Saturday, October 6, 2012

Movie Appraisal: Kakashi (案山子) (Scarecrow) (2001)

 "We co-exist with death here."

Despite the overlong introduction this movie delivers in its atmosphere. Kakashi is both moody and well directed by Norio Tsuruta, even if the story and characters are rather flat. I had a good time watching most of this movie, but I did find it, as I've found many of these movies over the last few months, predictable and without any real horror, even boring at times if I may be so bold. The terror, the horror, the fear... they kind of didn't exist in this movie. I found any kind of scariness literally lacking here, which was a disappointment on the interesting premise of this film. Again, most of these movies have great ideas, but they are simply executed poorly. Kakashi is better than most, but it still has the exact same flaws even if they aren't quite as apparent. One of the biggest flaws is that this manga story "Kakashi" or "Scarecrow" is a much better story than this film version to the point where I don't see why that unsettling idea was scrapped in favor of this story.

Kakashi is based off of Junji Ito's manga short story named the same as mentioned above. Ito also helped to write the screenplay of the film. The manga is quite a bit different, with the scarecrows being kind of an accidental thing after one is placed in a graveyard by a father to try and scare away a young man who was in love with his daughter who died. In the manga their sentience is also questionable at best and it is left open to the reader to decide whether they were "alive" at all or just projections put on to the scarecrows by the people who lost their loved ones. Overall the manga is a much better and more effective story, but is quite a bit shorter and with even flatter characters overall. Boy, oh boy... what I wouldn't give for a strongly characterized horror movie. It's bad when all of these movies have such archetypal and flat characters. I can't stand it. I can basically just predict what's going to happen and what characters are going to do. It's actually kind of boring. Horror movies should not be boring. That's really bad.

Anyway, the movie starts off with a girl, Kaoru, looking for her missing brother, Tsuyoshi. Kaoru is your standard quiet Japanese girl. She is quiet. I mean, REALLY QUIET. Almost unsettling so. She asks some questions and does eventually get a little pissed off, but is mostly ineffective and just too quiet throughout the film. I never could identify with her as a main character, never could say, "OH BOY, I LOVE SCENES WITH KAORU!" She was simply boring. Boring. Boring. And a little uninteresting to boot.

Anyway, it seems that another girl named Izumi has sent a letter to Tsuyoshi, telling him to come to her town to meet her. Okay, interesting premise, I guess. Tsuyoshi goes missing and Kaoru feels the need to look for her brother, which makes sense. The beginning of the film is actually effective. It has very little dialogue and relies on the atmosphere to tell the story. Kaoru goes through a tunnel to the out of the way town and her car breaks down, eventually leading her to the creepily quiet village and some strange people who all are carrying around scarecrows. She also sees a young woman who was thought to be missing named Sally, but the woman disappears before she gets a chance to talk with her.

Eventually Kaoru ends up talking to Izumi's parents, learning that there is something wrong with her. Izumi is an old classmate of Kaoru who seems to have had some sort of relationship or feelings for Tsuyoshi. The stilted dialogue between every character works at making the movie feel unsettling, but also works against this moving at slowing the pace down quite a bit. There is never really any intensity to the dialogue, and I honestly found myself nodding off a few times during the movie, which is never a good sign.

The way that Izumi's mother seems to detest Kaoru and Izumi's father seems sympathetic if a little gruff does work well, even if it seems like another standard trope. Izumi's father (played by Kenzô Kawarasaki), who seems to run the clinic, is easily the most sympathetic character in the movie and he is also quite probably the best actor here. Kaoru ends up staying a few night at Izumi's parents' house and has some pretty intense nights, either because of some pretty odd dreams or because her brother and Izumi are doing some pretty strange things at night. It's hard to tell what's fact and what's fantasy at this point in the film. A quotation that happens fairly often in the film is "Is this a dream? Or a fantasy?" and it really does pick up on the idea that the film and the town itself seem to take place somewhere outside of any reality. It's a pretty neat idea, but it's execution is a bit spotty.

