My notes on the Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.Made for television, this Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie is a loose remake (more of an improvisation around) Bryan Forbes’s Seance on a Wet Afternoon, which was based on a novel by Mark McShane. The skeleton of the plot remains, along with variations (almost parodic) on sequences from the original film, but Kurosawa takes it in a very different direction – not least, bringing in actual supernatural elements and riffing on the Ringu-style Japanese ghost story in some manner.
In the original story, a self-deluded fake medium and her devoted, weaker-willed husband kidnap a little girl so the wife can become a famous psychic by helping ‘solve’ the case – though it gets darker when the woman insists the child be killed, ostensibly to keep company with their stillborn son (who is her supposed spirit guide). Here, a little girl in a vivid green raincoat is abducted by a peaked-capped kidnapper who turns out to be inept – he lets her get away in the woods, and later winds up comatose after blundering into some scaffolding while running off with the ransom. The child, fleeing the crook, climbs into an equipment case and is carried home by Sato (Kôji Yakusho), a sound man (like John Travolta in Blowup) who is recording forest sounds for TV show. Junko (Jun Fubuki), Sato’s wife, has Sixth Sense/Eye trouble, and can see dead people – an alarming red-dressed, facially-blurred woman turns up at the diner where she works as a waitress – but hasn’t been able to impress a college parapsychologist (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) with the few deductions she can make from handling his dead grandmother’s brooch. The couple’s first instinct is to call the police or a doctor, but Junko realises that if they keep the girl, she can gain a reputation by helping find her, and the situation slowly spirals out of their control. As in the book but not Forbes’ film, the girl dies – but her ghost hangs about, appearing even to the non-psychic Sato, who batters it with a pipe (subsequently, the ghost is bloodied from this and muddy from being buried) and then sets fire to an apparition of his own spirit (of course, Yashuko is so associated with Kurosawa that he practically is the director’s doppelganger – not to mention the star of Kurosawa’s film Doppelganger) in the yard.
Though non-supernatural, Forbes’ film is set in an old dark Victorian house, but this has its medium live in a bland, ordinary building: the bravura climax which allowed Kim Stanley to get awards nominations is staged from outside the door of their tiny front room, and deliberately fizzles away as the cops see through the trick (Junko claims the girl is buried but her corpse – too-fresh – has been found) and a bit of evidence (a plastic brooch) blows everything. Kurosawa takes the hair-over-the-face spookery of Ringu in interesting ways: when the girl in green crawls into the room, she’s actually still alive but hurt, and the climax finds Junko in black with hair over her face as if she’s become a ghost too. Kurosawa tends to use the tiny coffin-like box as a locus of fear and the supernatural – with neat little lighting effects to highlight its presence, even through a locked door, to the psychic. Like other Kurosawa films, it’s deadpan and absurd – the coincidence that the girl falls into the lap of the psychic who has already been consulted in the case is just accepted as is the fact that Sato doesn’t notice his trunk is now heavier – rather than terrifying, though the ghosts are quietly alarming – their vivid clothes and smudged faces are almost the only bright colours in this drab, unassuming, TV-framed picture.
Because it’s deliberately inexpressive, it doesn’t have the seeming character depth of Seance on a Wet Afternoon – not to mention the suspense – but the subtle performances convey the dead end of this couple’s world even before they dig their own graves, and its reticence is still devastating. It has Kurosawa’s usual philosophical footnotes – a discussion of Jung, Sato asking a Buddhist exorcist (whose ritual has just failed to solve anything) if there’s a Hell and being told there is only if you believe in it. Scripted by Tetsuya Onishi and Kurosawa.
Jack M. Haringa Excellent write-up of this under-appreciated (and probably little-seen) entry in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. I found the film lingering in my thoughts weeks after watching it, in part due to the clash between mundane modernity and the supernatural, and I think this is exacerbated by the director’s use of a muted color palette and measured pace.
I’ve always liked Kurosawa’s use of sound–and silence–to emphasize isolation, desperation, and the horrific without relying on tiresome “stings” and sonic force like so many American filmmakers. That the focal character here is a sound man made me even more attentive to the use of sound effects, music, and quiet.