He published his first works while still in high school. Before the age of 30, he had become one of Japan's most respected writers of genre fiction. Under the unusual pen name of "Otsu-ichi" (based on a symbol taken from a favorite handheld device), Hirotaka Adachi has created a fictional canon – everything from novels to manga – that utilize the standard elements of horror to explore personal, social and even political issues. Zoo represents the first time that Otsu-ichi's works have been adapted for film, and after watching the five fascinating films collected here, it's clear that the future is very bright for this novel new voice in Asian macabre.
Like one of the old Amicus anthologies from the '60s/'70s, Zoo takes the popular short story collection by Otsu-ichi and turns five of its installments into very interesting mini-motion pictures. Allowing a different director to handle each of the tales and varying in tone, style and approach, the compilation presented here (four live action, one animated) provide a nice overview of both the author's interesting style (just call him Otsu-ichi Henry) and the growing depth in the J-Horror end of Japanese cinema. Combining recognizable elements from international filmmakers as diverse as M. Night Shyamalan (So Far), Jörg Buttgereit, (Zoo), James Wan (Seven Rooms) and native auteurs like Takashi Shimizu (Kazari and Yoko), this unusual assemblage has no real linking substance beyond the source material. But looking at each episode individually, we can see that Otsu-ichi has a distinct view of evil, one that is inherently human, and frequently very nasty. Let's being with:
Kazari and Yoko (Score: ****)
Plot: In this tenuous household, Kazari is the favored twin, while poor Yoko is mistreated and threatened by a clearly insane, callous mother.
Review: For material like this, which basically begins with startling examples of child abuse and ends with a freedom found in death, tone is everything. We must find a rationale for the psychotic parent's disturbing behavior, and wonder how the finale fulfills our need for justice. Luckily, director Ryu Kaneda understands that poor, put upon Yoko is the answer, and anchor. If we can sympathize with her plight, and feel a sense of redemption in what happens to and because of her, then we will enjoy this tense twist-ending tale. That's right, people who don't care for the kind of last act premise shift that sheds new light on the entire pre-sold subject will probably not enjoy where this story eventually goes. While the sense of retribution is clear, the pay off is particularly ambiguous. Slightly contrived at points, and feeling rushed at other instances (it's only 28 minutes in overall running time) Kazari and Yoko is still an intriguing, enthralling effort.
Seven Rooms (Score: ****1/2)
Plot: A brother and sister find themselves locked in a concrete vault, awaiting death at the hands of a chainsaw wielding serial killer.
Review: Foul, repugnant and slightly sick, this puzzle box production finds two young people trapped in a dingy, dank concrete Hellhole, a filthy sewage trough running down the far end of the room. Naturally, our skinny little protagonist ends up traversing the human waste waters again and again to learn more about the prisoner's fate. Building layer upon layer from this simple premise, director Masanori Adachi turns what could have been tedious (what's going on in the seven separate rooms) into something quite shocking and squalid. We see the pieces falling into place, understand the fear lurking jus beyond the tall steel doors, and cringe every time our underage hero goes trekking through that vile brackish sluice chute. The tension and dread comes from both the situation and Adachi's sensational narrative style. This is a director that never gives us too much, relying instead on inference and atmosphere to keep us connected. Perhaps the best example of what Zoo has to offer, this is a wonderfully effective exercise in terror, and makes Adachi (Takashi Shimizu's first AD on Ju-On) a cinematic artist to watch.
SO Far (Score: ***)
Plot: After a tragic accident, a young boy is faced with a dilemma – his parents appear to be back from the grave, and battling for his affections.
Review: As mentioned before, Masaaki Komiya's film owes more than a little of it's style and sentiment to a certain Sixth Sense director, especially in the way reality is bent to fit the frequently unfathomable aspects of the plot. In essence, one can look at SO Far as the Japanese nuclear family gone failsafe, or a slow and steady showcase of how the supernatural shapes perception. Even when the last act denouement "explains" what is going on in the story, we still feel certain something otherworldly is at play. That's because Komiya cheats every once in a while, leaving out connecting scenes or incidents which would have helped us understand the father/mother/child dynamic at play. Also, we don't get much back story to support the sudden 'disappearance' of the parents. Equally frustrating are the moments when silence supplants conversation as a way of keeping things unsettled. Still, the artistic feel to the production, matched with the stellar acting (the child performer here is absolutely mesmerizing), makes this a strong, if occasionally specious, installment.
Hidamari No Shi (Score: ***)
Plot: A lonely man develops an android companion, hoping that she will ease some of the loneliness he's felt for years...many years.
