It's another Kosuke Kindaichi detective story based on a Seishi Yokomizo novel. It's not as famous and oft-adapted as The Inugami Family
, but it's reasonably well known and it's got a distinguished cast. I can't say it grabbed me, but then again I was having trouble with the Japanese dialogue and so I'm probably not qualified to comment.
I won't be letting that stop me, though.
My problem with it was that almost all the interesting story stuff happened in the past and I could tell who the murderer was going to be even though I hadn't been able to follow the plot. The former is common in whodunnits, mind you. Kindaichi appears to be more of a Poirot or a Miss Marple than a Sherlock Holmes, in that he'll potter in the background without having much impact on the story until at the end explaining all. In the meantime, supporting characters die like flies and everyone just talks. For two and a half hours. No one seems busy beyond their obvious function of "be a supporting character in a whodunnit". I think you could trim this one's running time.
The plot has a lurid hook, mind you. In 1566, eight samurai went into a village. This turned out even worse than you're imagining, in a flashback scene that's going for the gore effects with surprising gusto, and it ended with a curse being placed on the villagers and their descendants. Even if you don't speak Japanese, you'll get the idea when you see eight severed heads on someone's front porch.
We're yanked into the present day with a close-up of an aeroplane. This looks so effective that the film later does it again. Ken'ichi Hagiwara is working at the airport, but then he discovers that he's due to inherit some money from the family estate at the Village of the Eight Tombs. (Spot the link.) Unfortunately soon people start dying in a fashion that looks as if those eight samurai are taking their posthumous vengeance, over four hundred years later.
I liked this supernatural angle. That's always fun in a detective story, especially when as here the director provides a closing montage of those samurai, looking down and smiling at the carnage that's been wreaked in their name. Whether or not you choose to believe that the ghosts were in any way responsible, you can't say they haven't had their pound of flesh. There's also something at the end that's either a supernatural transformation or the director getting playful with underground hallucinations and tricks of the mind. Note the bats. Note also the Freudian cave opening at the finale.
However the non-fantastical storyline is less diverting. Hagiwara's father was a son of a bitch, but that's just flashbacks. He kidnapped people and raped them, killed babies and went on a murder rampage through the village. Charming guy. He also deliberately scarred Hagiwara with a red-hot poker when he was a child. This would be more interesting if any of it were happening in real time, but in fact the guy who's around right now will never rise again from his sick bed. There's also a distracting quirk by which old people keep being played by young actors. This is particularly bizarre for the little old ladies. What's the point of casting someone in their thirties and then slathering them in zombie make-up? Did the director have an eye for a pretty girl? That I could have lived without.
I liked the local yokels. If this were set in England, we'd be in some inbred village in Thick Accent-Shire, in which the villagers probably burn strangers in a Wicker Man. Put it this way... they have access to burning torches. There's also a hysterical old bat who'll accuse you of trying to kill her if you so much as look at her funny. Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but what's beyond exaggeration is the uselessness of the police. I noticed this in The Inugami Family
too. Seishi Yokomizo seems to think Japanese policemen are barely even there for decoration.
Kiyoshi Atsumi is fine as Kosuke Kindaichi, although he only ever played him in this film. He's best known of course for playing Tora-san in what was the world's longest-running movie series (48 of them) until it was overtaken by the Huang Fei-Hong films. He's got a mildly distinctive ugliness. If you're interested, the most prolific Kindaichis to date have been Ikko Furuya (10), Tsurutaro Kataoka (8), Chiezo Kataoka (7) and Koji Ishizaka (6).
I also liked its tourist quality. We see attractive mountain countryside and some scenic caves.
I'm not qualified to call this a bad film. I'd need to track down a subtitled version, or else improve my Japanese. I should also point out that it was very successful and that both Kindaichi and Yokomizo are still very well known in Japan. It also has iconic imagery. However Tomoko and I ended up talking over it, discussing the implausibility of having sex in a cave (cold! painful!) and going over plot details. It doesn't have enough dramatic meat in the here and now. If you view it as a ghost story, perhaps it's not inappropriate that it's always looking to the past... but if that was the intention, then I don't think the attempted genre mash-up was particularly successful.