S     H     I     K     O     K     U

Directed by Shunichi Nagasaki

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Hinako, and she lived in a village on the island called the Four Countries, or Shikoku.

Hinako had two friends, a little boy named Fumiya and a girl called Sayori. Among groups of children, one child, the strongest, is usually the "ringleader"; and among these three it was Sayori, whom Hinako adored. The three were inseperable, doing the things small children do -- Sayori shyly writing Fumiya's name on the underside of one of the boards on Hinako's balcony; the three playing hooky on a sunny day... until Hinako's father got a job in Tokyo, and the family moved away.

Hinako and Sayori exchanged little gifts to remember each other by, and Hinako gazed longingly after her friends as her family's car drove slowly over a hill into a new life.

It sounds like the start of any number of bittersweet stories, doesn't it? And indeed, in many ways, the opening of Shikoku tries very hard to establish a feeling of normalcy, to remind us of familiar stories of children and early friendships. Extensive use of hand-held camera shots and bright, almost overexposed lighting give much of the introduction a feeling of immediacy. And that familiarity -- that immediacy -- is very important in getting us to identify with the three young protagonists. You see, there's something about the children I haven't mentioned...

Little Sayori is the heiress to the tradition of Hiura priestesses, women with the power to speak to the dead. As the movie opens, Sayori's mother is using her to channel the spirit of a dead child for his distraught parents. Sayori does become posessed by the boy's ghost, but it seems as though the boy doesn't want to be drawn back into the world of the living. The light, even at night in the dimly-lit room, is painful to him.

This scene, with its conflicting poignancy and horror, sets the tone for the latter part of the movie; but before the film can return to its true nature, it goes out of its way to establish itself as something entirely different. After the disturbing seance, we're given only hints of Sayori's strange home life. Then one day, Hinako visits Sayori's house to give her back her book-bag, which she left behind. When no-one answers her call, she creeps upstairs, where she hears odd noises... peering through the door, she sees Sayori entering her trance.

Sayori realizes she's been seen, and warns Hinako that she must never, ever mention it to anyone, on pain of ending their friendship. The strength of that continuing friendship is (seemingly) demonstrated immediately after, when someone pushes Hinako into a stream and Sayori pulls her out. Hinako refuses to allow any grown-ups to help her; instead, she clutches Sayori for dear life and sobs that she never wants to leave her.

It's shortly thereafter that Hinako must part from her friends.

Years later, a beautiful, successful and very much urbanized Hinako returns to Shikoku after her mother's death. It's been almost twenty years since she left, and she's heard nothing from her friends in all that time. All her letters have gone unanswered, as though her friends and her home village existed in some other world that's now closed off to her. As her bus enters the Shikoku region, she's speaking on her cell phone to some insignificant other back in Tokyo. Suddenly her cell phone ceases to function: there is no carrier; she is as isolated from her present as she has become from her past.

Hinako finds herself alone in her family's abandoned house, alone with her equally abandoned memories, wondering what to do with either of them. She finds the floorboard on which Sayori wrote Fumiya's name all those years ago. She goes off the to Hiura house, but no-one answers her. As she turns to leave, she sees a faint form at one of the windows. All she can see is a faint impression of a pale face, and the clear image of two hands pressed against the window. Still, whoever it is will not answer, or let her in.

Walking into the main street of the village, Hinako finds someone she remembers from her school days. She's now a shopkeeper, with a daughter older than "Hina-chan" ["dear little Hinako"] was when she left. The woman is politely surprised to see her old schoolmate, and takes her around the village; but she seems a little put out that this... well, this stranger should have come back and presumed on an acquaintance from the dead and distant past.

Eventually, the shopkeeper introduces Hina-chan to a pale, shy young man. It is Fumiya. They reminisce for a while, and then Hina-chan brings up the subject of Sayori. Though Sayori never once answered her letters, she's very anxious to see her again. In fact, she can't shut up about her. Once she gets started talking about Sayori, she can't seem to concentrate on anything else.

Fumiya then tells her that Sayori is dead.

Sayori drowned at the age of 16, after apparently channeling a spirit that was too strong for her to contain. She and Fumiya had been dating -- were intended for each other, in fact. They were going to go away together, in spite of her mother's wishes for Sayori to follow in her footsteps as Hiura priestess. Then she was gone; and her father had become paralyzed in a rock-climbing incident.

Hina-chan is crushed by this news. But even with the issue of Sayori's death hanging between them, and even in consideration of Fumiya's close relationship with the dead girl, Hina-chan still can't change the subject. So it should probably come as no surprise that late that night, as Hina-chan lies sleeping, the shadowy form of a young girl should lean over her, dropping a small charm as she does so...

And now, a note for audiences accustomed to Hollywood fare: the rest of the movie is not what you expect. Up to this point, the film might have been an innocuous ghost story, perhaps even charming. This is not its intent. Every conventional image of childhood, friendship and love you have seen prepared in the movie so far is about to be destroyed. Every comforting cliché you've been expecting, every sweet lie you have come to expect from a movie, is about to turn on you and bite. Hard. There are spoilers ahead, so if you want a chance to experience Shikoku without any further preparation, now's your chance. It's available on Japanese VCD very inexpensively, and it's well worth seeing.

The deeper Shikoku goes into the supernatural, the closer it comes to Real Life. Gradually, as Hina-chan delves into the mystery surrounding Sayori's death, facts begin to emerge about her behaviour, and the real story of their childhood. Sayori never answered Hina-chan's letters because she burned them. She never got over Hina-chan's "betrayal" of her -- her moving away. Sayori, who was being driven by her mother into a life she had no desire to lead, retaliated by trying to take control... not only of her own life, but of those she could easily dominate. Fumiya and Hina-chan were never so much her dear friends as her personal slaves.

