Chou kowai hanashi 'A': yami no karasu

" The Most Horrible Story 'A' " is a series of ghost story novellas which are apparently very popular in Japan. There are currently 14 volumes published in the series, and at least one other movie — an anthology film from 2005 — has been made to tie in with it. This first film adaptation, Crows of Darkness, was made in 2004, and has been given the unfortunate title Cursed for its US DVD release. Admittedly, Crows of Darkness doesn't fit the movie particularly well, either (though there are some crows in it); but it has an allusive, poetic character that suits the film better than the dry, unimaginative "Cursed". What's more, the American DVD was released shortly before Wes Craven's Cursed hit the shelves, which can't have helped the Japanese film find a US audience.

The film to which Cursed bears the strongest resemblance is probably Ju-on (name your installment). Like the Ju-on series, it concerns a certain place where malevolent spirits congregate, and it spins off little vignettes to show how each person who comes in contact with the spirits ends up their victim. In construction, this sort of ghost story may represent a reaction against movies like Ringu, which cast their hauntings as a sort of puzzle that must be solved (and which their characters usually solve incorrectly the first time, much to their horror). However, Cursed is a very different film from any of the Ju-on movies. In Ju-on there was some sort of explanation for the ever-widening shadow of evil that spread out from the haunted house that was its focus. At one point in Cursed, we are given possible explanations for the supernatural events... but they come from an unreliable source. We're left with the possibility that there is no rational explanation for anything in the film, and in fact many of the individual vignettes are left not only unexplained, but unfinished.

(I should clarify: this is a good thing.)

The movie begins as two schoolgirls get off a train, heading for a friend's house. One of the girls wants to make a quick stop at a convenience store, the Mitsuya Mart, to grab a snack. The second girl takes one look at the shop and stops dead in her tracks. Backing away slowly, her eyes wide with panic, she tells her friend that she will not go into the store. Naturally, her friend thinks she must be joking; but the girl keeps backing away in terror. What's wrong? asks the first girl; why won't she go in? "Because," the second girl begins, "It's..."

And that's the point at which we learn where the American title came from: she was probably about to say, "Cursed." However, it's also the point at which the girl is reduced to red confetti by the grill of a speeding truck. She has backed up a little too far into the road, and when the truck hits her she comes apart like a badly-assembled puppet made of meat. Her friend is splashed with blood across her face and clothing; the shock has just begun to register in her expression — perhaps this Japanese schoolgirl is merely surprised to see the body fluids are red this time — when we cut away to the title credits.

It's tough to tell at first if this spectacular, completely unrealistic bloodbath is meant to be horror or farce. In fact, the ability to keep the audience off balance is one of the movie's biggest strengths: we're never sure what to make of what we're seeing, and whatever we may come to expect from one sequence may be completely undermined by the next. For instance, we might reasonably expect that the rest of the movie would be as bloody as the opening scene, when in fact there's little or nothing else in the movie quite as gory as the introduction. The tongue-in-cheek gruesomeness of the opening does continue though much of the film, but even that tone is interrupted at odd intervals by hints of genuine anguish.

The Mitsuya Mart itself is a drab, uninteresting little convenience store, which has just been bought out by a major chain called Cosmos Mart. Ryôko, a representative from Cosmos, has been sent to prepare the little store for the takeover. She's replacing a colleague named Tejima, who was forced to leave the project when he lost both feet in a strange accident (the bitter jokes here are first, that Japanese ghosts are said to have no feet, and second that the "Te" in "Tejima" is the kanji character for "hand"... all that the despondent Tejima has left).

When Ryôko first arrives at the Mitsuya Mart, she encounters the couple who are selling the store. Apparently Mitsuya Mart has a branch office in Royston Vasey, because the shopkeepers are extremely disturbing people. The man is bald and wears wire-framed glasses; the woman wears a neck brace, for reasons which are never explained. The two of them are never seen apart from each other; they never seem to blink, and they also never seem to sleep, eat, or even leave the store. Without offering her a greeting, they upbraid Ryôko for being so late for her 2 o'clock appointment. Ryôko is bewildered: it's just two now, isn't it? No, apparently not; tShe wall clock says it's nearly four. Thoroughly unsettled, Ryôko follows the pair back into their office. The part-time shopgirl, Nao, peers up at the clock: it reads two.

Ryôko is soon stuck doing inventory all by herself. The disturbing couple are of no use to her: all they do is sit and starte into the video monitor, never blinking, waiting to see if Nao or her night-shift replacement Komori will steal any of the Precious Things of the Shop. The only time they seem to enjoy themselves is in the face of someone else's misfortune: when they hear that Tejima has lost both feet, their faces light up with vicious glee. Later, when Ryôko finds crates of food that are several years out of date, the old woman calls her a thief, throws a tantrum and seizes back the garbage. Conditions would be all but unbearable for Ryôko if it weren't for Nao, who is as pleasant and cheerful as the shop and its managers are drab and sinister. In spite of the difference in the women's ages, they soon become good friends on a first-name basis.

(I should probably point out that in Japan, this movie seems to have been promoted less as horror film in its own right, or even as a filmed adaptation of a popular series of stories, than as a vehicle for the movie debut of Satô Hiroko, who plays Nao. Perhaps that's appropriate: she is a good, charismatic actress, and by the end of the film she's been called on to do more than look pretty and be scared. To the film's credit, you can watch almost to the end before you realize that the girl has astonishingly large breasts...)

