Films, Ghost, Horror, Japan, Recommended posts, Reviews

One Missed Call Trilogy

3 stars

One Missed Call, 着信アリ. Japan 2003. Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Kou Shibasaki, Anna Nagata, Shinichi Tsutsumi. 112 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.

One Missed Call 2, 着信アリ2. Japan 2005. Directed by Renpei Tsukamoto. Starring Mimula, Chisun, Yū Yoshizawa, Asaka Seto, Renji Ishibashi, Peter Ho. 105 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.

One Missed Call: Final, 着信アリFinal. Japan 2006. Directed by Manabu Asô. Starring Maki Horikita, Meisa Kuroki, Jang Yun-seok. 104 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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The cult J-horror series collected for the first time in a Blu-ray boxset by Arrow Video…

The early 2000s were a great time for fans of Japanese horror, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu films and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on series terrifying audiences around the world, proving both incredibly influential and popular, leaving a lasting impact on the genre as well as being remade in Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, their success gave rise to a slew of similar films and knock-offs, with a long list of filmmakers trying their luck with long-haired female ghosts and cyclical curses. One of the highest-profile Japanese examples of this came with the One Missed Call franchise, which spawned three films, a TV series and a Hollywood remake, based on the Chakushin Ari novels by Yasushi Akimoto, mainly known as a record producer and lyricist for Japanese idol groups. Having never quite enjoyed the same profile or success as Ringu or Ju-on, the franchise drifted off into relative obscurity, remembered by fans with a vague fondness, though returns now, with the three films collected and re-released by Arrow Video in a special edition Blu-ray collection, making One Missed Call: Final available in the UK for the first time.

The first One Missed Call arrived in 2003, directed by none other than Takashi Miike, the master of wild, unpredictable cinema, who was then enjoying a fantastic run of form, having directed the likes of Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, Audition, Dead or Alive and others in the preceding few years. The film was seen as an odd, unusually commercial choice for Miike, for western fans at least, who at that time were mainly exposed to the wackier and more cult side of his output.

The plot of One Missed Call begins in the expected fashion, as a young student called Yoko (Anna Nagata, Battle Royale) receives a mysterious phone call which foretells her death. The less than stunning twist is that the call she receives, in fact, comes from her own mobile and is dated three days into the future. Although Yoko ignores the call itself, the ghost handily leaves a message on her answering machine — the message is her screaming and uttering a few cryptic words. Of course, Yoko and her friends, including nominal heroine Yumi (singer and actress Kou Shibasaki, then becoming known to genre fans thanks to roles in the likes of Battle Royale and Kakashi, and who recently starred in Baragaki: Unbroken Samurai), laugh it off before, unsurprisingly, the prophetic message is fulfilled, and she meets a gruesome, inexplicable fate, a strange red candy being found in her mouth. One by one, the group of friends receive similar messages and die in mysterious fashions, and after Yumi also receives a call from the ghost, it’s left to her to investigate and solve the sinister mystery, aided by detective Hiroshi (Shinichi Tsutsumi, Space Battleship Yamato), who has a personal connection to the case.

Clearly, One Missed Call is in many ways a very traditional modern Asian ghost film, the plot following a female protagonist as she investigates a supernatural curse, trying to solve the mystery before it claims her own life, and it does, for the most part, play out in the expected fashion. For fans of the form, most of its scares and revelations will be all too familiar, with the central spook Mimiko having taken several pages from Sadako’s playbook in particular, and with a number of scenes recalling Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water and the Korean horror Phone from director Ahn Byeong-ki, both from 2002. Clocking in at nearly two hours, the film has a few pacing issues, though is generally atmospheric and has a central mystery that’s solid enough to hold the interest, if without delivering any real surprises.

One Missed Call is certainly less creative than might have been expected with Takashi Miike at the helm, and is definitely one of his more sedate and straightforward efforts, especially when compared with his other works of the early 2000s. Still, even if best described as ‘Miike-lite’, the film is competently made and visually impressive, and sees the director working in a few oddball elements, including TV exorcism and possession subplots, which are just about enough to give it a boost and to make it one of the more likeable Ringu rip-offs of the period. There’s somewhat of a Final Destination feel to parts of the film, with at least a couple of the death scenes being amusingly creative, if not exactly up to Miike’s usual level.

The film proved popular enough in Japan and overseas to fast track a sequel, which duly arrived in 2005, directed by Renpei Tsukamoto, who went on to mainly work on television, as well as making the recent comedy Bento Harassment. Again based on the writing of Yasushi Akimoto, the film came with a similar premise to the original story, expanding the story of Mimiko and her freaky phone calls and red candies, while adding a Taiwanese element to shake things up a little.

Set a year after the events of the first film, with original protagonist Yumi missing, One Missed Call 2 begins with Kindergarten teacher Kyoko (Mimula, Close-Knit) visiting a Chinese restaurant with her friend Madoka (Chisun, Blood and Bones), where Madoka’s boyfriend Naoto (Yū Yoshizawa, Crossfire) works. While they’re there, Wang, the restaurant’s chef, receives a cursed call from Mimiko on his daughter’s phone, dying almost immediately in a horrible kitchen accident. This catches the attention of journalist Takako (Asaka Seto, Death Note), who is investigating the events of the first film with Detective Motomiya (a returning Renji Ishibashi), and who fills Naoto in on the Mimiko legend, asking him about Wang, being particularly interested in the fact that he had coal dust in his lungs. After Madoka receives a call and subsequently dies, Kyoko teams with Naoto and Takako to solve the Mimiko mystery, leading them to trace her family to Taiwan and to an old abandoned mining town, helped by Takako’s Taiwanese ex-husband Yuting (Peter Ho, Sword Master).

