Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater: The Wish (2005)

The Japanese schoolboy Yoshiro (Toshinori Omi) is very lonely. Being highly intelligent, yet also extremely awkward socially, he has no friends at all. One day, he takes a detour on his way back from school, and his life starts to turn strange. He decides that if he can't find a friend, he is going to make one.

Yoshiro goes on to build the creepiest person-sized doll this side of an especially freaky SM-cellar. The goddamn thing even has nails for teeth. Because this isn't terrifying enough, the boy then proceeds to christen the frightening thing "Hokubo" and concentrates for days on wishing it to become alive.

His mother (Kyoko Toyama) had been worried about her son even before he became the sculptor of something that makes him look like a future serial killer and sets a fiendish plan in motion to get him to find friends - she sends him to a cram school. Surprisingly enough, her plan works, and it is only a matter of days until Yoshiro becomes friends with the girl Tomoko (Natsumi Okumura). Yoshiro is a sensible boy at heart and realizes that having Hokubo in his room can only lead to tears when he's trying to come closer to other people, so he disposes of the doll from hell on a construction site.

Alas, that is not the last the boy and the viewers are going to see of the nightmarish doll. Turns out that wishes sometimes do come true, and that creepy looking living dolls have a mean disposition when they have been dumped. And, as I said, nails for teeth.

The Wish is yet another of a series of cheaply produced - I think shot on digital - short films based on manga short stories by the great and glorious Kazuo Umezu. It is definitely one of the better episodes of the series. Its director Atsushi Shimizu (whose filmography on IMDb looks rather too bizarre to be believed - starting out as a producer for Transformers, with the newest credit as writer for a pinku sounds a bit improbable to me) really seems to know how to work with his extremely low budget. While there isn't much besides claustrophobic interior sets and the backstreets of suburban Japan to see, Shimizu uses those locations to evoke the mood of sadness and loneliness appropriate for the film's story. It is obviously cheap, yet realized with care and respect for the material.

The same can be said about the quite disturbing design of the film's very special killer doll. Since the manga source isn't available in a language I read, I can't say how much of its look - like a cross between Leatherface and Pinocchio, yet still very much looking like something a child would build - is the responsibility of Umezu and how much that of the film's effects crew. In any case, Hokubo is the sort of sight people like me who find regular dolls often much too creepy for comfort should best avoid or else meet Hokubo again in their nightmares.

I am quite taken by the simplicity of the movie. The plot is quite obvious, but told with the conviction of fairy tale, homing in on the (very typical for Umezu) theme of the loneliness of childhood but intensifying the feeling of despair by letting the magical thinking of children actually be true. Unlike in your typical escapist fantasy (not that I have a problem with those) magic often isn't the road to freedom in Umezu's work. Instead it only makes bad matters worse and doesn't open possibilities so much as closing them off.

I usually have little time for child actors. Most of them are just frightful scenery chewers with an understandable yet still annoying lack of subtlety in everything they do. Toshinori Omi's performance here is a bit more to my tastes. I'm not going to oversell his acting; mostly, the boy is convincing as Yoshiro because he is not doing much visible acting. Yoshiro doesn't talk much, does not smile and does seldom show emotion, but the boy does this quite well.

Personally, I find the film's theme rather touching, especially when it is realized like it is here, in a form that at does not flinch away from showing an unhappy childhood yet also isn't so cynical not to believe in the possibilities of hope and the basic usefulness of growing up.


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