BERLIN 2001 REVIEW: Go East, Blair Witch; Japan's "Inugami" Teases Horror
by Eddie Cockrell
(indieWIRE/02.20.01) -- At once ravishingly beautiful and maddeningly elusive, "Inugami" is one of the classier entries in Japan's recent horror boom, and despite its astonishing production values almost immediately earned the title "Go East, Blair Witch" from one festival wag following its respectfully received Berlin press screening. In truth, just as much of a tease as Artisan's wildly successful independent horror release, "Inugami" may in fact play better overseas than at home, where an appreciation of the film's formidable technical achievements will most likely be enhanced by the novel nature of the sets, costumes and the legend itself.
Deep in the rocky cedar forests of Japan's Shikoku Island is the village of Omine, home of the nearly outcast Bonomiya women and their peculiar curse. Legend dictates that these women are fated to guard urns which house the spirits of the Inugami -- wild dog gods that if freed would wreak havoc on the community.
Miki Bonomiya (Yuki Amami), a spinsterish maker of beautiful papers who has been reluctantly groomed to inherit the task by the spirit of her dead mother Tomie (Shiho Fujimura), instead falls in love with newly arrived young teacher Akira Nutahara (Atsuro Watabe). As their attraction grows, the villagers begin to notice that Miki looks increasingly younger and more vital, while at the same time a mysterious fog hovers over the region and an epidemic of vivid nightmares grip the townspeople. Local hunter Mimoto (Kyoichi Sato), with 999 pelts to his credit, claims he's seen the dogs roaming the forests and vows to kill the beasts and rid the town of the demons once and for all. As the traditional Ancestors Rites ceremony approaches, Miki and Akira learn a shocking truth about their relationship to each other and the drunken Takanao (Kazuhiro Yamaji) that could destroy both their love and all of Omine.
Critic-turned-director Masato Harada (a lifelong Howard Hawks fan) has perhaps needlessly complicated the mythic structure of "Inugami" by employing a kitchen sink approach to signs and meanings: the Oedipal strain of the story, alluded to only tangentially in Masako Bando's source novel, is brought front and center for the film, while the sizeable cast and the intricate relationships among the characters to themselves and nature (there's that Hawks influence) creates a formidable learning curve for western audiences.
Yet the film's biggest drawback springs from the director's decision to eschew special effects in favor of mood. Just as that hoary, but still-true dramatic edict decrees that a gun seen in the first act must go off in the third, if you're going to make a fantasy horror film about centuries-old wild dogs itching to get out of the urns in which they've been imprisoned, you'd better let the dogs out.
Yet the birds'-eye camera swoops and digital ripple effects used to signify the beasts, while impressive in their own right, don't exactly deliver the goods to a contemporary horror audience. And the few genre stingers, which include an old woman disintegrating and a baby rising from murky waters, aren't exactly the shocking creatures the audience has been primed for. "And though I was thinking of Hitchcock," Harada explains in the film's presskit, "I didn't want to fall into the trap of De Palma." Not a chance.
Among the many new films in this year's Berlin competition to make maximum use of their rich sound mixes and the muscular acoustics of the Berlinale Palast cinema (Lucrecia Martel's fascinating Argentine-Spanish entry "The Swamp" and Wojciech Marczewski's elusive "Weiser" are two of the more interesting examples), "Inugami" has a Dolby SR-D mix by Jun Nakamura and Kenji Shibasaki that rattles the molars when bombast is called for, but is delicate and nuanced in the film's peaceful scenes (and a confrontation between Miki and Akira in a cave during a thunderstorm will leave your hair wet).
In the end, a movie of too many genre ideas, "Inugami," far from "the makings of something new in Japanese cinema" promised by Harada, is an eye-catching project in search of a monster.
[Eddie Cockrell is a Maryland-based film critic covering his 20th consecutive Berlin International Film Festival, this year for Variety, nitrateonline.com and indieWIRE.]