Ah … between the good folks at HVE, Palm, Tartan and Artsmagic roughly half of Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa's filmography will be easily available here in North America by the end of the year and that is a very, very good thing. One of the latest Kurosawa releases is HVE's edition of his made for TV feature Séance.
Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho stars as a sound engineer in a happy but bland marriage to an emotionally fragile woman with psychic abilities. While in the woods recording sounds for a documentary Yakusho unknowingly picks up a stowaway – a young girl fleeing from her kidnapper hides in his equipment case. She is locked in, taken home to Tokyo and stored in a garage. The police, desperate for clues and grasping at straws, eventually turn to the wife hoping that she can tell them something through her psychic abilities but all she gets are confusing, conflicting signals that eventually – after the police leave – lead her to the girl, just barely alive, in the garage. And this is where things get interesting …
By turns afraid that the police will never believe such an unlikely story and hungry for the fame that would come from leading them to the girl the couple hatch a plan to lead the police to carefully planted clues and eventually back to the young girl, who they plan to stash unharmed in an abandoned building. But the plan goes wrong, the girl is suffocated, and the couple is left consumed by guilt, afraid of capture and being haunted by the ghost of the young girl.
If the plot seems familiar that is because Kurosawa based it on the novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon which has been adapted to film at least once previously. But what sets Kurosawa's version apart, both from the source material and from the vast majority of horror film in general, is his treatment of the characters. Though Kurosawa is more than capable of making you jump out of your seat in fear he is not content to do only that, instead he wants to understand the characters, how it is that two very normal, very average people, could become involved in such a plot – how fear and greed and then more fear can push them into a horrific place. And then he makes you jump out of your seat.
Séance is plotted and paced very carefully. You spend the first twenty minutes simply getting to know these people, observing their daily lives. The girl doesn't make it into their home until the half hour mark and the haunting don't really get rolling for another half hour or so after that. Where most directors would treat everything up until the hauntings as simple background information and motor through it as quickly as possible that stretch is absolutely essential to Kurosawa and he takes his time with it, letting things build slowly so that when the fall comes it comes hard and you understand just how far these people have fallen, and how it was possible, because you have first taken the time to get to know them.
When approaching Séance it is very important to remember that it was shot for television and, as a consequence, the HVE release is in full frame – the original aspect ratio – and it shows the limits of the original shooting stock. Séance looks to have been shot on video rather than film and it carries all the shortcomings of its origins. That said this edition looks as good as any edition of the film ever will. The definition is a little soft, yes, but the transfer is good and clean and having worked on video for a good stretch of his early career Kurosawa is well aware of how to make the most of the medium. It doesn't look as good as it would shot on film but it is still a long way from looking bad.