Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007)

A charming little urban legend is told in Japan: There is a creature called a "Slit-mouthed woman" who wanders Japanese towns to ask the important question "Am I pretty?". She's tall, has long black hair, wears a long coat and a white surgical mask behind which she hides her carved-up mouth. Oh, and she kidnaps children, mutilates them with a big pair of scissors and finally kills them.

When an earthquake hits a Japanese town, the legend comes to life and starts taking children. She takes her second victim, abused little Mika (Rie Kuwana), nearly directly out of the hands of the girl's teacher Kyoko Yamashita (Eriko Sato). Kyoko herself has a past as an abusive parent, and her own daughter lives with her divorced husband.

The police remains skeptical when the young woman describes the kidnapper as the slit-mouthed legend - the only thing her honesty gets her is a temporary suspension as a teacher.

Her colleague Noboru Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Kato) seems to know more about the legend than he is letting on. He shows Kyoko a photo of his mother, who looks exactly like the kidnapper minus the face mutilation, and tells her that he hears a voice in his head whenever a kid is being targeted by the creature. He thinks he could be able to follow the voice to protect the next victim.

When the teachers arrive where the voice in Noboru's head leads them, they are just able to rescue another of their pupils from the Slit-mouthed Woman, killing her during the course of a nasty fight. They are shocked when the freshly killed evil-doer turns into a rather different dead person, the mother of two other children.

The part of the urban legend that talks about the immortality of the Slit-mouthed woman is not very precise - her body can be killed all right, but her evil spirit will just possess another woman.

Noboru and Kyoko are the only people in town unhinged enough to actually believe this kind of story, so it lies in their hands to hunt the creature down and rescue her victims.

Now it is certain: Koji Shiraishi is my new unsung hero of Japanese horror. A Slit-Mouthed Woman doesn't deliver the creeps as intensely as Ju-Rei does, and isn't as strange and meta-oriented as Noroi, instead it relies heavily on the construction of its own disturbing mythology out of bits and pieces of authentic urban legend, folklore and the directions these lead in and a very unflinching look at child abuse in the family. The fact that the film only talks about abuse by mothers is problematic, but the movie's husbands (with Kyoko's ex-husband as the big exception) are conspicuous in their near-total absence. I am tempted to say the fathers would have to spend time with their children first to be able to abuse them, and if they would, there would probably be less slit-mouthed women. But I might be reading a little much into it.

The scenes of violence against children are what will make or break the film for most viewers. Shiraishi resists the temptation to sensationalize them too much, but he doesn't shy away from the amount of brutality necessary to make his point.

As should be very obvious now, A Slit-Mouthed Woman, has a fairly different feeling from many other Japanese horror movies. Where those films are very much about the influx of the irrational into an overtly rational world and are drawing their power from strengthening our doubts of an orderly world by undermining it, Shiraishi's film shows us an open wound in the veneer of our civilization and starts to open it further.



Lurple said...

I'd been considering seeing this one for a while. Eriko Sato surprised me by actually acting in "Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers!", a black comedy/drama which I really enjoyed (and may get around to reviewing some day). I think you might enjoy that one, by the way.

I'll have to get around to seeing this at some point.

houseinrlyeh said...

I must have read about "Funuke" somewhere, I think. I'll try to get hold of it.
Erika Sato is solid here, not remarkably good, but in no way unbelievable. More I don't ask from an idol who's trying to act.