TY-Fteller-Chap6-16The 1997 Japanese ghost film Kokkuri kept reminding me of The Sixth Sense, which it predated by two years. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s big hit, the movie frequently uses red to signify the presence of the unearthly. It is also unusually quiet. I wouldn’t recommend popping Kokkuri into your DVD player at a late hour unless you like waking up to scrolling end credits.

Which is not to say that Kokkuri is boring. Far from it. Directed by Takahisa Zeze — perhaps best known in Japan for his “pink films” — the movie could almost pass as a somber drama about grief and remorse if not for the occasional appearance of a ghostly little red-coated girl, whose arrivals never mean good news. Three schoolgirls — Mio (Ayumi Yamatsu), Hiroko (Hiroko Shimada) and Masami (Moe Ishikawa) — play a ouija-like game in which they communicate with the spirit Kokkuri. They ask questions, Kokkuri answers.

Among other things, Kokkuri predicts the death of Michiru, a worldly, sexually experienced DJ with her own midnight talk show, before she turns eighteen. This doesn’t bode well for virginal Mio, who is actually secretly Michiru, bullshitting on the air about things she’s never done. Mio also, we gather, bears more than friendly affection for Hiroko, who in turn carries a torch for Masami’s boyfriend. Mio and Hiroko have also lost loved ones to drowning; water is the movie’s other visual motif. The scenes proceed in whispered real time; up to a certain point, the biggest dramatic event is a fish tank toppling over. The fish, naturally, are red. Kokkuri‘s tone is more Bergmanesque than anything — sad, guilt-ridden. These may be the least perky schoolgirls in Japanese film history; each carries a terrible weight inside.

I’ve seen some bewildered and impatient reviews from people who were probably up for another Ringu or The Grudge, with clearcut eek! moments. There are no eek! moments here; there’s hardly any score at all, and therefore no musical “stings” to make us jump. When the little ghostly girl shows up, there’s no EEK LOOK LOOK prompt on the soundtrack — she’s just suddenly there. The closest thing to a conventional scare tactic comes when a character starts talking in a little-girl voice, and even that isn’t punched very hard. Kokkuri is an exquisitely stately and subtle chiller. Shogo Ueno’s photography casts Tokyo as a gray and mundane place where souls are drenched and lost. Only the flashbacks of trauma yield any lyricism.

Washing around in the subtext is shame about sexuality, hetero and homo, wired into survivors’ guilt after events that effectively end a childhood. As the film quietly goes about its business, its acquiescence to certain horror clichés, like a showdown in an abandoned public bath, can’t help but disappoint slightly. In the end, though, we realize we’ve been watching a meditation on inevitability: What happens to the girls was written in stone years ago.

I wasn’t always clear on how various people were connected — a second viewing may help — but I was always jacked into the film emotionally. These girls are miserable, and the scariest thing about the movie is that we can’t quite decide whether Kokkuri’s influence dooms them or simply guides them more quickly to where they were going anyway.

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