Junji Ito has created his own cottage industry with his horror manga. Known for his hyper-detailed art and almost fetishistic love of odd shapes and queer behavior, several of his graphic novels, including Tomie and Uzumaki, have been adapted to film with varying results. In 2001, first-and-only-time director Kazuyuki Shibuya and screenwriter Naoyuki Tomomatsu turned to the manga Shibito no koiwazurai, a story about cursed spirits and teenage girls looking for romance in dark places. The title translates as Lovesick Dead, a much better title than Love Ghost, which is what the movie has been named for the North American DVD. Lovesick Dead sounds like a scary movie about restless phantoms whose dead hearts cry out with unsatisfied emotion, while Love Ghost sounds frilly and unthreatening. If some of the creep factor has been lost in translating the title, one also has to wonder if the filmmakers had a similar problem in translating the comic for the screen, because while it's not always frilly, Love Ghost definitely lacks danger.
The heroine of Love Ghost is seventeen-year-old Midori (Risa Goto). She has just returned to her hometown with her mother after a ten-year absence. When Midori's father ran off with another woman, his wife and daughter decided to go elsewhere. Midori is excited to be back, but nerves get the better of her on the way to her new high school. Seeing a small shrine on her way to the campus, she freaks out and takes an alternate route to avoid it. It's our first clue that something weird is going on.
Immediately upon arriving, Midori becomes the bisecting line in a love triangle. Both the smart girl Suzue (Asumi Miwa from Ju-On and Ping Pong), and the petulant pretty girl Tamayo (Yuki Inomata, the Ringu TV series) have a crush on the oblivious Kotaro (Shinji Takahashi). He's so dim, it's hard to see why he's the great prize, but apparently he is, and it throws both girls off when he immediately falls for Midori. As Suzue points out to him, Midori is just as oblivious as he is, and she only has eyes for Ryusuke (the almost inhumanly fresh-faced Ryuhei Matsuda from Blue Spring and Nana). Midori and Ryusuke were the best of friends before she moved away, and it's a fantastic twist of luck that they share the same class.
The shrine that so freaked puy Midori is an object of much whispering among the girls at school. An urban legend has sprung up around it. It's said that ten years before a woman killed herself there after engaging in a fortune telling ritual called tsujiura. Tsujiura is when someone goes to the shrine and waits for a stranger to approach. Once the stranger is near, you cover your face and ask him or her about your prospects in the romance department. The answer could come with a price, however, in the form of a curse with unforeseen consequences. If your stranger turns out to be the Handsome Boy of Tsujiura, then you're in for a world of hurt, regardless of whether or not his answer is positive. With Kotaro turning heads and not being able to decide which young lady to go with, naturally one of these girls is going to give in to the urge to try tsujiura and find out for herself. Tamayo is the first, and when she's told exactly what she doesn't want to hear, she slits her own throat.
When the focus of Love Ghost is on this aspect of the story, it's actually pretty interesting. Rather than be a gory frightfest or a jump-out-and-scare-you slasher film, director Shibuya is exploring the psychological effects supernatural forces have on regular people. Suzue naturally follows Tamayo, and her obsession with Kotaro grows darker with each passing scene. As this is happening, Midori starts digging into her family's past, as well as her idyllic memories of her time with Ryusuke. Both of those things have started crossing over with her recurring dreams about the Handsome Boy of Tsujiura, and she starts to become a little unhinged.
It's when Midori gets close to solving her mystery that Love Ghost takes a quick turn into nonsense. Several revelations come out of left field that seem more ridiculous than shocking, and the one big secret the film has been building to, the identity of the Handsome Boy, is pretty much obvious from Midori's first dream. For the first hour, the film has been paced as if it were a drama, and now that there are only thirty minutes left, Shibuya tries to force the story into hyperdrive; it doesn't work at all. Suzue and Kotaro completely disappear from the narrative, and any real connection to the curse of the Handsome Boy is never explained. In fact, the curse doesn't make a lot of sense in general. If Midori's return is the real catalyst, I'm not really sure why. Sure, the story of her father and the suicide at the shrine swirl around her and the Handsome Boy, but since neither of them were actually part of the infidelity that sent Midori and her mom packing, it doesn't compute that the Handsome Boy would ruin the lives of new young lovers. If anything, he should be stalking parental figures who can't keep their pants on.
Junji Ito's work has always been strongest when employing bizarre visuals to portray obsessive behavior, such as the people hypnotized by spirals in Uzumaki. There is nothing to match that in most of Love Ghost, and though Shibuya tries to make the climactic explanation look weirder than the rest of the movie, it seems too little, too late. The tattooed woman looks more like a low-level Ito rip-off than one of his spooky nutjobs. Her behavior is too disjointed from the "real world" of the film, just as the finale as a whole feels separate from what lead up to it. All involved would have been better sticking with the movie they were making in the beginning rather than stepping over into Midori's memories and dreams. Maybe then they wouldn't have ended up with this fractured disappointment.