In other words, Sayori becomes less and less a character in a movie, and more and more like a real, complex person. And a frightening one, at that.

And things get worse. For Shikoku has a secret: written with a different kanji character, Shikoku (the Four Countries) becomes Shikoku: the Land of the Dead -- a dark land inhabited by spirits who are unwilling to let go of earthly exitence. Eighty eight shrines around the island serve as a lock to prevent the one Shikoku from becoming the other. To keep the two regions apart, pilgrims visit each of the eighty eight shrines, in order.

Mrs. Hiura, last priestess of the Valley of the Gods, has been making the pilgrimage ever since her daughter's death. Hina-chan discovers that at the moment, she's completing her 16th circuit -- that's one pilgrimage for each year of Sayori's life. And she's been doing the pilgrimage backwards.

Shikoku is a horror movie about love and its consequences. It's ruthless in its honesty about the real dynamics of love between family members, lovers, children and friends. There are no villains. Everybody does what they do out of love -- awful things, including betrayal, murder and sacrilege of the most unimaginable kind -- and it's perfectly understandable why they do it. Fumiya and Hina-chan ([shudder] -- that term of endearment becomes intolerable before the end of the film) have been emotionally and psychologically destroyed by their childhood with Sayori; and Sayori herself has been destroyed (more than once, it turns out) by the obsessive love of her mother. Her mother's desire with the continuation of the family's religious tradition, while at the same time trying to force open the gate to the land of the dead, is another example of the obsessive love which destroys everybody in the film.

Shikoku takes another wrenching turn when Mrs. Hiura comes back from her final pilgrimage. Up to this point, Sayori's ghostly appearances have been distressingly real; just as her unseen presence is almost tangible whenever Fumiya and Hina-chan meet. But when Mrs. Hiura opens the gate to the other Shikoku, she actually brings Sayori back -- a frail, stumbling child who reminds us of the little possessed Sayori at the film's beginning. It seems as though the girl doesn't want to be drawn back into the world of the living. The light, even at night in the dimly-lit room, is painful to her.

She can barely walk. She can barely see. But she still wields unbelieveable power over those whose lives she has ruined, and those who have ruined many lives (including their own and that of Sayori herself) out of misguided love for her. The power she has is all the more terrifying because it is not in the least supernatural.

But no one comes back from the Land of the Dead just as they were in life. Sayori has also brought back from the other Shikoku a terrible and ironic curse: she crushes the life out of anything she holds on to. It all leads up to a climax as inevitable as it is heartbreaking, and if it all gets a little out of control in the closing scenes (just as this review is getting out of control), the lapses can be easily forgiven.

One of the main differences between Shikoku and most Western horror films, even ghost stories, is that the nature of its horror is spiritual rather than physical.

Sure, in Western horror films Dracula may cringe from the sight of a cross, but the Western vampire is more a symbol of the lure of sexual decadence. As sexuality became demystified in the 60's and 70's, the vampire lost most of its significance in Western popular mythology. Today, vampires in movies are no longer thought of as predatory sexual scavengers, but rather as romantic heroes to be envied and emulated. Simultaneously, the power of Western religious symbolism has declined, so the whole vampire archetype has changed its meaning completely.

In Asian horror films, though, there is frequently a religious principle at the heart of things -- particularly the Buddhist notion that any attachment to this world, positive or negative, will bring only misery and unhappiness. The solution is to give up desire and all the things that bind us to our physical existence. At the same time, these movies acknowledge the overwhelming human need for something to hold onto in this life, even when that need spirals into compulsion. The true tension comes not from the supernatural events, but from the conflict between spiritual necessity and the terrible, lonely burden of being alive.

This is not only a much more profound message than that which informs most Western horror films, but also one which allows people from other belief systems to be involved in the story, and be moved by it. Though the message is religious in origin, it doesn't conflict as badly with the skeptical mindset as many horror films do. Science has demonstrated that the evidence of our senses is not to be trusted... that the way we believe the world to work, based on our feelings and observations, is wrong (or at least incomplete). The idea of detachment from our emotions, of transcending desire, is not far removed from the scientific attitude.

I contrast this with a film like, for example, The Exorcist, a well-made and involving film, but one which loses a great deal of its power if you don't accept its literal truth. For those who balk at the idea of demon possession and Catholic exorcism, the film simply becomes a distorted parable of teenage rebellion -- a reactionary look at the onset of womanhood, with the suggestion that the patriarchal Church is on hand to put the girl in her place.

I also contrast this with the attitude displayed in some of the most popular examples of Japanese "science" fiction: the Heisei Godzilla series. These are movies for the extremely credulous, from which science and maturity of outlook are entirely missing. With all their blathering about ESP and life-forces, they ended up saying nothing meaningful about any of the topics they claimed to support, such as environmental conservation or the responsible use of technology.

In Shikoku, we have an explicity Buddhist ghost story, which nevertheless has plenty of resonance for a non-Buddhist -- and even skeptical -- audience. Like all the best stories of the supernatural, at its heart it doesn't rely on fear of the unknown, or even fear of death. It derives its deepest scares from territory we know only too well -- the dark, hidden, haunted spaces inside the human heart.

Buy This Movie on VCD!
I got my copy from Poker Industries.

Information on Shikoku from the IMDB

This beautiful Japanese paper background was scanned by
Toni Schwindt