Asian horror films have hit a strong modernized Western stride over the past ten years. Something about the techniques and textures of this macabre cinema possesses the capacity to trump most horror conventions. It's within a smooth blend of drama, tension, and flickers of traditional horror that render this genre so intriguing. Many recent Japanese films such as the popular Ringu and Ju-On series and Dark Water have focused this absorbed attention through a mixed bag of Americanized remakes. Instead of relying primarily on these Westernized adaptations, many more aggressive enthusiasts ventured to the native roots of these brimming tales.
Opening the Kadokawa Horror Collection is much like opening a dusty book of some lesser-known, overlooked stories ripe for telling around the campfire. Many of these narratives embody a vast majority of the criticisms and acclaims that surround this flourishing genre. Where these stories deliver isn't rooted in scream and jolt techniques, but more in atmosphere and dramatic delivery. Some see this as a case of identity crisis; others relish in this quality blend.
To say the least, this Kadokawa Horror Collection is an eclectic mix of pleasingly spooky Japanese horror stories. Included in this nifty set are Inugami, Shikoku, Shadow of the Wraith, and Isola. Much like any collection, a few of these gems are superior to the others. However, there isn't a single film in this assortment that lacks engaging elements.
The Kadokawa Horror Collection is packaged in a slim slipcover housing two clear double-disc thinpak DVD cases. On each side of the two cases are simple, effective cover designs for each film. When each case is opened and a disc is removed, the data on the film appears underneath the disc's placement. This is an attractive, simple set that'll save some space in the library.
Each DVD comes presented in anamorphic widescreen and claims to come with a DTS track. This isn't entirely true; Shadow of the Wraith, though adorned with such a logo on the inner and not the back case, does not come with a DTS (or 5.1 audio) track. Furthermore, if a 5.1 sound experience is desired, bring a DTS decoder to this showing because that's the only surround audio option. 2.0 Dolby Stereo tracks are the only Dolby audio options. Furthermore, only native Japanese language tracks are available.
Note: Though the quality of the subtitles varies throughout the discs, all of the English translations seemed quite legible and properly done. Nothing grammatically or verbally dreadful stood out during these viewings.
Inugami - Directed by Masai Harada, 2001: (*** 1/2 / *****):
Rooted within a town torn between modernization and tradition, a secluded paper maker named Miki enjoys the fruits of ancient techniques. Opting to steer clear of communication technology and mass production, she focuses on the quality construction of ancient times. Miki and her disjunctive family inhabit two homes firmly rooted amidst a lush riverside forest. Though she dines and converses with them, Miki solemnly feels detached from her brooding family.
One day, Akira, a freshly hired teacher of a rural school, meanders into town. Many strange eccentricities surround Akira as he weaves through this town towards the paper-making hut. Soon after meeting Miki, the teacher rapidly begins to fall deeply for her. Shortly after the teacher arrives, however, a series of mysterious deaths begin to plague the town. Numerous townsfolk begin to toss around accusations towards Miki's family, claiming their ancestral curse and the inugami are the cause. What are these mysterious inugami, these embittered spirits that seem firmly ingrained within the plagued family?
Dramatically and thematically the strongest film in the collection, Inugami posseses a rich and convoluted narrative that assembles at a gradually methodical pace. Thankfully, this prolonged pace develops amidst beautiful surroundings. Once the film's menacing nature regarding the curse begins to surface, Inugami chaotically spirals into an obscure, wrenching display. Though both mildly foreseeable and ultimately disturbing, the whirling climax borrows from mythological tragedy to tie up all of Inugami's whirling relations and looming buzz.
The Video: (**** / *****)
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen image, Inugami's olive and emerald cinematography looked quite stunning. Detail and color were rich and fitting with the mood of the film. While Inugami succeeds in conveying an interesting story, it also manages to grip the eyes with simple, lush visuals. This transfer, though not void of blips here and there and slightly wavering black levels, is quite appealing.
The Audio: (**** / *****)
As mentioned, Dolby 2.0 and DTS 5.1 audio options are available. It's safe to state that the dts track is undoubtedly richer with atmosphere, potent bass and heightened clarity of the dialogue. However, the 2.0 track is actually quite decent as well, so if the dts capabilities are not there Inugami still sound quite nice. During a few high impact scenes, the dts track did pack a few nice punches that were quite satisfying. This nice little surround track is potently packed with crisp highs and thick lows.