By 2005, post-Ringu Japanese ghost films were already starting to feel a little stale and formulaic, a trend which One Missed Call 2 did little to buck. Much like its predecessor, the film is a grab bag of familiar genre scenes and scares, again focusing on a desperate attempt by its female protagonist to save herself from a curse through investigating the dark secrets of the past. The plot plays out exactly as expected, with certain cast members clearly being marked for the off, and with the revelations about Mimiko’s past and the film’s eventual resolution both entirely predictable. While the film’s Taiwan subplot could be seen as an attempt to do something at least a little different, it ultimately doesn’t count for much, feeling a bit tacked on and never really used for the kind of cultural themes that might have made the story richer.

Still, a lack of originality aside, there’s nothing particularly wrong with One Missed Call 2, and it ticks most of the right genre boxes, familiarity not breeding contempt in this case, at least for fans of the form. With Miike not exactly having made the first film his own, his presence isn’t particularly missed, and Renpei Tsukamoto does a perfectly creditable job, making the film creepy, if not exactly frightening, and thanks to some decent production values it looks and feels slicker than many of its peers. Coming with a slightly shorter running time, the film has a more consistent pace and tone than the original, and though Mimiko’s backstory isn’t anything special, the script does make a genuine effort to establish her as a Sadako style figure.

Without wishing to damn with faint praise, One Missed Call 2 is a modestly successful ghost yarn, and a worthy follow-up to the equally good but not great first instalment in the franchise. Whilst on its original release the film did nothing to revitalise or shake up the J-horror genre of the time, and suffering from the fact that it’s not actually scary, fifteen years later it feels like a pleasant enough throwback, and is a reasonably worthwhile revisit for fans.

It’s hard to keep a good ghoul down, and after a ten-episode Japanese television series in 2005, Mimiko returned in 2006 for the optimistically titled One Missed Call: Final. Continuing the franchise’s pattern of having a different director for each instalment, the chair was this time filled by Manabu Asô who, like his predecessor Renpei Tsukamoto is best known for his TV work. As with One Missed Call 2, the film takes place partly in Japan and partly in another Asian country, in this case switching Taiwan for South Korea.

The third film distances itself from the first two, switching track to follow a group of teenage school students on a class trip to Busan in South Korea. Bullying is rife, and we soon learn that one unfortunate girl tried to hang herself after being tormented mercilessly, and is apparently in hospital in a coma. Her friend Asuka (Maki Horikita, Always: Sunset on Third Street), who is also being targeted by the bullies, decides to take revenge after tracking down the Mimiko story online, setting in motion a curse which kills them one by one in the usual One Missed Call style, getting them to try and save themselves by passing on a haunted message to their friends. When Asuka ignores her pleas to stop her crusade, her friend Emiri (Meisa Kuroki, Crows Zero), herself a victim of the bullies, teams with her boyfriend Jin-wo (Korean actor Jang Yun-seok, Human, Space, Time and Human) to investigate, leading them to Mimiko and a haunted computer.

While some might groan at the idea of One Missed Call: Final going the teen route, it was clear that the original story was very much played out and that something new was needed to try and keep Mimiko relevant. Given the franchise’s thing for mobile phones, the idea of focusing on a younger group of characters makes sense, and the film does see more of a tech angle, which at least gives things a vaguely different feel. This isn’t to say that the film actually makes any sense, with a surprisingly convoluted story that suddenly decides to shoehorn in elements from its predecessors at a late stage, leaving viewers unclear as to exactly why Mimiko is involved at all – the inclusion of the haunted computer, in particular, is ridiculous, although it does make for an unintentionally hilarious scene in which Emiri and Jin-wo attempt to defeat the ghost by basically spamming it with lots of emails.

Although the downside of making the film more teen-friendly is that there’s little in the way of gore or anything too frightening, despite a few visual nods towards Battle Royale, it moves along at a faster pace than the previous entries, and doesn’t get too caught up in its own attempts to be clever. Manabu Asô does a reasonable job as director, and while he never really nails the horror elements of the film, he seems more comfortable when dealing with teen drama and bullying – the film is arguably most effective when focusing on this rather than anything supernatural. The Korean setting is a nice touch, and though it doesn’t count for much, as with Taiwan in One Missed Call 2, it at least provides some different scenery.

The 2008 Hollywood remake aside, One Missed Call: Final does at the time of writing appear to be the series’ swansong, with it never having seen the regular rebooting and increasingly tangential sequels that Ringu and Ju-on have. This is probably for the best, and is likely one of the main reasons why the three films are thought of more kindly by fans, with Mimiko having avoided outstaying her welcome. Though all three are at best above average for the post-Ringu ghost genre, seeming to be quite content never to aim for anything too creative or ambitious, they’re entertaining in their own modest way, even if more should have been expected from Takahashi Miike and his entry. With the popularity of the long-haired female ghost having waned, there’s something charmingly old-fashioned and harmless about Mimiko’s antics when watched today, and the One Missed Call trilogy definitely benefits from a touch of nostalgia, if being unlikely to impress or terrify newcomers to the series.

The One Missed Call Trilogy is available now on UK Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
Read all posts by James Mudge

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