I've seen it claimed that Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is the most respected director working in Japan. Unfortunately I found this film of his unwatchable. I've seen a lot of love for it on the internet, but personally I was just about screaming at the screen.
I'll be mentioning spoilers, incidentally. I'll try not to be gratuitous and I won't say anything about the film's second half, but even so reading this review will mean you won't be coming cold either to this film or to the Oscar-nominated 1964 British film that's based on the same novel.
Okay, that's your warning.
Kurosawa's a novelist who often turns his books into screenplays, then directs them. This time though a TV producer asked him to adapt someone else's novel, Seance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane. Kurosawa read it, liked it and took the job. However he thought its story, set in England in the 1960s, wouldn't work in 21st century Japan and so made some changes that vandalised it. The original novel's protagonists are a childless middle-aged couple, who live ordinary lives except that the wife thinks she's a medium and gives seances. I haven't read it myself and so I don't know how much of this is self-delusion and how much is simply horse manure, but after a while this frustrated, disturbed lady comes up with a kidnapping scheme to make the world believe that her psychic powers are real and hence become rich and famous. You'd expect any good husband to snap her back to her senses, but unfortunately she's the one wearing the trousers in their household and so the plot gets going.
Kurosawa's first problem with this was that he thought their crime "might have been considered commonplace in '60's England" (eh?) but that it "would be such a rarity in present-day Japan as to be unthinkable for the average Japanese audience member". Uh-huh. Sure. After all, everyone knows that there are no crazy people in Japan at all. As a result, he changed the plot so that it's all an unfortunate concatenation of circumstances. Some unknown stranger tries to kidnap a little girl. She's then running away from him through the woods when she stumbles across and hides inside a trunk belonging to our hero, Koji Yakusho. You know, as you do.
Yakusho locks this trunk, lifts it into his car and drives home. At no point does he look inside, hear any sounds that this child might be making or indeed notice that the trunk got heavier.
Thus, through no fault of their own, our heroes find themselves in possession of a kidnapped girl. They know the police are hunting for her. Both the kidnapper (who's been captured!) and the girl herself are presumably capable of saying what really happened. All they needed to do was phone the police or the hospital and the story would have a happy ending... but no, the wife (Jun Fubuki) turns into the stupidest creature on Earth. Her antics are guaranteed to end in catastrophe, yet she convinces Yakusho to go along with them and I started making throttling hand gestures at the screen. These people are retards. This is imbecility so bad that it breaks the plot. I had no interest in watching their doomed spastic thrashings, but unfortunately at this point I was barely halfway through the film and so I still had forty-five minutes to suffer through. (Caveat: other people really liked it.)
Another of Kurosawa's changes involves the characterisation. In the original, Jun Fubuki's character was apparently meant to be larger than life, charismatic and kittenish, in defiance of her years. Here though she doesn't have much personality at all. She's a good wife. She's sympathetic. Her psychic powers are real and they've made her sufficiently sensitive that she can't hold down a job and only lasts one day as a waitress. In other words she's almost an everywoman, but with ghosts. I'm not saying that such a person couldn't secretly also be Lady Macbeth, but neither Kurosawa nor Fubuki sold this proposition to me and I couldn't see any connection between her actions and her apparent personality. Oh, and the way Kurosawa introduces his protagonists' desire to transcend their humdrum lives is so limp that he kills it as a motivation.
The 1964 British version is excellent, though. It's slow, dreary and oppressive, but it has power and it gets everything right that Kurosawa gets wrong. Kim Stanley was Oscar-nominated in the Fubuki role, while the husband was Richard Attenborough.
However apart from the plot being bollocks, the film's good. I don't like Jun Fubuki here, but she's clearly doing what her director wanted, while Koji Yakusho is an excellent actor who's appeared in lots of strong films and is apparently a favourite of Kurosawa's. They're exactly the same age. He's also been in Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Mt. Tsurugidake
, The Uchoten Hotel
and The Last Chushingura
, where as it happened he was alongside Fubuki. Meanwhile the director is good at putting his story on the screen, so even ghosts that do nothing at all can be surprisingly unnerving. They're the usual "hair over the face" spectres, but that doesn't make them bad. I like their ambiguous moments, such as the parade outside that door near the start. It's delicate. This film's better at its creepy moments than many horror films, so maybe it wouldn't be wrong to call it horror too.
I haven't given up on Kurosawa yet. I've heard good things about Cure and Pulse, for instance, while I'm amused by his account of his writing. I'll quote him on the Sundance Film Festival. "Many of the Americans there kept bothering me, kept saying, 'What's going on with this character now? What's his intent? What's his motive?' And I would have to say, 'He doesn't have any intent. He's just being.' They found that very strange and odd." [...] "My film feature very passive characters, but I think that's a very Japanese way to be."
The first half of this film I liked. In the second half, I wanted everyone dead. I didn't care whether they committed suicide or got killed by a ghost, but the important point was that they hurry up and die as soon as possible. I won't dismiss this film as worthless because its qualities seem to have impressed a lot of people, but personally I couldn't recommend it.