Directed by Koji Shiraishi, 2005, 115 mins. starring Masafumi Kobayashi, Marika Matsumoto, Maria Takagi, Mitsuo Hori and Rio Kanno.
Previously known rather unfortunately for the mediocre J-horror-by-numbers scavenge-fest Ju-Rei: The Uncanny - but latterly also for the rather better Kuchisake-onna (aka Carved) - Koji Shiraishi's least-known, but probably best-loved, work is Noroi: The Curse. Why it is still low-profile is anyone's guess, given the quality of this movie: it just seems, like some other really good Asian horrors, to have slipped quietly under the radar of the wider Western audience. Koji Shiraishi does have a history of making these kinds of noroi movies, with varying degrees of success- both Ju-Rei and 2003's Honto ni Atta! Noroi Bideo come straight from the Most Haunted bargain-bucket of ghost mockumentaries, but with the added twist of supposedly cursing the viewer of said movies, just like Sadako and her Betamax of Doom ;-)
Thematically based on the popular phenomenon of shinrei shashin and shinrei bideo (so-called "real" ghost photography and video footage), Noroi, unlike other similarly-themed contemporary Asian movies (for example Shutter), employs the cinema verité shakycam mockumentary style to put its point across. And it would be all too easy to classify Noroi as the Japanese answer to the Blair Witch Project, that great touchstone of shakycam spook horror. Its basic plot bears an uncanny resemblance to that movie: a missing documentary maker leaving behind a tape which appears to explain his disappearance due to supernatural reasons...? This sounding familiar to anyone?
And as you might expect from the director of Ju-Rei, Noroi does indeed feature a small grab-bag of thievery, borrowing liberally from the big names - the mother/son tag-team combo from Ju-on replete with spectral cat-like noises, super-psychic little girls doing ESP tests, cursed technology from Ring and Phone and Chakushin ari and how many other bloody titles besides, I don't even know.
So yeah, yeah, yeah, much of Noroi is derivative. We all got that ;-) But in the case of this movie, for once it doesn't actually matter. Not even a little bit. It didn't make me groan out loud and facepalm as other such titles that borrow elements of contemporary big names often do, because Koji Shiraishi takes those elements, changes their significance and weaves them integrally into a completely original plot. Even though the Blair Witch comparison is an accurate one, for my money Noroi is far, far more scary than that particular movie - and it's the very fact that it is really and properly frightening which is the movie's best salvation. The entire mood of the piece changes by subtle stages throughout the duration, from light-hearted cheesy TV Most Haunted-type fluff, through masterfully-handled escalating dread, to a terrifying series of climactic events that will remain with you long after the film ends.
Happily there is a large amount of original material which is not only good and creepy from a contemporary point of view, and like many very effective Japanese horror movies it draws heavily upon its own country's cultural and ancient traditions. Noroi writes its own rich demonic mythology in much the same way Ring did, combining horror elements from the past and the present to great effect, but without actually replicating it note for note with bog-standard girl ghosts and TVs and wells and what have you. There is, mark you, a very smart (and possibly sarcastic) little nod to Ring near the end, with the appearance of a smashed-in TV screen ;-)
"I want the truth. No matter how terrifying, I want the truth."
Masafumi Kobayashi is a leading paranormal journalist, TV presenter and expert who is a familiar and well-loved celebrity in his field. However, since investigating a phenomenon known simply as Noroi (in English, 'the curse'), it seems that someone - or more likely something - very nasty has it in for Kobayashi. First off, the day after his investigation began, his home burned to the ground in the middle of the night, killing his wife, whose remains were found in the debris; and Kobayashi himself has been declared missing. All that is left of him is his Noroi investigation tape, in true Blair Witch style. So despite an assertion made by the voiceover announcer that the documentary left behind is too disturbing to be seen by the public, it appears we're going to be allowed to see it after all. How kind! Noroi would have been a very short film otherwise ;-)
The investigation begins in November 2002, with Kobayashi interviewing a young mother and her little daughter, who have been hearing the sounds of crying babies coming from the house next door to theirs. The occupants of said house are a mysterious 40-year-old woman and a small boy of about 5-6, who hasn't been seen since the pair moved in, and who are most definitely not Kayako and Toshio, no sir ;-)
So Kobayashi goes next door to ask them some questions, and right from the outset it appears that the mother isn't quite all there. She looks terrible, and starts being really hostile right from the get-go. She yells at Kobayashi and slams the door in his face, and he retreats in a hurry - but not before his eagle-eyed cameraman spots the little boy's face peering out of the back window. However, along with this unsettling image, the cameraman also records a peculiar sound.
Kobayashi is excited by this finding, and takes the tape to be analysed. What he discovers is that the next-door neighbour was bang on about the noises coming from the house: it turns out to be the sound of more than five babies crying at the same time. But when he goes back to investigate again, he finds out that the two mysterious occupants of the house have moved out - taking the weird noises with them. On rifling through their leftover mail, he finds out that the woman's name is Junko Ishii – but he makes a slightly more disturbing discovery round the back of the house, where he turns up a bunch of dead mutilated pigeons. Later, it transpires that the next-door neighbours who reported the noises wound up dead five days after Kobayashi's return, due to a seemingly unconnected car crash.