Anyway, eventually we get into the meat and potatoes of the movie: the zombie scarecrows. Yeah, it's kind of silly, but also strangely effective in a boring and kind of average type of way. I'm reminded of other towns that are made up of weird people like The Shadow Over Innsmouth and "Children of the Corn." It's a worse story than either of those, but the sentiment is still there, which I appreciate. So, these zombie scarecrows try to stop Kaoru from leaving the town, but they're scarecrows. I mean, seriously? Nobody's thinking what I'm thinking? Scarecrows are not strong; they're made of straw and clothes. It's not like they have muscle or whatever. If you have a match, you are going to win. Hell, if you have a hand you'll win. It's a scarecrow. Made of straw. I'm pretty sure you can fight it off, Kaoru. But no, Kaoru is an idiot and seems to have trouble fighting off men made of straw. Sigh.

Then Kaoru finds herself in her car, trying to start it up to leave the zombie scarecrows forever, but... seriously... one of the zombie scarecrow evil townspeople things is the mechanic who worked on your car, Kaoru. Stop trying to start it up and run. The evil mechanic didn't fix your car. They all lied to you. He specifically lied to you. The policeman lied to you. Stop trying to start it and... finally you run. Jeez. It took you long enough, you crazy broad. So, then Sally becomes one of the main characters, and Kaoru seems to feel the need to save her as well. All right, all right. I get it. It's cool.

What isn't cool is reading someone's private diary. That's not cool at all, Kaoru. You have committed the grave sin of invading somebody else's privacy, and that's terrible. Anyway, I'm going to stop being silly. Kaoru finds and reads Izumi's diary and learns that Izumi had a HUGE thing for her brother, Tsuyoshi, but Kaoru already knew that and... well, she kept t from her brother, actively trying to shut down any romance before it could get started. That's not very nice Kaoru. That's really not cool at all. It seems that Kaoru wasn't a very good friend. Not helping Izumi... no, actively making sure that Izumi had no chance with her brother... eventually causes Izumi to go a little crazy, cursing Kaoru and in the end killing herself. Izumi pulls a perfect "all work and no play make jack a dull boy" type of thing in her diary with the repetition of Kaoru's name over and over again before you kills herself though. That's pretty cool, almost unsettling. That's one reference to a better horror film. Then there's another reference as Izumi speaks of the jealousy that Kaoru has for her relationship with Tsuyoshi. Izumi pulls the reference from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) when Izumi opens her mouth and screams at Kaoru, exactly like what Donald Sutherland does in that movie. I rolled my eyes and was flabbergasted. It was a pretty blatant reference... both kind of were. And the rule of thumb is that you never reference a better movie in your film. Kakashi referenced at least two better movies.

So, the movie is moving along. The townspeople are reviving dead relatives through scarecrows. Izumi's restless spirit who is seeking revenge on Kaoru is kind of messing up the entire town though, causing a kind of dark energy to spread across it even into the zombie scarecrows. I like the idea of this, but it never really comes out after it's mentioned. I mean, yes, both of Izumi's parents are killed, but it's never really tense. It never feels as dark as it should. I think I might feel intimidated by some creepy zombie scarecrows, but it mostly feels kind of boring. They shamble a bit and there kind of is a chase... kind of... but really they're wasted... really, really wasted.

I will admit though that the best part of the movie is the ending. It gets kind of a little creepy maybe and stuff actually happens finally, which are always pluses in a horror movie. I like the way the scarecrow policeman gets up. That was pretty creepy, kind of unsettling to see a person move so unnaturally. Then... OH NO DIRT.... um, don't know where that came from... Oh boy, is this movie almost over? I kind of want it to be over... Again, the ending is good, but the movie is so slow and dull that I just want it to end already.

