there is some life in the old spectre yet.
The mononymous writer and director Otsuichi (real name Hirotaka Adachi) is a seasoned screenwriter but this is his second time in the director’s chair, and despite having a safe blueprint to work from, he has chosen a tricky genre to get right in horror. Otsuichi certainly gives it his best shot and even working with a modest budget is smart enough to know how to work with his means. By not overstretching himself, Otsuichi is able to rely on story more than scares, which are sufficiently creepy.
In keeping with the great tradition of Asian horror curses, our intrepid duo start off blind (excuse the pun) but once they acquire more knowledge about it, end up in the firing line of Shirai-san’s evil. Presumably designed to be the next Sadako, little is revealed about Shirai-san beyond her history as a folklore legend, which is how this is viewed – as folklore – and unlikely to exist in the 21st century.
Eiko is shown as the one most easily spooked by Watanabe’s tale, and his delivery is just like that of an elderly raconteur with dark intent, except he is a young man having fun at the expense of others. Or is he? Meanwhile, it dawns on Eiko that by telling Mizuki and Haruo this story and mentioning Shirai-san by name, she has now cursed them. With this guilt on her mind, Eiko attempts suicide but is saved by Haruo.
While Eiko rests in hospital, Haruo and Mizuki intend to track down Watanabe and find out where and from whom he learned the story. Elsewhere, a reporter named Mamiya (Shugo Oshinari), still grieving over the death of his young daughter, is trying to find answers, leading him to cross paths with Haruo and Mizuki, when he meets Toshiyuki (Shinpei Ooe), a worker at the resort who also heard Watanabe tell the story.
As a result, more people are now exposed to the curse, including Mamiya’s wife Fuyumi (Mitsuki Tanimura), but whilst a way to deter instant death is found, this doesn’t break the curse. Having worked out Shirai-san arrives every three days, a race against time to find a solution is on, and with the number of survivors dwindling, our protagonists need to work together and come up with something fast.
Like Ringu and other ancestors, the terror aspect of Stare works on the fear of known and not the unknown – it is clear the curse is going to strike but when and to whom? And three days is not a lot of time to unravel this mystery, unlike in Ringu where they had seven days. Otsuichi’s script also diverts from having Shirai-san’s appearances not be on cue for a punctuation scare but when she feels like it, delineating the idea she is on a mission of her own making.
Day or night, creepy Shirai-san – with her long black hair (natch), traditional shrine girl garb, pallid complexion, hook nose, and large expressionless eyes with black pupils – pops up to terrorise those who know her name, daring them to look at her by emotional manipulation. She doesn’t need to speak, announcing her presence via a small bell; her aura is overpowering and compelling, her slow shuffle walk makes seconds feel like hours. A haunting and positively eerie creation indeed.
Subtly buried beneath this ghoulish nightmare is a commentary on misinformation in the social media age. Otsuichi suggests we believe what we want to believe even if it is ridiculous just because something goes viral. Yet the truth gets lost amidst this furore or people choose to ignore it because of its low profile – hence the legend of Shirai-san is deemed cobblers but demonstrably true but nobody wants to believe it.
Minor contrivances in the script, such as using basic mathematics in cracking the curse, highlight the problem of horror writers having a great idea but not a great finish, although the open ending is a hopeful entreaty for a sequel on Otsuichi’s part. The cast are all good in keeping the tension and terror credible, with Marie Iitoyo giving Mizuki substance and agency, especially in a touching scene with Kana’s spirit.
Otsuichi proves with Stare that recycled concepts can work with a fresh coat of paint and injection of new ideas. Perhaps not a compete reinvention of the genre, it is effectively creepy in delivering worthy and chilling J-horror kicks.