Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Shadow of the Wraith (2001)

My notes on Ikisudama (aka Shadow of the Wraith or Campus Ghost Stories)

A two-part Japanese horror movie built around a popular singing duo (brothers Kôji and Yûichi Matsuo, who perform as Doggy Bag) and directed by Toshiharu Ikeda in somewhat calmer manner than his contributions to the Angel Guts and Evil Dead Trap series.

In ‘Shadow of the Wraith’, Ryoji Yoshino (Kôji Matsuo) – a floppy-haired high-school hunk who performs with his brother in a band named Martial Law is happy with his girlfriend Mariko, but dark, sombre, obviously creepy-supernatural Asaji (Asumi Miwa) is always loitering, nursing her serious crush on him. Martial Law do a cover of ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ with militant teen rebel lyrics; if nothing else, Martial Law sounds less feeble a band name than Doggy Bag. Early on, it’s established that Asaji can bilocate, and has an evil doppelganger who acts out her fantasies – appearing to Ryuji in dreams which mean he has to wash his underpants first thing in the morning, and then appearing (levitating) and looking evil to impel Mariko and any other normal girl who fancies Ryoji to their deaths (Mariko’s bike takes a header and she’s impaled, another girl blunders in front of a train). Under all this pressure, Ryoji semi-cracks and confronts Asaji – whom he semi-accidentally strangles as a Tubular Bells soundalike tinkles. As Asaji lies dead, her floating evil double – doppelfloater – manifests in a white kimomo to keep persecuting him, even throwing through an upper-storey window. Asaji is clearly working up a status as one of those Asian schoolgirl spooks, but she’s thinly-conceived: the perhaps-sympathetic half of her barely gets a look in, so she spends the whole film simply looking ominous (her wraith shows up in a nightie or leers out of a water-tank) – and Matsuo plays Ryoji as a nice guy blank, which is one of the perils of making a vehicle for a pop star who wants to come off well, since the story would be better if the lead were a bit of a bighead who likes the idea of a string of girls crushing on him and loses composure when he’s supernaturally stalked. Still, at least he gets killed – the ghost kisses his bloody corpse, and moves on, which is at least healthy. Incidentally, wraiths don’t usually have shadows.

Next up is ‘The Hollow Stone’, in which Ryoji’s grieving brother Kazuhiko (Yûichi Matsuo), another pouting prettyboy with a big hairdo, isn’t really the central character – that’s narrator Naoko Nakada (Hitomi Miwa), whose family moves into an apartment in a block which has a Grudge-like ghost problem. As they move in, a few strange sideways angles convey eeriness and an emergency medical crew who plainly visit the building often rush in to attend to a stricken resident. Naturally, creepy things happen – there’s a big, moss-encrusted, bad-smelling stone cube on the balcony, where ‘it’s really in the way’, and strange sounds at night. Kazuhiko is around taking photographs of the building, where and his young mum sister – briefly in the first episode – lives: he knows something about the curse and suggests Naoko – who is new in his school – memorise a Buddhist spell to ward off evil (shame he didn’t tell his brother, though he did infodump supernatural stuff at him). Kazuhiko develops his photographs, and finds a spiky-haired ghost-child face peering down from the balcony outside Naoko’s flat. Alone because her mother has been taken to hospital, Naoko is pestered by a chittering child apparition, who sits in an open closet with a shadow on her face – but it’s only a dream. In a bit of back-reference, Kazuhiko mournfully plays guitar at a smiling picture of his brother – presumably, Ryoji’s death has scuppered his musical career – and has minor flashbacks. Kazuhiko tells Naoko that the curse proceeds vertically, from one apartment to the one above it and that her neighbours below have suffered two suicides and a fatal kitchen fire. This has happened to Naoko before in her old neighbourhood, with a curse moving down the street towards her house.

It’s a decent development that Kazuhiko moves on from his brother’s death in a relationship with Naoko, though a more ruthless or imaginative movie would have Ryuji turn up as a ghost too. Naoko is bothered by the ghost, and quite unnerving use is made of a whistling kettle, the closet door (which keeps closing) and sundry potentially fatal kitchen mishaps. Poltergeist activity causes glass, tile and wood to crack, a broken pipe to flood the floor and dollops of flame to fall from the ceiling. Naoko tries to remember the prayer and Kazuhiko tries to get in fron the balcony – but a whole vertical column of apartments disappears from the building in a puff of black smoke, while the closet ghost turns out to be a grasping skeleton in a Louise Brooks wig that is on the point of killing Naoko when she remembers the prayer and is freed. The stone breaks and, of course, the skeleton girl is inside it: like many other spooks, she just wanted her bones found. However, in one more illogical scare, just when the heroine seems safe she’s yanked back into a dark dimension inside the closet and confronted with a long-haired female ghost (another wraith?) who looks up to reveal that her face is one big black hole. Eek.

Neither of these stories would be strong enough for a feature; in fact, they aren’t really strong enough for the 55 minute length they get here – judicious trimming might have helped, with perhaps another story (for the sister – or maybe one of the backing musicians) to bulk it out. Ikeda probably did this as a commercial gig – his more personal, intense films use a small group of recurring character names and types which are absent. It’s very soft J-horror (based on a comic book, of course), presumably aimed at the young girl fans of the Matsuo Brothers and full of bits lifted from other movies. Its school characters are all unrealistically nice – in a Whispering Corridors movie, an outcast like Asaji would be mercilessly bullied rather than genially ignored, and unaccountably no one wants to punch a Matsuo Brother in the face for being a tosser. Not without interest, but not essential either.


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