It began with bootleg tapes (or so I'm told), then it moved onto import laserdiscs, and now DVDs -- no matter how it was happening, for years interested parties have had access to foreign films. But, the same can't be same for foreign television. Outside of British programs which are shown on PBS and BBC America (and all of those local independent stations which aired Benny Hill in the early 80s) and Telemundo (I don't speak a word of Spanish, but I love those soaps!), Americans haven't gotten a lot of exposure to foreign TV. Thus, I was interested to check out the Japanese horror anthology show Prayer Beads which has just hit DVD. And I've learned that anthologies suffer from the same highs and lows no matter where they are made.
Prayer Beads consists of nine episodes of unrelated shows, save for the fact that they all deal with something horrific. Following is a synopsis and critique of each show. (The credits were spartan so I've labeled what I could.):
1. "Prayer Beads" -- Starring Hijiri Kojima, Fumina Hara; Written & Directed by Masahiro Okano -- Miki has been depressed due to the disappearance of her husband Akira. Her friend Hiroko attempts to comfort Miki, but is very worried about her friend. Miki spends all of her time in her apartment with the draperies shut, and she isn't taking very good care of her son named Takuya, who leaves for school before she awakens. As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that both Miki and Hiroko and both hiding deadly secrets from one another. This isn't a very good kick off to the series, as this episode is pedestrian and somewhat pointless. There aren't many supernatural elements, save for the very ending, although there is an appearance by a spooky woman with long black hair, which is apparently required in all Asian horror productions. There isn't much story here, and when the pieces finally fall into place at the end, the "secrets" are very predictable.
2. "Vending Machine Woman" -- Starring Masa Endo, Juri, Mari Nagata, Makoto Onami, Jun Haichi; Written & Directed by Shigehito Kawata -- A young couple, Mayu & Kota, travel to a mountain cabin for a getaway. They arrive late and find that the cabin has no water. When they contact the manager, they are told that they must wait until the next morning for repairs, because no one in that area goes out at night -- people are afraid to. Kota ventures out to get Mayu something to drink and comes across an ancient vending machine. The couple both drink the unfamiliar brand of soft drink and suddenly find themselves behaving very strangely. The next day, similar results occur when they eat food delivered by the manager. They then find themselves craving the mysterious beverage again. This episode has a strong opening, and the strange vending machine out in the middle of nowhere reminded me of something which would be found in a Stephen King short story. But, the story is far too thin, and the audience is never given a good idea of what is happening. The ending offers some creepy visuals and a disturbing explanation for why the drink was addictive, but, again, it's a bit too vague.
3. "It's Me" -- Starring Eita, Mineko Otsu; Directed by Naoki Kusumoto-- Yuki and his sleazy business associate scam money from innocent people by pretending to be distant relatives in need of funds. When Yuki goes to visit a old woman, posing as a friend of her grandson, strange things begin to happen. As with the previous installment, "It's Me" has a nice premise that goes astray. This piece is very disjointed, as it's a crime drama which suddenly turns into a ghost story. The denouement is interesting, but I honestly missed the point where the line between reality and fantasy was crossed. The piece does contain a very small nod to Suspiria.
4. "Real" -- Starring Masaya Kato, Natsuo Ishido, Yasuhito Hida, Kyusaku Shimada, Naoto Takenaka; Directed by Masahirio Okano-- Azuma is a surgeon who is plagued by headaches, which are affecting his work. Despite the fact that his friend and colleague, Nagai, attacked Azuma and injured his wrist, he takes the man's advice and seeks help from an underground healer. This man gives Azuma a drug which causes him to begin having very vivid and disturbing visions. Are these hallucinations or is he beginning to see the world for what it really is? This piece is quite weak as it takes it some time to reach any sort of point. Also, a great deal of information is left out at the beginning of the piece and we never get a real sense for who Azuma and Nagai are. "Real"'s riff on John Carpenter's They Live is interesting, but it also leaves much to be desired.
5. "Mushroom Hunting" -- Starring Takatoshi Kaneko, Sousuke Takaoka, Megumi Okada, Jun Haichi, Hisako Ohkata; Written & Directed by Masahiro Okano -- Kuni, Yuu, and Maki meet in an online chat room and decide to go mushroom hunting. (?!) While climbing the mountain, they meet an old man who tells them that no one ventures into the area due to a local legend about a witch. Undaunted, the friends continue their quest. They soon meet a kindly old woman in the woods. There's nothing suspicious about that, right? Well, I never thought that anyone would combine Misery with Motel Hell, but, someone has. The result is a story in which nothing happens until the last five minutes, and this action comes across as very silly. The final twist (which I should have seen coming) is good, but this one really drags and the pay-off isn't worth it.
