A unique and disorientating take on the Japanese ghost genre…
It’s nearly two decades since films like Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On and Takashi Miike’s Audition put the phrase ‘J-Horror’ into our lexicon. For a few years in the early noughties, it became synonymous with a new generation of Japanese horror, full of inventive sound design and those longhaired ghosts. The high point probably came with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, by which stage that director was already playing with the expectations of the genre and undermining them, before those facets became too familiar, reflected and mimicked across East Asian countries from Korean to Thailand.
But if the attraction died back somewhat over the years, it’s due a resurgence. The recent Sadako vs. Kayako sought to merge the genre’s most famous franchises, Ju-On and Ringu, even if it came at the cost of flattening out both films initial originality; and the US version of the franchise has just been restarted with Rings, some 12 years since the sequel. Could we be approaching a second ‘peak ghost’ moment for Japanese horror? With Bamy, which had its world premiere at the indie forum strand as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017, director Tanaka Jun is taking some of those familiar motifs and subverting them to make something more personal and unique.
The story concerns Fumiko (Hiromi Nakazato) and Ryota (Hironobu Yukinaga), two college acquaintances who are brought together by a mysterious red umbrella. Instantly falling for each other, they quickly become engaged, until their relationship begins to crumble due to Ryota’s unfortunate ability: that he can see ghosts. Appearing all around him, in restaurants as they make their wedding plans and the warehouse where he works, these visions bring him to breaking point. But as Fumiko distances herself from him, he meets Sae Kimura (Misaki Tsuge), who seems to have the same ability.
The director’s intentions, according to the programme notes, was to explore the red string of fate, an East Asian belief that an invisible chord binds two lovers together; their destiny set whatever the circumstances. Writer/director Tanaka Jun wanted to explore this as a curse, something he makes clear from the opening scene as even the most innocuous scenes are set on a bed of the most ominous, dramatic music. Terada Eichi’s score is pretty effectively used by Tanaka; deliberately abruptly cut on the scene change, suddenly shifting the mood.
It’s a neat device, and when we first start to see the ghosts, dimly lit to look little more than shadows, out of focus, the result fosters an increasing sense of dread. But as the narrative begins to build up momentum, the chopping between scenes starts to feel to overworked, just as the more we see of the ghosts, the less we fell afraid of them. As we enter the finale, the film adopts a disorienting surreal, rather dreamlike quality, living up to the films title. As long as you’re British and decide to spell it with an ‘r’. Barmy, totally barmy. Giving way to some unexpected tokusatsu inspired madness.
Indeed, to the films benefit at least it has a sense of its own ridiculousness, rather missing in recent po-faced efforts like Sadako vs. Kayako. Nonetheless for a film that is meant to be about these lovers destiny, you are never convinced of their passion from the start – the chemistry just isn’t there – nor are they likeable enough to care about. That doesn’t stop this being a very individual take on the genre.