ghostGakkou no KaidanMieko HaradaToshie Negishi
Gakkou no Kaidan 4
Also known as: School Ghost Stories 4, Haunted School 4
Medium: film
Year: 1999
Director: Hideyuki Hirayama
Writer: Satoko Okudera
Actor: Matsunosuke Shofukutei, Mieko Harada, Kayoko Moriyasu, Toshie Negishi, Yuka Takeshima
Keywords: Gakkou no Kaidan, ghost, horror
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 109 minutes
Website category: J-horror
Review date: 14 June 2024
Gakkou no Kaidan 4
It's surprisingly good, but it doesn't say "School Ghost Story" to me. You'll see no teachers, no lessons and no classes. Schools will be deserted, abandoned and/or in the holidays. (The modern-day scenes are set during Obon, a half-week during August in which Japanese people commemorate the dead. That's during summer holidays.) This film series hasn't run out of steam, but it's drifted away from its starting point and this was the last regular Gakkou no Kaidan.
A better fitting name would be Watery Ghost Stories. It's full of sea, rivers, typhoons, etc. This film is dripping wet. I quite like that and it works well, especially when we see our first underwater ghost. A dead child beckoning to you is one thing, but what if it's inviting you to come underwater with him? Brrrr.
The main characters are still children. It satisfies the basic criterion of "child-friendly ghost stories", although they're not usually in school this time. Decades ago, five children were playing hide-and-seek when something bad happened and only one survived. What's brilliant about these scenes is that they're indistinguishable from real 1930s Japanese cinema. I wondered if I was playing the wrong film. The black-and-white, the film stock, the schoolboys' buzzcut haircuts... it's another world. Not only is this evocative, but it erects such a barrier between the past and present that it's almost shocking when things start crossing over. It's as if we're changing universes.
That start is very effective. The film's ending is heartwarming and excellent, with our heroes and the five dead friends. There are some nice bits (e.g. "I'll treat you to an ice cream") and I loved the scenes with the little girl and that old bloke from the stationery shop.
Unfortunately, though, the middle of the film is a bit of a mess and a cheat.
The first problem is the ghosts. They're not evil. They're lovely... except in the first half, when they're creepy and stealing children away. What? Why? I think it's because four stone-throwing brats broke the nose of a statue, but the film forgets about this and never returns to either the statue or the brats. Oi. Well, you could rationalise this by saying that the ghosts were being a bit weird when they first woke up.
Next is the plot. There isn't one. Instead, It's just structured as A Ghost Story. In other words, our heroes have nothing to do and are wandering around passively, waiting for the scriptwriter to think up another spooky scene. This improves when Cute Little Sister meets Stationery Shop Bloke, but about half of the film doesn't actually have much content beyond its ghost scenes.
Also, it's lucky that little girl's so good at swimming. I was surprised that she didn't drown after being dumped in the sea towards the end. How many children that age could have swum that distance to shore?
That said, though, this film's good stuff is excellent. Its ending is so satisfying and nice that you'll go away feeling very positive overall. It's even more stylish than the last Gakkou no Kaidan, thanks to that 1930s cinema homage. I've seen this called a modern classic... but not many people watched it and I bet children preferred the series's earlier films. It's the first film in this Gakkou no Kaidan series that would play better for adults. But it's worth a look.