Thursday, December 12, 2013


Seance (2000) aka Korei
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tetsuya Onishi
Starring Koji Yakusho, Jun Fubuki, Kitaro

A struggling husband and wife in modern Japan think they’re in luck when they randomly come across a kidnapped girl. See, Wifey can’t hold down a normal job because of her strong psychic abilities, and this is a chance to build the business by stringing the cops along and making their “discovery” of the girl seem like irrefutable evidence of her psychic ability. Things go awry, though, and soon the couple finds themselves trying to cover up their earlier efforts and avoid suspicion of kidnapping.

About halfway through watching this characteristically moody, minimalist thriller from CURE and KAIRO director Kiyoshi “Not Akira” Kurosawa, I suddenly realized it must be a remake of the Richard Attenborough/Kim Stanley British psychological horror classic SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. I didn’t notice it in the credits, but indeed, it’s apparently adapted from the same novel by Mark McShane, though this time with a distinctly Japanese flavor and one major deviation for the plot of the original: The wife, Junco (Jun Fubuki), actually is really psychic in this one.

This meaningfully changes the dynamic of the couple; in the original version (which I’m now regretting not reviewing here) the crux of the horror is on the fact that the wife is a fake -- she has no real powers, but her forceful personality has pushed her husband into implementing her crazy scheme and even covering for her slipping sanity. It’s a horror film about what we can be pushed into by people smarter and bossier than us, and the lies that we have to tell in order to convince ourselves we’re still good people. Kurosawa’s version isn’t really like that, though; we see several supernatural encounters from Junco’s perspective and have no reason at all to believe she’s anything other than completely forthright about her abilities. But they’re much more of a curse than a gift; they interfere with everyday things and prevent her from living a normal life, so you can understand her desperation to seize this unique opportunity to have the world take her seriously. And since it’s random happenstance rather than malice that puts the girl into their hands, the couple is a lot more sympathetic than their British counterparts were.

Quantum physics ruins yet another round of speed-dating

More sympathetic, but also in a way more mysterious. The point of the original film was the drama between the two characters and their conflicting desires. In typical Kurosawa fashion, the husband and wife team this time around are almost completely opaque in their introverted inner pain. It’s hard to really get a fix on them, to understand what exactly pushes them to do something which is ultimately pretty unforgivable. They seem worn out, hollow shells walking around trying to mimic life but spending more and more time with ghosts than with humans (the wife, through her psychic conjuring and the husband, --less literally-- through the recordings from his job as a sound engineer). I sort of think that the caper with the kidnapping victim may be their last bid to rejoin humanity somehow; to connect with the world more meaningfully. But it doesn’t work out too well, if I may be so bold.

Like most of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, this one thrives on a minimalistic dread that slowly permeates everything. There aren’t too many straight-up scare scenes, it’s mostly slow and quiet and filled with despair rather than crushing tension. The randomness of the circumstances by which they end up with the little girl diffuses the tension of planning and carrying out a crime (heck, the original is almost a heist movie!) but also makes it feel like the noose is inexorably closing on them, like the hand of fate has suddenly and inexplicably turned against them and there’s nothing they can do to understand --let alone mitigate-- their impending doom. This is a movie about the doomed, and as such, it’s maybe even more dismal than Kurosawa’s usual fare: it’s a murky, misty, dark world that these character inhabit, filled with dilapidated wrecks and muddy menace. They’re at the mercy of this dark world, and the one choice they are even able to make will lead them to their destruction. I’ve read it argued that this film is some sort of metaphor for Japanese millennial economic malaise; I don’t really know anything about that, but it would definitely make sense as these two empty, broken people find themselves turning unexpectedly brutal in response to the arbitrary cruelties life has dealt them.

Although most of the film is intentionally shot obsessively low-key, occasionally elements of green (which just explode out of the screen here) take over and turn the experience almost psychadelic. 

You gotta be impressed that Kurosawa would take the premise of an already-excellent, highly respected film and using only minor plot changes turn the whole thing on its head. In a lot of ways, the structure of this remake is remarkably similar to the original, but the end result fills your head with an entirely different set of question. Whereas the Attenborough version* is a masterfully tense game of power dynamics, Kurosawa’ version is bleak and obsessed with the randomly indifference of a cruel universe. And it’s even worse, because in Kurosawa’s film we don’t even have the comfort of a materialist universe to retreat to; it’s a world of malevolent supernatural entities who are beyond our understanding even while we are decidedly not beyond their reach. And to add insult to injury, it may not even be real. When a Shinto priest (summoned to conduct an exorcism) is asked about Hell, he responds only that Hell exists if you believe it does. It sure seems like fate stacked the deck against these two poor souls, but maybe the problem is that they invited it to, that they believed they were screwed enough to actively screw up their own lives.

If I’m making it sound depressing, well it is. Still, it’s not exactly misery porn, either; it’s moody and completely engrossing, enhanced by Kurosawa’s reliably masterful direction. If possible, he’s probably even more restrained here than he is in CURE, cultivating something with a very naturalistic feel in spite of its supernatural undercurrents. Apparently this was a TV movie, which is another good reminder that the Japanese are completely and utterly insane. It’s hard to imagine something so dark and captivating being interrupted by commercials for game shows where the contestants are stung by scorpions or whatever. Although I must admit, it might make the film’s subtext about both the arbitrary brutality of the universe and our implicit complicity in it feel a whole lot more applicable. Anyway, there’s not a moment here that doesn’t have the clear fingerprints of a masterful filmmaker. Fate may be cruel and arbitrary, but every once in awhile the remake gods throw us a bone.

*Directed by Bryan Forbes, of STEPFORD WIVES fame(?).


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, of Mark McShane's book Seance on a Wet Afternoon.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: Yes, more or less; there's a 1964 version with Richard Attenborough.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, TV movie, quite hard to get hands on over in the US.

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