He has been part an integral part of the Japanese culture for over five decades. Today, Kazuo Umezu is considered by many to be the founding father of supernatural comics (also known as "manga") and the motivation behind the recent J-Horror movement in movies. From auspicious beginnings, he has thrived, influencing writer, artist and filmmaker alike. In 1955, he started his career as a cartoonist, and by the early '60s he had become a driving force in the "Rabu-kome" (or romantic comedy) genre. Around this time, he also began developing his macabre efforts, using children and ancient traditions and legends as fuel for his fright. Now, as part of an ongoing effort to celebrate his importance in the realm of horror, several well known Japanese filmmakers have created Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater. Using an omnibus approach, individual short films have been created in honor of Umezu's most famous stories. Released in America in two episode Volumes, the second features two incredibly imaginative stories – Snake Girl and The Wish. Their success as stories is obvious. Their effectiveness as films is something else all together.
Featuring two 50 minute mini-movies, this manga anthology plays a lot like a Japanese version of Roald Dahl's Tales from the Unexpected, or a less lighthearted Tales from the Crypt. The plots for each installment are as follows:
When a murder happens at her school, young Yumiko become fascinated with the details. She feels a similar hatred for her classmates, and wonders how such anger translates into death. Her mother, concerned that her daughter spends too much time on the Internet contributing bitter, irate posts on hate-oriented websites, sends Yumiko out to the country for a vacation. There, she stays with cousin Kyoko and her less than happy family. Seems a local shaman has predicted that a snake will destroy the village, and has timed the catastrophe to match Yumiko's arrival. Hoping to prove the witch wrong, the girls go to her house to confront her. There, Yumiko runs into the Snake Woman, a hideous creature with a mouthful of fangs and a tail where her legs should be. She bites Yumiko, and suddenly, this schoolgirl seems to be turning into a reptile. Even worse, the villagers are turning into zombies, eager to destroy the Snake Girl that they claim created them.
Intelligent, introverted young Hitoshi has no friends. The kids at school think he's odd, and his mother worries that he spends too much time alone. One day, while on his way home from school, Hitoshi discovers a new road he's never taken before, and follows it to an old work shed, where he finds a head-shaped block of wood. Deciding to use the item for a doll, Hitoshi soon fashions a life size playmate out of wire, nails, and other spare parts. Desperate to make the figure come to life, Hitoshi consults his parents on how to make his wishes come true. When they prove no help, he asks his friends. They tell him to concentrate on an object using all his willpower. When it breaks without him touching it, The Wish will be granted. Before long, Hitoshi is transferred to cram school and makes a new friend, Tomoko. He tires of his lifeless friend – who he has named "Mokume" – and buries the doll at a construction site. That night, the object he was concentrating on breaks. Soon, Hitoshi is haunted by a vision of Mokume coming to seek its revenge. Before long, it's no longer a dream.
Kazoo Umezu is considered the godfather of macabre manga. Though he's dabbled in all manner of storytelling, from sci-fi to comedy, his tales of terror have made him a household horror name amongst his countrymen. Similar to the impact Rod Serling had with The Twilight Zone, Umezu set the standard for the visualization of fright in Japan. His grim, gruesome stories were like Eastern EC comics – loaded equally with morals and monsters. It's no surprise then that an anthology celebration of the author's efforts was created. Utilizing six of his most famous stories, a group of dedicated Japanese masters have made it their goal to bring this luminary to a new generation of genre fans. Representing the second DVD offering of these titles, Tokyo Shock, via Media Blasters gives us the slippery Snake Girl and the wicked The Wish. Instead of trying to tie them together, let's look at each tale separately. It will make it easier to discuss both the palpable pros, and the occasional cons. Let's start with:
Snake Girl (Score: **1/2)
Intriguing in concept but confusing in execution, Snake Girl is yet another example of Japanese superstition gone supernatural. The arrival of a sophisticated girl from the big city – especially one connected, no matter how indirectly, with a famous murder case – makes for an intriguing starting point, something director Noboru Iguchi makes expert use of. All the while, as we are being introduced to the characters and taken through some incredibly creepy foreshadowing, we anticipate a potent payoff. Sadly, by the end, it's all hints and suggestions, with no clear indication of what happened, and more importantly, a reason why. It is obvious that this story was set up to introduce the concept of a creature known as "Snake Girl", and we truly can't wait to see what the reptilian terror looks like. Even with some halfway sophisticated CGI and a kabuki-style horror mask conceit, the title entity is relatively light in the fear factors. Indeed, it is only via Iguchi's editing, and cinematic slight of hand that we feel even the slightest twinge of terror. After that, Snake Girl turns from suspenseful to silly. We realize almost instantly who the venomous villain is, and when the entire elderly population of the village go Romero, shuffling around as lizard-esque members of the undead, there is little hope for a truly horrific climax.
