Friday, August 26, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Kokkuri-san (1997)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Mio (Ayumi Yamatsu), a Japanese schoolgirl in her late teens, lives alone with her older sister. Without the knowledge of her friends - who lose at voice recognition - the girl also stars in a well-loved late night talk show, where she is "Michiru", a construct of late teen wish-fulfilment whose life is full of sex and adventure, quite unlike Mio's actual one.

Mio has never gotten over an experience in her childhood when her mother tried to drown her, but only drowned herself, and is now emotionally distant and obviously chronically depressed. She has a few friends, at least, Masami (Moe Ishikawa) and Hiroko (Hiroko Shimada). Both are about as lively and happy as Mio herself. Hiroko (I surmise) has never been quite alright since a childhood friend of hers drowned, and identifies Mio with her dead friend, while we are never made privy to any hints for Masami's behaviour. Secretly, Mio is in love with Hiroko, but is never able to talk with her friend about it.

Though they are nominally friends, Hiroko and Masami don't see eye to eye. They are in a passive-aggressive (and with girls this affectless the emphasis lies on the passive part) fight about a boy perfectly void of a personality.

Still, the three girls decide to have a séance, based on an idea they got from Mio's radio show. They do this by means of playing a game called "kokkuri". Working with a home-made Ouija board and using a girl ghost named Kokkuri as a guide, the girls at first just play around a little, but their questions soon turn uncomfortable. Questioned when Michiru (Mio's alter ego her friends aren't clever enough to connect to her at this point) will die, Kokkuri tells them "at 17"; Mio will turn 18 the same month.

Masami uses the session also as a way to continue her boy feud with Hiroko, until they come to blows, or at least as much to blows as they are able.

After the séance, things begin to get weird. Mio begins to have visions of a girl in a red dress that might be Hiroko's dead childhood friend or her dead self or Kokkuri or all three. Hiroko disappears, only to appear shortly after - but worse for wear - at Mio's, only to disappear again after an argument.

Takashi (or Takahisa, depending on who transcribes the name) Zeze is probably best known for his stark and rather depressing art house-minded pink movies, but as every good director working in genre movies (may they be arty or not), he also put(s) some time in other genres. Kokkuri-san is nominally a horror film, it is however the type of horror film that will just confuse anyone looking for "scares".

The horror here is of a more existential kind. The supernatural isn't there to menace the characters from the outside, but functions as a magnifying glass that helps the viewer see the characters' wounds more clearly, or as a mirror so that the characters can see themselves more clearly. How honest the mirror might be is quite a different question. Zeze uses a doppelganger motif, and as is often the case with it, there's always a certain amount of confusion when it comes to the question if the doppelganger is just more honest about someone's traits or only showing their most destructive urges.

Thematically, Zeze works the same field as in most of his pink films. Kokkuri-san is fixated on alienation, the freezing effects of trauma and the inability to show one's feelings, possibly even the inability to understand one's own feelings. I say "possibly" because Zeze abstains from any closeness to his characters. Like the camera, which tends to keep its distance from the proceedings before it, the viewer isn't truly allowed to get too close to anyone here. Getting inside anyone's head, or identifying completely with any single character seems unthinkable. Even when the viewer shares Mio's visions, the film still keeps up the feeling of distance. The audience is allowed to watch, and to think, even to build sensible theories, but it can never truly know what's going on inside the characters.

At times, I can't help but think that Zeze revels a little too much in being ambiguous. I don't think that empathy based on understanding between people is impossible, something the director seems to disagree with.

When characters are never completely knowable, plot becomes even less so, and although Kokkuri-san's plot makes a lot of thematic sense, someone looking for any form of excitement will be sorely disappointed. It wouldn't be too difficult to argue that everything we see takes place in Mio's head, and that there isn't anything happening "in the real world" apart from (possibly) a teenage double suicide. If you are looking for clarity, or action, you're probably not made for watching Zeze's kind of cinema.

You'll also want to avoid Kokkuri-san when you can't take artistic products of a deeply pessimist worldview, where people's isolation is never broken so completely that they'll be able to live a life of actual closeness to others, and where the only way to connect lies in death. Though I think that the Hollywood way of looking at alienation or trauma and the simple solutions the films even acknowledging their existence offer are deeply insulting to the way actual people are feeling and going through their lives, I can't say that I find Zeze's view of life any more tenable. Of course, his films' hopelessness is probably much closer to the way his characters relate to the world around them, and might even be a method to force the audience into a state of understanding and empathy exactly by refusing it easy ways to empathize. In a way, this seems to me something that more closely amounts to a real act of violence against the audience than most simulated violence on screen does (sorry, Miss Clover).

As you might have realized by now, I find Kokkuri-san in its own, unassuming way much more troubling than many films which are much better at being generic horror films. There's a cloud of stark dread hanging over the film I find deeply affecting. It's not a feeling everyone seeing Zeze's film will share. Some of you might be bored (because honestly, there isn't really much happening here), some confused (because honestly, "ambiguous" and "obtuse" are closely related concepts), and some just plain annoyed (because honestly, the film is so bleak even the idea of people smiling must be preposterous to Zeze).

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