Eastern Premise #82 – Noroi

Following a brief hiatus Jason Julier returns with a Japanese take on the found-footage phenomenon. 

It recently struck Eastern Premise dramatically how popular the lost footage genre remains whilst studying Asda’s latest in store releases. This voyage of discovery highlighted found asylum and supernatural footage all wrapped in startling sleeves and warnings of extremity. Of course we can blame the Last Broadcast and the Blair Witch Project if we are looking beyond the recent impact of Paranormal Activity, although EP prefers Ruggero Deodato’s unsavoury yet effective  1980 film Cannibal Holocaust to really illustrate the power of the genre. And there’s the added appeal of Halloween being just around the corner.

The Japanese lost footage equivalents in many ways owe their existence to Hideo Nakata’s influential 1998 film Ringu, which went a step beyond the video format and unleashed a tangible force. It would be this combination of technology, curse and the Japanese passion for ancient ghost stories that prompted a new onslaught, ably assisted by low budgets and digital technology. Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi is the pinnacle of the genre marrying all of these elements and adding more depth and narrative than commonly seen in most horror films.

Released in 2005, Noroi or The Curse, is Koji Shiraishi’s best work to date and as a director he has primarily worked in television or the horror genre. In the UK he is infamous for his 2009 film Grotesque, which was banned by the BBFC in its entirety when submitted for classification. The film was a very low budget release that tried to tap into the Saw inspired genre and was an easy target for the BBFC. As a piece of Japanese gore cinema in the tradition of the Guinea Pig series, it is entirely convincing relying on the skill of the director and technicians to deliver the extremities without the use of CGI.

Such was the reaction to the film that Shiraishi has in theory, strategically retreated back to the lost footage genre with 2009’s Occult and a year later Shirome, both of which are worth covering in future Eastern Premise episodes. Shiraishi’s influences outside of classic American horror include the work of Sogo Ishii, particularly Crazy Thunder Road, which was featured in Eastern Premise 60. Displaying a particular knack for harnessing urban legends as seen in Carved and Teke Teke, Shiraishi is able to take familiar material and mould it into a refreshing guise, whilst crafting effective shocks that are neither exploitative nor predictable.

He uses similar inspiration for Noroi as we watch the entire playback of an investigative film from paranormal expert Masafumi Kobayashi. This fictional journalist has made a career from documenting and recording Japanese supernatural activity in a series of books and films. We are told from outset that Noroi is his final work before disappearing without trace before playback and that the film is deemed to be too upsetting for public release. Kobayashi himself is a likeable, chubby journalist who displays a great deal of sympathy for his subjects and takes in those who are fleeing from trouble. Part of the film’s effectiveness can be attributed to the performance of Jin Muraki in this central role who also appears in Shinya Tsukamoto’s efficient Nightmare Detective.

What starts out in 2002 as a simple investigation into strange sounds emanating from an apartment  soon builds in complexity, with many of the characters we were introduced to briefly, becoming more central to the progression of the film. There is the oddball Mr Hori who wears aluminium tin foil and has decorated his home in the material to protect him from the worms, as he refers to them. By introduction a powerful psychic he warns individuals of the dangers and of everyday phenomenon as pigeons. Soon the trail leads Kobayashi to a mysterious woman who is often sighted with a child; we learn that this is Junko Ishii.

Clocking in at just under 2 hours, Noroi is excessive compared to other found footage films however Shiraishi uses this to his advantage. Adding layers of depth and characterisation beyond mere cheap scares the onlooker becomes part of this investigation. The supernatural moments are reminiscent of Nakata’s ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment in Dark Water. These brief flashes engage the viewer to use the power of DVD to rewind and calibrate what they might have just witnessed. For Kobayashi the group suicides become almost a side issue as we learn of Shimokage, a village that was lost when a huge dam project was completed in 1978. This historical oddity was home to an outpost of scorcerers who performed an ancient and unique ritual. From legend, a powerful demon known as Kagutaba was trapped beneath the village and a local priest performed the ceremony to ensure it remained trapped.  

While the village was submerged, its former occupants resettled and we learn through the efforts of Kobayashi are identifiable by owning guard dogs and the display of a sickle outside of their home. A local historian adds more depth to the mystery by showing us the 16mm film footage of the final ritual performed in 1978. Critics may argue that the emphasis on legends, the use of ancient symbols and the scenes within a forest are very reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project however the film retains an entirely Japanese feel throughout.

Just by reading this you may believe that Eastern Premise has spoiled much of the film, but in reality we’ve only just highlighted some of the fabric to a wonderfully twisted and macabre experience that stands out as one of the best J-horror films.

Noroi is available on DVD as a Region 1 import that does come with English subtitles. This version features the alternative ending which is actually better than the original; in fact you can clearly see where the initial cut ended. This new version is far more effective and ultimately haunting. For all the J-horror that was (and continues) to be released it is bizarre that this one eludes the UK market. Clearly superior to 99% of what you can purchase in the UK, either as J-horror or a lost footage film, Noroi is pretty much as good as it gets and for Halloween an ideal experience. 

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