Shikoku - Directed by Shunichi Nagasaki, 1999: (*** / *****)
Many years after her family departed from the town of Shikoku, Hinaku makes the dreaded trek back on business for her father. She was literally pried from her two treasured friends at their departure. While she re-encounters her younger male friend once she returns, her true desire is to locate her other friend, Saiyuki. Much to her grief, Saiyuki was killed many years beforehand in a tragic accident.
Once she grows settled in her old home, Hinaku begins to see odd things around the town. At both her old friend's house and around her own house, a strange apparition reminiscent of Saiyuki rears her dark face numerous times. Intrigued, terrified, yet remotely attracted to the idea of Saiyuki's existence, Hinaku delves deeper into the mystery of her death and common Shikoku lore that reveals many things about her past and ominous future.
Much slower paced than the others in the collection, Shikoku trembles a bit too closely to that line between drama and suspense. Gripping enough in theory, the pacing of the film tends to drag on and lose viewer engagement during many parts. Even though the focus seems to waver, the tale behind Shikoku remains intriguing enough to carry the film steadily along. Plus, a forgiving, whimsically beautiful score accompanies this smooth presentation. Within the attractively hazy handheld cinematography and such a gradual pacing, Shikoku's looming reflection and gradual ease of the narrative manages to compress some of the film's tension underneath a blanket of tedium. However, Shikoku's simplistic and eerie aura embodying the finale is worth the molasses-paced sludge through the center of the film.
The Video: (*** 1/2 / *****)
Though its visual style is very foggy and blurred, Shikoku still remained quite intriguing, even though it does cause a bit of sleepy vision effect. Colors seemed to lean towards shades of tan and taupe at the introduction of the film, then gradually embody deep blues and purples as the film's material grows darker. However, some of the beautiful camerawork in the film does seem to benefit from such a hazy cinematography, especially two scenes in particular down a light-drenched hallway and amidst a moonlight-drenched pond. Within its anamorphic widescreen image, detail was probably about as clear as capable from the source.
The Audio: (***.5 / *****)
Shikoku sports the part-for-the-course 5.1 DTS and 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks. Though sporting a dts track, this very quiet film didn't thunder through the speakers. Dialogue did seem fairly clean and audible, though there were a few instances of muffled dialogue that might have been difficult to comprehend without subtitles. The audio style in this film is extremely quiet, and the addition of a dts track doesn't make a world of difference.
Shadow of the Wraith - Toshiharu Ikeda, 2001: (*** / *****)
Whispers about a mysterious girl named Asaji fill a traditional high school. Wraith and doppelganger, or a duplicate of the same person, are mentioned synonymously with Asaji's name as if this info is common knowledge at the school. One student, Ryoji, stands up for her one day as these whispers grew audible for Asaji's menacing ears. He never should have partaken in the life of such a mysterious girl. Everywhere he goes, amidst every person he interrelates with, Asaji's enamored presence looms in the distance. Once Asaji starts to intimately interfere with Ryoji's life, terror and torment surface amidst the lives of these youths. How can one person intimately touch her infatuation's face whilst causing carnage in the same breath?
Ushering in the second portion, Kazuhiko indulges in taking photographs amidst an apartment building's architecture. While taking photographs, he sees Naoko, a new tenant in the apartment building along with her family. The blaring sirens of an ambulance disrupt Naoko and her family on their moving day into Room 505. Oddly, the paramedics head towards the unit directly below Naoko and her family's new place. Kazuhiko warns Naoko of the curse upon the apartment building, stating that each home bearing a five (5) in the unit number is cursed. Naoko timidly dismisses these warnings until certain objects, like the sliding door to the linen closet and the magnets on a refrigerator, begin to move on their own.
Separated into two parts, Shadow of the Wraith gives the viewer an intermission from the complex, layered storylines that adorn the rest of this collection. Instead, this eerie little confection relies on a simple story with an eerie gloss plastered atop the base. While Inugami enchants with a thick, encapsulating narrative, both portions of Shadow of the Wraith instead leans on typical parlor tricks and some quality young character portrayals. Especially with Asaji's facial expressions and piercing eyes, the use of her quiet disposition to convey menace is quite well executed. Furthermore, the first portion of the film attracts attention quite well, while its succeeding second act suffers from a dwindling plot and wavering attempts at chills. Though Shadow of the Wraith isn't nearly as satisfying as some of the other films in the Kadokawa Horror collection, it does deliver a mild chill or two amidst simplified, enjoyably familiar storylines.
