Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hitori Kakurenbo (2009)

aka Creepy Hide And Seek

A new unhealthy craze has parts of Japan's youth in its grip, as far as you can use an excited sounding word like "craze" to describe anything to do with the disaffected and depressed young people of this film. Be that as it may, there's a chat room with people playing something called "creepy hide and seek". It's an interesting game - just slit open a doll, fill it with rice and nail clippings, then sew the doll shut again. Afterwards, tag it with the name of someone you want something unpleasant to happen to (an aspect of the whole ceremony the film chooses not to explore) while you stab it in its doll belly. Then, throw the thing into a basin full of water and hide yourself away in your walk-in cupboard before the water has run out, because you don't want to meet the thing for which you have just opened a door.

The teacher Ryoko (Yukie Kawamura) learns of the game when Ritsuko, one of her problem students disappears, spirited away by the ghost she had conjured up. Ryoko possesses the ability to see ghosts (or tends to hallucinate) even without playing occult games ever since a hide and seek game in her childhood that ended with the death of a friend, so fittingly the strange happenings around the game are bound to find her somehow.

Hitori Kakurenbo is not a film that will convince anyone not already interested in contemporary Japanese horror to develop a taste for it. Still, if you're like me and have a love for the sub-genre, this film will come as a pleasant surprise. The budget was obviously as low as low can be, but director Masafumi (or is it Masashiro? Sources are not in agreement) Yamada seems to have studied some of the stylistic tricks of Kiyoshi Kurosawa circa Kairo. Not that Yamada's film is nearly as good as Kurosawa's, but there is an aesthetic kinship in the very slow rhythm of their films, the lowered affects of their characters and their sense of the day-to-day world being only separated from the truly weird by a thin membrane.

Hitori Kakurenbo is a lot more conventional than Kurosawa's films, though. Yamada seems to go through a checklist of mandatory scenes in Japanese horror and put as many of them on screen as possible. So there's the creeping from a mirror scene, the crawling woman (although this one crawls on the ceiling making disturbing wet sounds and has no eyes), the "the ghost is behind the protagonist but only the viewer knows" moment and so on and so on. While all this is not original, Yamada manages to give those scenes enough small visual twists to let them retain a bit of creepiness even for those among its viewers who have seen it all dozens of times before.

There's a subtle sense of claustrophobia permeating everything, caused by the way the camera frames the small rooms most of the film takes place in and by the emptiness around the protagonists. This lack of humans - I don't think we see more than a dozen people in the whole film - is probably a point where the film's lack of budget helps to intensify the film's aesthetic coherence, but it works out too well for the overall mood not to have been planned this way.

Apart from this lonely mood, I think it is mostly the unhurried tempo that makes the film work for me. Some might find that everything - every camera movement, every character reaction - here happens just too slowly for their tastes, but for me, the slowness carries with it a feeling of inevitability, a feeling that is only strengthened by the near total absence of a normal plot.

Of course, I won't blame anyone who finds the thought of a nearly plotless, incredibly slow movie off-putting. Chances are that Hitori Kakurenbo just wasn't made for you if you think so.


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