Friday, July 27, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Occult (2009)

Original title: Okurato

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 presented with only  basic re-writes and 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.

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult's very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years ago at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims has heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi's investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn't use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that "now it's your turn". Eno clearly hasn't been the same ever since. He's barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn't seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he's been witnessing "miracles": UFOs, objects in his surroundings moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn't understand what it's trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and - though he's not really clear about it - Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno's attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn't realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the "ceremony" Eno plans.

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi's last few films - which isn't always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films - has been a bit frustrating, culminating in the "girl group screeches forever" horror of Shirome, until now (I wrote this in 2012 –future me) the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don't usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: "what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?", only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves - or in Kurosawa's case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe's case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There's a really clever plot twist I don't have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi's position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that's also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. Fortunately, the film doesn't need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time - its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer's imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its "special" effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It's a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what's going on in it.

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