6. "Eddie" -- Starring Matsunosuke Shofukutel, Kazunari Goto, Yukimi Koyanagi, Akiko Hatayama, Mitsuru Fukikoshi; Directed by Toshikatsu Kubo -- The public is captivated when a seal-like animal, nicknamed "Eddie", appears in the Edogawa River. Everyone, that is except for young Ikuo. His Grandpa is the leader of a group who wants to save Eddie, but Ikuo is the only one who seems to dislike the creature. This may be because many people dislike Ikuo as people tend to die around him. Even Grandpa finds Ikuo a little creepy. Should Grandpa trust his instincts and help to protect Eddie, or trust his grandson? This is one of the more interesting installments of the show, as it offers several divergent storylines which coalesce at the end. As with the other episodes, the story is too slow and too vague at times, but the finale is a gorefest and exhibits a surprising amount of action for this series.
7. "Echoes" -- Starring Kei Sato, Michino Yokoyama, Takashi Youki, Mieko Konya, Joe Odagiri; Written & Directed by Naoki Kusumoto -- A young woman named Yumika is lured into the subway and murdered. Coincidentally (or was it by some supernatural force?) her arm is found near the home of her grandparents. Clutched in her hand is a note describing her killer's tattoo. So, Grandpa begins searching the city to find a man with a tattoo which matches. Meanwhile, Yumika's twin sister comes to visit Yumika's boyfriend and they begin a torrid romance. This installment is much more artsy and lyrical than some of the others. The story is wafer-thin, yet it's somehow much clearer than some of the other episodes. As with "Eddie", there's a notable amount of gore in the finale. This episodes isn't necessarily exciting, but it's haunting, and again, the story makes sense, which is a huge plus here..
8. "Cat's Paw" -- Starring Rakuto Tochihara, Kenta Kayano, Takuya Akiyama, Kenji Yoshioka, Kaoru Mizuki; Written & Directed by Masahiro Okano -- OK, wow, and I thought the combination of Misery and Motel Hell was weird. I never expected a cross between "The Monkey's Paw" and anime! A young boy named Shota is bullied at school and hates being at home because his parents fight violently. Shota receives a mysterious e-mail with a link to a website called "Nyanta". Shota registers on the site and is soon treated to an animated show starring a bumbling cat named Nyanta. In the story, Nyanta helps a young boy named Shota defeat some bullies. The next day Shota learns that one of his tormentors has been found dead. Shot then returns to the Nyanta website to see what other favors Nyanta can do for him. To call this piece odd would be an understatement. What we have is a fairly faithful updating of "The Monkey's Paw" mixed with fine-looking anime. The result is a creepily dark piece which is at once charming and scary. The animation will no doubt turn off some viewers, but this episode must receive praise for its originality.
9. "Apartment" -- Starring Michi Yamamura, Riko Kurita, Shogo Baba, Ken Mitsuishi -- A mother begins to prepare dinner. While she does this, her teenaged children watch TV. The father sits at the table complaining and ranting. Once the dinner is ready, the entire family sits at the table. No one speaks and no one makes eye contact. The father continues to complain and states that none of the dishes are made to his liking. As the meal continues, the tension mounts. How much can this family take? "Apartment" is a great way to the series to conclude, as it's the best episode of the bunch. The atmosphere during the dinner is agonizing, and if you're the kind of person who hates to see abuse, this one will wear on you. When the plot twist arrives, it's a doozy and you'll realize that the clues where there all along. But, then the episode goes into a tailspin. Following the revelation, we are then treated to a newscast which contains characters and ideas from the other episodes. This is an interesting way to close the series, but it takes away from the power of "Apartment"'s story and feels quite silly.
Prayer Beads is wrapped around the neck of DVD courtesy of Dark Sky Films. The shows are letterboxed at 1.78:1, but the transfer is not 16 x 9. Thus, we have a 4:3 image with 1.78:1 letterboxing. The video quality varies from episode to episode. All of them appear to have been shot on video, but some look better than others. "Echoes" looks as if it were shot HD, while "Vending Machine Woman" has the look of something shot on a home camcorder. There is no grain or defects from the source material, but some of the shows, like "Vending Machine Woman" show a notable amount of artifacting and video noise.
The DVD features a Dolby 2.0 Stereo track. This track provides clear dialogue with no hissing or distortion. The dialogue is clear and the sound effects are fine. The stereo effects aren't overly prevalent though and most of the audio emanates from the center channel. The English subtitles lie beneath the image and are easy to read.
The only special features found on this 2-disc set are a commercial for Prayer Beads and a STILL GALLERY.
Prayer Beads reminded me of Masters of Horror in that it's very hit or miss. Some of the episodes, such as "Apartment" are good. Others feature nice ideas which peter out. And some are simply failures. One things that all of the episodes share is a sluggish pace, and they each felt as if they were struggling to fill the 29-minute time slot. Still, those interested in a Japanese horror anthology TV show may find Prayer Beads interesting.