The Video: (*** 1/2 / *****)
Shadow of the Wraith has some elegant photography within its simple execution. Interesting use of colors and stark profile shots of Asaji all pour through well through the widescreen presentation. However, many black levels fluctuated throughout the presentation. Though nothing stellar or noteworthy and a bit on the dark side, this presentation manages to get the job done.
The Audio: (*** / *****)
Oddly enough, Shadow of the Wraith is the sole disc in this collection not sporting a dts track. The only track is a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that manages to squeak by well enough. This film is actually one that could have benefited from one of the DTS surround tracks. However, the audio presented kept dialogue audible and sound effects punchy throughout the presentation.
Isola - Directed by Toshiyuki Mizutani, 2000: (*** 1/2 / *****)
An earthquake has shaken and crumbled the city of Kobe at the core of its foundation. Destruction abound, many relief workers flock to the city to aid in any way possible. Yukari, whom is volunteering at such a shelter, seems to have a unique capacity for hearing the thoughts of people around her. One night, a child psychiatrist volunteering at the shelter notices the lost Yukari sleeping amidst the grief-stricken victims. Inquisitively, she invites her to stay at her place.
Once there, Yukari discusses the child psychiatrist's profession. One of the doctor's cases stands out to her: a young girl with multiple personality disorder. This young girl is believed to have at least 13 different personalities swimming around within her conscious. As a person whom trekked to Kobe to aid people, Yukari feels a strong affinity to participate in her ailment. This young girl, Chihiro, possesses more than an ailment, however. Many varying personas pour through her psyche. One of her menacing embodiments, her 13th persona, surfaces as a vengeance seeking ghost brimming with violent tendencies.
Isola, based on the novel by writer Yusuke Kishi, engages the viewer rapidly and never eases away from a strong paranormal science-fiction base. Several interesting elements surface in the film that muster some intrigue, such as the existence of ethereal out of body experiences and mild reference to medical influence on multiple personality disorder. Though only mildly touching on these points, they add small sparks of intrigue and thought during the film. Amidst a shaken environment of Kobe, this recipe creates a compelling chaotic production.
Sadly, much back narrative on the protagonist Yukari is neglected. This might be a purposeful choice, however, to leave the psychic at a distance from the rest of the characters since it helps her maintain a stark sociological barrier. This film only feels out of place when it relies on some conventional parlor tricks and nerve-grating sound effects. In spite of a few misplaced, juvenile attempts to induce jumps, Isola maintains a great level of drama and suspense around a particularly alluring premise.
The Video: (**** / *****)
Set amidst varying locations in shelters, cramped homes, and dilapidated buildings, the cinematography in Isola is quite effective at conveying claustrophobia. This gives a sense of confinement that works well to illustrate the closed quarters of both the psychic and identity-laden girl's minds. With this anamorphic widescreen transfer, the darkened and deep cinematography is quite sharp and deep. Though not blistering with color, Isola maintains a brooding atmosphere with very industrial images throughout the entire presentation. It's an enjoyably sharp transfer engraved into a cement palette that achieves a solid presentation.
The Audio: (**** / *****)
As to be expected, Isola comes equipped with Dolby 2.0 and DTS 5.1 tracks. Through this DTS presentation, dialogue was very crisp and legible. Rumblings during the earthquake scenes embraced a bit of impact not characteristic of the remainder of the film. This audio track attacks more high pitched sounds than low, both executed quite well. At many points during the presentation of the film, the sound effects really shine through the audio presentation. Inexplicable thematic sounds meant to shock grate through the speakers. All in all, the audio presentation in Isola was quite pleasant.
The Extra Material:
All of the discs in the Kadokawa Horror Collection are fairly bare bones. All of the discs feature select Trailers, while the Shikoku and Isola discs feature a few insightful Cast and Crew Interviews. The only other extra is a small Behind the Scenes look into the final scene in Shikoku. Extra material is quite scant in this packaging; however, with efficiency in mind for this collection, these faults are forgiven.
Will general horror fans find this collection a box of cinematic splendor? The answer to that is probably no; however, this collection isn't aimed towards that demographic. Those interested in methodical, dramatic ghost stories speckled with tension across their runtime will be pleasantly surprised with the Kadokawa Horror Collection. In regards to the films themselves, Inugami and Isola both receive strong recommendations, while Shikoku and Shadow of the Wraith maintain just enough surface-level engagement to provoke a rental. However, considering the quality of the two feature discs and the budget consciousness of the packaging, this set can be easily Recommended for individuals who enjoy slow burning dramatic horror flicks.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site