Review: Anime, by its very nature, carries an inherent creative flaw. Instead of advancing the larger than life elements that animation can explore, most filmmakers simply try to recapture the real world in pretty or powerful pen and ink illustrations. This is the case here, a simple story of a man making a friend out of desperation and solitude. It's not until the last few minutes that we see the kind of scope that really supports such a speculative premise. Before this reveal, we occasionally feel like we're watching a female android's cloying coming of age saga. Most of the narrative is taken up by sequences where our homemade heroine learns about death, emotion, and the appropriate way to make coffee. Had there been more hints at the horrors that wait beyond the pleasant countryside setting, had we learned what made this world so beautiful and yet so baneful, the final shots would have really resonated. As they stand, they come just a little too late to fulfill the story's overall potential.
Zoo (Score: ***)
Plot: Blinded by jealousy, a young man kills his girlfriend. He then hides her at an abandoned zoo and takes a photo of her every single day.
Review: Like Hidamari No Shi, this is another example of an interesting idea bamboozled by a strange storytelling conceit. Director Hiroshi Ando has an amazing premise to work with – a resentful boyfriend kills his gal pal, stashes her in a derelict zoo, and then photographs her grossly decaying body everyday for almost a year. Sadly, that's all he seems to have, since there is very little prologue and even less epilogue to this tragic tale. In fact, this film frequently plays like a stellar showcase for some very nauseating special effects. Even though we only see the decomposing corpse in photographs, the technicians responsible for the rot have done a terrific job. It's incredibly life like – or make that 'afterlife' like – and registers as repugnant and vile even through the camera lens and home video screen. But there is really no point to all this snuff stuff. The set up is shoddy and the ending is so open-ended that it fails to even make common sense. It's a waste of some perfectly gross imagery, and lacks the punch of the other efforts in this compendium.
Indeed, Zoo begins with a bang, and then starts to drag the moment our baffled young boy can't figure out why his parents are acting so peculiar. Granted, the overall filmmaking is so successful that we forgive the last two installments for failing to match the magic of the initial pair. What's abundantly clear is that Otsu-ichi likes to play with perception. Three of the yarns here deal with how people (or in one case, robots) view the situation around them, while the other two are clearly cases of circumstances expanded through individual experience. There is also an immense amount of sadness inherent in each story, a sense of loss or fatalism that clouds even the sunniest anecdotal ideals. While many have found the recent examples of J-Horror to be lacking in originality, freshness or fun, it is safe to say that Zoo has all three of these elements in decent, dread reckoning abundance. All five stories are not completely successful, but they do represent something beyond the whole 'superstition/stringy haired ghost gal' ideal.
Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the overall look of Zoo is very good. Only the last story suffers from horrible grain and a lack of really crisp visuals. In addition, the colors present in Hidamari No Shi are a tad muted, especially for a highly hued format like anime. Yet the image in general is terrific, loaded with radiance and detail. Even better, efforts like Kazari and Yoko and Seven Rooms, offer compositions and framing that are highly inventive and very resourceful.
Offered in either a wonderful Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 Japanese mix (with excellent subtitles) or a slightly silly English dub (the voice work, as usual, frequently fails to match the emotion onscreen) the aural elements here are just fine. In fact, the Asian horror film seems to understand the nature of supernatural sonics as part of a movie's scare factors much better than their Western counterparts. Almost every short presented here – especially Seven Rooms and Zoo – use ambient noise and spatial conceits to exaggerate the potential terror involved.
With only two Making-Of featurettes (one for Seven Rooms and one for So Far) and a collection of trailers and TV spots, the added content element of this DVD is not that impressive. Both Behind the Scenes looks are overloaded with interesting EPK-ish interviews and proud production pronouncements, but the way movies are made in Japan appears so business-like and dull that we never really find ourselves interested in the process. Watching the two underage actors at the center of these stories prepare and perform is indeed intriguing, but the adults can occasionally muck things up with their clueless attempts at analyzing the plot points. Clearly culled from a cultural perspective far outside our own, the bonus features found on Zoo do little to support or supplement the five films offered.
As with most anthologies, single sequences can help make up for parts that aren't particularly effective. Then there are those cases where the broad concept or conceit is so inventive or intriguing that we bypass many of the minor structural or story flaws to gain a genial, generalized appreciation. Zoo is kind of a combination of both – a very enlightening look at the work of author Otsu-ichi tied to an enthralling, if uneven, collection of creative efforts. Bordering the aesthetic differences between Highly and merely Recommended, this insightful horror omnibus deserves any serious fright fans attention. It argues for the increasing improvement in the J-Horror approach, while showing that mood, tone, gore and the grotesque can still deliver in the terror department.
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