If working conditions are grim at Mitsuya Mart, the situation facing the (very few) customers are even worse. For one thing, every combination of things the clients try to buy come up on the register as 666 yen... or 699 yen, or other variants of that inauspicious number. Then, as each customer leaves, something even less auspicious follows them. Take the young man who's come in for a collector's-item toy that's sold out in every other store: he knows that local people avoid the place, so he comes in in the expectation of finding his prize. Unfortunately, on his way home he runs into... something... that beckons him into a darkened hallway. He steps into the shadows... and we never find out what happens to him, or what might have been waiting for him. We suspect he might have stepped out of the story and into a Mario Bava movie (you'll know which one when you see it). The contrast between this sequence, with it total lack of a pay-off, and the gruesome opening couldn't be more pronounced.

Or take the case of a young woman (the name on her mailbox turns out to be Tomomi) who stops into the store. She is followed home by a dark figure swathed in bandages, who drags a heavy sledgehammer behind him. This sequence plays much more like a traditional stalk-and-slash (stalk-and-smush?) horror film, only to take a sudden twist away into a totally different kind of ghost story, before trailing off unresolved.

And then there's the mysterious, silent figure in the anorak, who comes into the store and usually leaves without buying anything. Nao suspects that this guy may not have a face under his hood. The shadows are too deep to tell.

Midway through the film, the "story" (if we can really call it that) follows three separate vignettes at the same time, using a combination of intercuts and split-screen techniques. One subplot involves a girl who stopped by Mitsuya Mart to pick up a bottle of wine. She had actually done this several scenes previously, and we'd thought (hoped, perhaps) that the movie had forgotten about her. A second sequence follows a young man who stopped to get some bath supplies, which had rung up to a surprisingly random amount. But then something had compelled him to buy a Nikuchan meat bun, bringing his total to the expected 666 yen. As he goes off to a curiously-deserted public bath, where there seem to be signs of a recent violent struggle, we begin to fear the worst.

The third thread follows Nao on her way home from the shop. Komori, whom we suspect has a crush on her, has seen her off from her shift with an improvised dinner in a bag. Komori is a Christian, who goes by the baptismal name of Paul, and he claims to have only a brotherly interest in Nao. Neither we nor Nao are fooled by his protests; he's obviously very sweet and very shy, and has no idea how to approach Nao (who would rather like to be approached).

Unfortunately for Nao, it's not Komori but the figure in the anorak who decides to do the approaching, as Nao wends her way home through the dark and deserted streets. (Later on, Komori also has an encounter with the anorak, when the silent customer buys some cans of cat food (!). The food rings up at the ridiculous figure of 44,444 yen — 4 being a particularly unlucky number in China and Japan, since it sounds exactly like the word for death in each language. Komori is not the same after this encounter, which sets up the most touching [yet typically unresolved] sequences in the film).

You would think, from the way these three vignettes are presented, that all three would be of more-or-less equal importance. Here again, the film is out to fool us. While all three are developed with a good deal of eerie suspense, one trails off rather inconclusively, and another turns out to be a supernatural shaggy-dog story. But the remaining story confounds our expectations yet again: it sounds a note of real despair which destroys the light, tongue-in-cheek tone the film has established so far.

The real point of the film may be hinted at in one element of this triple-threaded sequence. The girl with the bottle of wine goes home to her apartment, where she turns on a news program. While all three stories play out on a divided screen, we hear the voice of the newscaster, as he describes several grotesque current events. These are the sorts of things we might easily hear on the radio or television at any time; we'd give them a moment of our attention, shrug at their unusual details, and then forget about them. We rarely stop to think that these peculiar stories are more than just our entertainment: they may be the most important, and perhaps the very last, events in other, very real people's lives. We file these strange stories away in little mental compartments, as though we really knew anything about them. We don't. They may be fraught with meanings we would never expect; they may mean nothing at all. By the time the three stories have been dealt with (as much as the movie decides to allow them to be dealt with), it suddenly seems reasonable that so many of the stories we've seen so far should be left unfinished. We knew nothing or next to nothing about the characters before the ghosts came into the picture, and certainly the customers' fates had little or nothing to do with who they were or what they did (other than going shopping). Why do we think we would understand things any better if we knew what happened to them?

By the end, the film leaves us with the impression that there may be a reason why things have played out the way they have. There may be explanantions for everything supernatural that's gone on; there may be threads that connect the characters and what's happened to them; there may be some indications of what's going to happen next, to the characters who are left more-or-less alive by the time the credidts roll. There may even be a reason why there's a ghost in the toilet of the Mitsuya Mart. But the film steadfastly refuses to reveal any of these things. In fact, by the movie's final shot we feel as though we've come full-circle: we've glimpsed the intrusion of another world into our own, and we have no more idea at the end than at the beginning what it all might possibly mean.

And that's why this unassuming little film has found its way into my heart, much to my surprise. Genre films usually establish a contract with their viewers: from certain events that are set up at the beginning of the movie, we can expect certain other things to happen, and we also expect that events will resolve themselves in one of several clearly-defined ways. Cursed, on the other hand, adopts the techniques and concerns of an art film — for instance, a total disregard for linear narrative, and a Buñuel-like tendency to build a conventional scenario just to a certain point, and then abandon it — while never pretending to be anything other than a cheeky little B-movie.

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