Noroi: The Curse (2005) dir. Kôji Shiraishi
With (as far as my language-barrier-ed research tells me) at least five mockumentary/found footage films to his name (and three of them in the horror genre), Japanese director Kôji Shiraishi clearly has a certain fondness for the storytelling potential that the format provides, and-- unlike far too many of his peers-- he employs this verite aesthetic to his films in service of the story, rather than constructing a thin scenario to bridge together the handheld frights. This effort is appreciated. The first of his documentary horror films, Noroi: The Curse, was produced in 2005, five years after the initial burst of post-Blair Witch found footage imitators and a few years before the subgenre would rear its head once again. This timing results in the film positioning itself apart from the general trends of either movement and developing its own unique style and concerns (style and concerns that are also markedly distinct from the concurrent and overly flashy J-horror trend, while still drawing inspiration from Japanese folklore). Sure, parts of the film (especially a climactic forest encounter with a sinister force) are reminiscent of The Blair Witch, but not in a manner that feels like a cynical swipe. Rather, those moments only add up to one spooky strand in the complicated web of horrors that the film weaves: other strands include ghosts, possessed women, children with ESP, a tinfoil-hatted psychic, ectoplasmic worms, village sorcerers, ancient demon-pacifying rituals, suicidal birds, and abducted aborted embryos. The fact that Shiraishi is able to reconcile these disparate horror elements into a provocative and ultimately cohesive mystery narrative is miraculous. Furthermore, the fact that he and his cast and crew were able to accomplish the telling of such a coherent story while presenting it through the mediation of multiple forms of found footage is all the more impressive: here we have a film cobbled together from multiple documentaries, TV chat shows, home movies, photographs, and nighttime observation videos, and yet the transitions between them never feel jarring or unnecessarily showy. The position the audience is placed in is akin to that of the fictional documentarian, who immerses himself in the copious data and research surrounding the central puzzle, slowly piecing together the wild and (seemingly) contradictory elements into a unified image of horror. Though Noroi's story is both complex and engaging, it lacks the depth that those films in the subgenre's top tier possess. Consistently tangible throughout the film is the odd tension that exists between the modern technological world and the traditional world of demons and ghosts (and the eerie control that the latter has over the former), but Noroi neglects to make any clear statement regarding the enduring existence of its varied phenomena. Regardless, moments in the film-- particularly the aforementioned forest apparition at the climax-- are among the most unnerving the subgenre has yet produced, and that's worth something.
Occult (Okaruto) (2009) dir. Kôji Shiraishi
A few years later, as found footage was reemerging as horror's aesthetic of choice, Shiraishi released his second documentary horror, Occult. Somewhat disappointingly, Occult uses the same basic approach to the FF genre as Noroi does, with its "Documentary Filmmaker Explores an Occult Mystery Involving Japanese Folklore" premise and smorgasbord of seemingly dissimilar horror elements (here we have: UFOs, stab-happy psychopaths, everyday miracles, a leech child, patterned scars of demon possession, wispy bird ghosts, a squid faced ghost, a camera falling through a portal to another dimension, and (possibly) hell itself). Luckily, what keeps Occult an enjoyable romp, one that manages to stand somewhat apart from its successful forebear, is how nutty it is. Though twists are an expected attribute of any mystery, odds are that even the most seasoned consumers of paranormal enigmas will be unable to fathom the bizarro places that Occult travels to. The film's coda is unlike anything I've ever seen outside of Hausu (1977). What else distinguishes this later film from Noroi is its weird and welcome sense of humor, the most exquisite bit being one in which the documentary's subject, Eno-kun, a possessed man who has been compelled by unearthly forces to suicide bomb a bus station, decides to catch a showing of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) before committing his diabolical deed and afterwards reports that the movie helped to "cement his resolve." Shiraishi casts himself as the documentarian who films Eno-kun's descent into madness, which adds a smidgen of self-reflective fun, but even better is a cameo by fellow director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure (1997), Pulse (2001)), whose off-kilter and elusive horror films are an obvious influence to Shiraishi. A final aspect of note is the film's fantastic experimental score (some of which you can sample in the below trailer). The soundtrack grates and lulls the ears in equal measure, keeping its listener in a constant state of quiet agitation.
Shirome (2010) dir. Kôji Shiraishi
For his third crack of the found footage horror whip, Shiraishi went for Something Completely Different. Shirome features, at the very least, the most bizarre premise of any FF film yet produced: the real-life, all-teenaged-girl J-pop group Momoiro Clover is persuaded by a director (Shiraishi, once again casting himself in his own role) to be filmed entering a haunted and abandoned school to test out a spooky urban legend about a wish-granting demon, all in order to secure (through demon magic) a spot for the girls to perform on the popular annual television special Red and White Song Battle. In contrast to both Noroi and Occult, Shirome has some rather blatant subtext involving the exploitation of minors in the Japanese pop music industry. Whether intentional on Shiraishi's part or not, the inherently sinister quality of this exploitation is highlighted through both the girls' ultimate selling of their souls in order to achieve fame and their management's callous desire to coerce the girls into dangerous situations without concern for their welfare. The adults in the film also take it upon themselves to psychologically torture the girls: the fictional Shiraishi and his cohorts spend most of the film trying to scare the girls to tears, all in order to fashion a better cheap reality TV program. (In addition to these story-specific critiques of the industry, there are also moments that illuminate the systemic exploitation of young girls in the Japanese music industry as sexual objects. All of the members of Momoiro Clover are disconcertingly simplified, boiled down by their management to a few set characteristics and emotions that they must constantly display and personify. This isn't anything new for pop music, but it becomes more troubling when a 13-year-old girl describes herself (in a sung bio clearly prepared for her by her almost certainly adult male management) as the "little bit sexy" member of the group.) The fact that Shiraishi casts himself as the director exploiting the girls within the film (which, in recursive fashion, he actually is doing by making Shirome) appears to be an implicit acknowledgement of his own culpability, while at the same time using the film to stage a fairly scathing indictment of the absurd lengths the industry pushes pop idol groups to go to in order to achieve fame and success. Then again, it seems just as possible that cultural assumptions are skewing my interpretation towards critique, and that the film might merely be having goofy paranormal fun with a group of spirited pop idols. Either way, Shirome isn't all that fun. At about an hour and twenty minutes long, the film is rather brief and yet still aimless, with the sort of subtle supernatural creepiness that Shiraishi has established his reputation on failing to appear until far too late in the film. But the film is certainly a curiosity, one preferable to yet another FF film in the Noroi mode, even if the end product seems a few significant steps backwards with regard to story, pacing, and genuine horror.
Coming up, in our final installment: The Bay (2012), Area 407 (2012), The Dinosaur Project (2012), & The Frankenstein Theory (2013).