The portmanteau film has had a chequered history. On paper the idea always sounds good – take a bunch of stories that won’t stretch to full feature length and link them together with a framing device or common theme. Although there have been exceptions (New York Stories, Kurosawa’s Dreams, Mystery Train, Night on Earth) the most noticeable anthology films have been in realm of the horror or ghost story: Ealing’s Dead
of Night (1945), Milton Subotsky’s anthologies from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) to The Monster Club (1980) and George A Romero’s Creepshow (1982). Dark Tales of Japan‘s linking tale concerns a solitary bus winding its way down dark roads, its main occupant, bar an understandably nervous driver, the creepily smiling presenter of a quintet of tales. "Would you like to hear a scary story?" she repeats to any hapless stray passenger. Frankly the question is irrelevant because she proceeds to do so whether they
like it or not.
There are five stories on show of varying length. Most of them rely on in-camera shocks, jumps and general weirdness, techniques that have become staples of the Japanese horror film for decades. These are worlds where the corporeal and supernatural co-exist but seldom interact, where the division between the living and the dead is generally one of perception alone. This is not the horror of gore (bar the last tale, this is a fairly blood-free affair) but of otherness, of things that the living should not know but are nevertheless present. As such the effects are not designed to elicit a sense of realism but atmosphere.
The opening story is a case in point, showing how contemporary effects work can actually work against the story. Yamazaki from salacious magazine Madamoiselle is on the trail of Spiderwoman, a turbo-hag who is a normal woman during the day but develops cravings for hot sauce and a need to engulf her victims in webbing at night. Spiderwoman is represented in a number of ways, often differing, in order to perpetuate the sense of myth surrounding her. A crouched shadow in the darkness of an underpass or a lurid illustration in a sensationalist magazine, the spiderwoman is a contradiction. When we see her feed she convulses and either crawls on all fours or sprouts extra limbs. These later effects are the result of altering camera speeds, adding rubber limbs and basically sticking two people together into the same costume. Despite its crudity it is strikingly effective. The same cannot be said for the CGI that seeps into the tale. The very short story Crevices sees the guarantor of an apartment resorting to blocking the crevices with red tape to prevent spirits invading the living world. The ghostly hands emerge from the smallest of cracks, slowly wearing away sanity. The Sacrifice sees Reiko plagued by visions of her grandmother’s death at her family’s shrine, half eaten by a giant, disembodied head. Links are established with dead insects, ancient runes and the need for one generation to protect the next in order for the family line to survive. A real sense of creeping dread punctuated by sudden nightmares makes this the most contained episode.
That is not the case with Blonde Kwaidan in which a lecherous Japanese film executive in Hollywood (passing comment on the USA’s plundering of modern Japanese horror films for its own market) ends up prey to "Blondie". The final tale, Presentiment, sees data-napper Fukawa trapped in a lift with three strange individuals for company, individuals who do not appear on the CCTV. Is it the spirit world or his conscience at walking away with ¥10million that are causing their corporeal manifestation? And what of the predicted demise by snapped cable? Again much use is made of a small cast in an enclosed space to create a sense of claustrophobia, one here that involves both the technological (surveillance TV, computer crime) and the otherworldly (dead tourists from beyond the grave) to show that however advanced we are, there are powers that are older and more established than the fragility of modern living.
Dark Tales of Japan offers a smorgasboard of traditional scares and creeps in a contemporary setting, all bundled into one tight anthology, although the budget constraints of digital shooting coupled with the usual problems of character development do take their toll. As an unfussy, creepy time-passer for lovers of Japanese horror you can’t go wrong (Blonde Kwaidan is the only real dud in the pack and that’s over quickly) but this is unlikely to convert the uninitiated. Anchor Bay’s disk includes five minute making of clips of all the tales, mainly bouquet-handing final day’s shooting interspersed with talking heads, which offer some inspiration for would-be low budget horror directors in need of inexpensive shock ideas.
Dark Tales of Japan is out now