Eventually Kaoru finds her brother and grabs Sally. They all go off to leave the town but get sidetracked somehow to where the scarecrows are set to come back to life... conveniently. Izumi comes back to life and calls Tsuyoshi to her who uses a flare to burn them both up while they embrace. The burning effect is not well done, but sentiment was beautiful. I really liked it and thought it was pretty effective.

Eventually Sally and Kaoru run through the tunnel from the beginning of the movie, but Kaoru hears her brother calling her and decides to go back to the town as Sally escapes. It's a standard ending and kind of works, but I have questions and thoughts about this movie. And I shall list them.

1. What is Kaoru's relationship with her brother? It seems more than sisterly. Maybe it's just a Japanese thing, but seriously Kaoru seems either extra clinging or it seems like she may have an incestuous relationship, or at least incestuous feelings, for her brother. Maybe I'm wrong or reading too strongly into it, but it seems pretty apparent to me. It changes the dynamics of both characters if this were true, showing Tsuyoshi's coming to the town to be a way to get away from a sinful relationship with his sister, and Kaoru's pursuit of him to be basically showing that she is indeed the villain in this movie, not Izumi, who seems to be the biggest victim of all, a victim of Kaoru and her clingy ridiculous behavior. Now, even if there is nothing sexual or incestuously wrong with Kaoru's relationship with her brother, she's still wrong and terrible, basically refusing to live out her own life, giving it up rather easily just because her brother is that important to her. It's rather offensive to the senses.

2. I  like the living scarecrows, the shells that take in the dead souls. I think the original manga is much better put together, with the scarecrows accidentally taking on the faces of the dead and the souls never really coming back to life. It seems creepier that way, certainly more unsettling, and less explainable. I don't like the town with a dark secret type of thing, certainly not if it's supernatural like this movie was. The original manga just had more mystery and a better feeling to it. This film seemed really boring despite its short length. It just didn't have the power to be scary or effective or even really well done. It was an intensely mediocre film, one that I couldn't recommend to be watched even if it isn't necessarily an offensive or terrible film.

3. The tunnel seems to show a transition between life and death. I liked this idea quite a bit, but have seen it in other movies, most memorably in Spirited Away, where it was done SO much better. The transition between the living world and the world of the dead is a meaningful one and one that Kaoru just can't accept in the end, which I think is absolutely interesting, but really it's too little, too late for this film.. All of those people in the village cannot accept death and so live side-by-side with death, but once you leave the village, you leave death behind you as well. You move on, finding life instead of basking in death. It's what makes Sally's decision to leave such an important and strong-headed decision whereas Kaoru's decision to stay in the village is instead a weakness on her part. She's essentially a very needy, very weak character who has no choice but to look back when her brother calls, who has no choice to leave the land of the living because she doesn't have the strength to go on alone. You don't look back to death once you leave it behind you. You never look back. Orpheus taught us as much. Sodom and Gomorrah taught us as much. Salt, anyone? But Kaoru did look back, and of course it damned her. The ending might be the creepiest part, and the most thought-provoking as well. It certainly was a reference to those works and I thought it was very effective, even if it kind of destroyed Kaoru as the heroine and as a strong character... but she was never really strong, was she?

Kakashi is not a great movie. It has some moodiness to it and its atmosphere is well done for the most part, but it ultimately fails as a horror movie because it's never really scary. And it fails as a normal movie because it's never really all that interesting. It could have been a good zombie film, but it lacked the zombie bits. It could have been a good ghost revenge film, but the revenge really never comes. Kaoru both "wins" and "loses," but Izumi seems to basically cease to exist, thus never finding happiness with the, I assume, reborn Tsuyoshi, and never finding happiness in finding revenge against the girl she hated so much. It's a wishy-washy film, one that never really seems to do anything at all, and it ultimately fails because it could have been so much better if it had tried to be something definable, something scary or interesting. Instead it never really is anything at all.

1 comment:

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