Asian horror buffs will get the most out of “Shikoku,” a bold attempt to inject psychodrama into a ghost movie that taps into some of the same creepiness as recent Japanese hit “The Ring.” The first major B.O. success for director Shunichi Nagasaki (“Romance”), pic fails to achieve the depths of real horror that the story promises, but remains an interesting try nonetheless. Specialized fests remain its best arena.
Set on the southern island of Shikoku, pic opens confusingly with a teenager, Sayori (Chiaki Kuriyama), daughter of the village priestess, acting as a spiritual medium for dead souls. With a change of film stock, action then flashes back in time to show Sayori and her kiddie pals, Hinako and Fumiya, at play, before Hinako moves with her family to Tokyo.
Story proper starts in the second reel as Hinako (looker Yui Natsukawa), now a successful young designer, returns to the village on “family business,” hears Sayori drowned when 16, and re-meets Fumiya (Michitaka Tsutsui), to whom she’s now clearly attracted. Spooked by brief appearances of the dead Sayori, they research the island’s folklore, in which Shikoku is a gateway to the spiritual world that Sayori’s mom is trying to unlock so her daughter can return.
For most of the time, Nagasaki shoots this tale, based on a novel by Masako Bando, in a cleanly composed, restrained way as the stylishly dressed Hinako coolly goes about her investigations and the audience is fed tidbits of information. When the dots are connected at the halfway point, and the full potential horror revealed, pic briefly develops a genuine creepiness; but Nagasaki’s habit of inserting standard Asian ghost-movie scenes undercuts the “Ring”-like psychological elements, in which something ghastly is clearly going on behind the facade of normality. The finale simply doesn’t deliver on a level promised by the long, elliptical buildup.
Natsukawa and Tsutsui are fine as the central duo, and Kuriyama suitably ghostly-looking as Sayori, but Kie Negishi is jarringly over the top as her mad mom. Pic is tightly edited, with fine lensing by Noboru Shinoda.