The next part of the documentary shows an ESP test run on supposedly psychic children for TV, which reveals that one of the ten children being tested, Kana Yano (Rio Kanno), is extremely clairvoyant and manages to reproduce a drawing of a hidden shape perfectly. However, despite getting the first four shape-drawing tests correct, on the fifth she suddenly draws a weird face with huge black eyesockets - which bears no resemblance to the actual hidden drawing. And weirder still, when she is asked to materialise some water in a bottle by the power of thought alone, she does so - and floating inside the bottle, is also a hair, which turns out under analysis to have come from the head of a newborn baby.
The next chunk of evidence shows unused footage from another TV programme, showing a pair of male psychic investigators calling themselves the 'Ungirls' and a real actress, Marika Matsumoto (who also starred that year in Takashi Shimizu's Rinne), on their merry way to check out a haunted shrine where many ghosts have been sighted. Marika confesses to being psychic and having seen ghosts before, hence wanting to come along. However, everything goes horribly wrong, and something inexplicable happens to Marika, causing her to roll about on the floor screaming.
Kobayashi interviews Marika about it at a live horror show evening, and she says she doesn't remember anything about the incident except for hearing a man's voice calling her. But after a tinfoil-hatted psychic nutter guest, Mitsuo Hori, who is apparently involved in important work "protecting humans from ectoplasmic worms" (no, I don't know either ;-)) goes mental and tries to strangle Marika, whilst shouting "My God! The pigeons! Watch out for the pigeons!", Kobayashi makes another mental connection - this time between the mutilated pigeons he saw at the mystery baby-sound house and what the psychic picked up from Marika. On further investigation by Kobayashi, it transpires that a ghost figure appeared behind Marika on the tape of the unused footage of the haunted shrine, which the TV show editor thoughtfully removed so as not to freak the poor girl out: a tall, white shape with huge black eyesockets and a wonky mouth, just like the same face that the child psychic Kana Yano drew in her televised fifth ESP test. Speaking of whom, Kana herself has just disappeared without trace.
Unfortunately, it would seem the only person who knows anything about Kana's disappearance is the tinfoil-hat loony "super psychic", Mitsuo Hori. Despite his terror, he gives Kobayashi the name of the figure behind it all - Kagutaba - and draws a map of Kana's current location, which Kobayashi will have to follow up if he has any chance of finding out what's going on.
It's become clear that this mysterious figure Kagutaba is the single connection between all these frightening phenomena - but what is it, and what is it doing? Why is everyone connected with this investigation either disappearing or dying? And will Kobayashi be able to protect himself against whatever is happening as he gets drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery? (Well... no. We already established that at the start ;-) But we'll get to find out why, never you worry about that...)
Make no mistake, Noroi is a really, really, really good movie. It is not half as formulaic as you may fear: OK, so it's not reinventing the wheel, but does every movie have to? Its greatest strength is the simple fact that it is intensely effective and creepy, with plenty of originality and pure enjoyment to be had from it to keep it from just being a spot-the-stolen-movie movie. On a purely entertainment level, it's very enjoyable - and you can easily turn a blind eye to the *ahem* influenced bits. There are some deeply unsettling moments, including several terrifying sequences near the end that gave even this hardened old genre reviewer more than a few goosebumps. The storyline is well-paced and very engaging, and the acting is uniformly excellent: Masafumi Kobayashi and Marika Matsumoto are very likeable characters who the viewer can warm to and care about, and the rest of the supporting cast are pretty good too, especially Mitsuo Hori, who starts off as a thoroughly obnoxious, almost comical character and ends up becoming incredibly important to the plot - and even sympathetic. Now that is deft characterisation.
So in summary: if you don't crap yourself by the end of Noroi, then chances are that you're dead inside and no amount of horror movies will ever scare you. This, my friends, is what "J-horror" should be all about: getting back to making you, the viewer, soil yourself spontaneously through a combination of terrifying mythology, dread-soaked atmospherics, psychological suspense and properly scary ideas and images. And Noroi has all that good stuff in spades, along with the bonus of not one, but two of the most terrifying ending sequences ever - twice as many as Ring, even! Do not let prejudice and suspicion put you off: Noroi is an essential and perfectly constructed essay on how to make a fantastic modern Asian horror movie.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Acting: 10/10. Absolutely cannot fault it
Ectoplasmic Worms: sounds painful
Night Vision Scares: 1 ginormous one. Now THAT is how you do night vision scares, Yvette Fielding! Are you taking notes? ;-)
Films in a Similar Style: Blair Witch Project, Shutter, Ring, Ju-on
*** Highly recommended ***
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(Amazingly, I could not find one single proper review of this movie on the Net, so I couldn't link to any - sorry about that O_O)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7A5VNsEeAMY - trailer on Youtube
http://www.walkerplus.com/phtml/all/movie/flyer/index.cgi?file=mo3644_f1.jpgimdb - poster at MoviePlus
http://twitchfilm.net/site/view/noroi-gets-an-english-subtitled-hk-dvd-december-15th-2006/ - Twitch thinks Rinne is better, scarier and less generic fare than Noroi. Pfffffft, make your own mind up on that one, I know what I think ;-)
http://cinema.3yen.com/2005-08-23/noroi/ - an interesting thought on the Japanese perception of ghosts
http://www2.plala.or.jp/ivjkiz/sada/ - some lovely Japanese shinrei shashin photos to get you in the mood
http://www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~fnao/shinrei_pic.htm - ... and a link to show you how to fake some shinrei shashin of your very own! ;-)