Frankly, we would trade macabre for something that made sense. Seems all the aspects of the storyline that were more or less ancillary (the website, the hate emails) are the reasons for the Snake Girl's antics, and once we've wrapped our brains around that story spinning tidbit, it's on to an odd emotion driven climax. By this time, the monster is just plain goofy, looking like a bad Halloween helmet. And the denouement – the beast intends to eat Yukimo (?), assume her identity (??) and return to Tokyo for a non-descript reason (???) provides little satisfaction. Then the actual ending occurs, and we are left scratching our heads even further. The final shots, which seem to suggest that love and forgiveness has made everything okay, still beg the question of what's happened to the town, its zombie populace and the parents who went wonky near the first part of the finale. Unfortunately, Iguchi isn't interested in that type of closure. We are supposed to see our fragile female leads and cheer that they no longer appear to be friendly with the forces of darkness. Instead, we wonder why we had to spend 40 minutes with a decent, if sometimes dopey, monster movie in order to reach some kind of zany Zen send-off. It doesn't work, and destroys whatever genre goodwill Snake Girl had built up before. What could have been great is now just grating.
The Wish (Score: ***)
Far more successful, if equally uneven in its execution, is this clever combination of Pinocchio, Frankenstein and adolescent angst. Using a highly stylized visual conceit, complete with digitized skies and sleek, sterile sets, director Atsushu Shimizu delivers a creepy, considered effort. Again, the real meat of the suspense doesn't arrive until very late in the storyline, and the finale more or less devolves into typical slasher slice and dice, but the buildup is excellent. Employing a child's perspective on things really amplifies the fear, since the sometimes surreal issues at work could come off as confusing, especially to an adult. But when Hitoshi creates his playmate, the combination of fun and fright is rich. Too bad it doesn't last all the way through. Indeed, one of The Wish's minor flaws is its failure to fulfill its promise. Mokume is an epic creation, as perfect in its macabre iconography as Leatherface, Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. There is a hint of Italian horror in his petrified puppet persona, and Shimizu always manages to capture the creation at just the right angle to confirm its eeriness. But it really needs to do more than bite people with its inset nail teeth. After a couple of chomps, it grows rather routine.
Equally disheartening is the lack of real depth here. All the elements are rather obvious. Hitoshi is lonely, therefore he is misunderstood. His friendship with the girl from cram school sets him free. His imagination is wild and highly active. His parents find him odd, and worry incessantly over his mental well being. These are the considered clichés of almost every story like this one. Instead of twisting them, or perverting them to make another, more interesting point, The Wish simply settles, and lets the directorial flare salvage the rest. It mostly works, since Shimizu uses the hyper saturated nature of digital video to deliver a remarkable looking image. Equally inventive are the moments of repetition, where the director underlines the dullness of Hitoshi's life by showing how ritualistic and cyclical it all is. Granted, there are also situations when this idea doesn't work – a homeless lady who seems to be an omen of good and/or evil never makes the impression Shimizu wants, and the riffs from standard J-horror ideals (crawling down stairs, ghostly, wide eyed faces) do become aggravating. But there are enough interesting ideas surrounding the slip ups to make The Wish a successful little short. If you like your monsters on the Chucky side of scary, you'll thoroughly enjoy this Asian artifact.
Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, both Snake Girl and The Wish look excellent. The former has a video to film sheen over its image, while the latter is straight from the dynamic DAT tape. The colors are terrific, the compositions inventive and enticing. While there is a softness to some scenes, rendering the details a tad erratic, these are still rather impressive presentations, at least from a technical standpoint.
Offered in a basic, unimpressive Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix, both movies suffer from a lack of atmospherics. Horror is helped immensely by the imposition of sonic subtext, and while The Wish wants to make every bump in the night seem significant, the bland two channel choice doesn't allow for such a concept. The subtitles are easy to read and not too literal. All lack of mood aside, this is a professional aural package.
As part of the presentation of these two titles, Tokyo Shock has added a nice selection of bonus features. Each film has a Making-of documentary, and while Snake Girl concentrates its 16 minutes on behind the scenes production moments, The Wish's 11 minutes features interviews as well as backstage glimpses. Umezu is also on hand to talk about each story, their inspiration and their meaning. He covers a lot of ground in two minutes, and both interviews are well worth a look. Finally, we are treated to the Q&A session from the premiere of these films. In front of a relatively small audience, both directors discuss Umezu, their various stylistic approaches, and working with the cast and crew. Together they make a nice supplementary package to a decent DVD presentation.
Wavering between laudatory and laughable, both efforts here suffer from some minor moviemaking mistakes. And yet, we tend to like our horror on the haphazard side. It makes us feel more secure, knowing that perfected grisliness might terrify us forever. As a result, even with their occasional flaws, both efforts on this disc deserve to be seen. Therefore, a rating of Recommended will be offered, allowing a chance for Umezu's work to spread beyond it's obvious fanboy base. Of the two, The Wish is more successful overall, while Snake Girl suffers from the age old scary movie story of a great idea, inconsistently told. Still, with the added content in the bonus section, and the wild imagination of our featured writer, these slightly askew short films will definitely leave their mark. How deep the wounds go, however, will be totally up to you.
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