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Review © Midori, 2005.

Directed by: Shimako Satou, 1995, 80 minutes. Starring: Kimika Yoshino, Miho Kanno.

Being the adventures of Misa Kuroi, a young witch, and a woman of destiny.

Lucifer from Heav'n
(So call him, brighter once amid the host
of Angels, than that Star the Stars among)
Fell with his flaming legions through the Deep
Into his place.
They fell thick as autumn leaves, with Cherub
and Seraph rolling in the Flood.
Nine days they fell: confounded Chaos roar'd."

from John Milton's Paradise Lost

This pastiche of Milton, which commences the film Eko Eko Azarak, sets up beautifully the tension and mood of the rest of this little hidden gem of a film, right from the beginning.

Although a recent explosion of horror and ghost story films from Japan and other parts of East Asia can be dated from the success of Ring, Ring itself derives from an existing culture and a long tradition of Japanese horror. Older films like Onibaba and Kwaidan prove that, of course, but it is interesting to revisit Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness, a modern teen horror predating Ring by just three years (this now seeming like a gulf of time). This film has been surprisingly overlooked in the West, considering the success of Ring. Horror films made after Ring (and in many cases borrowing heavily from that film) have, maybe understandably, garnered a lot more attention than films BR (before Ring). Whereas Ring was a suspenseful techno-horror, based very loosely in a generic form of Japanese folklore, Eko Eko Azarak belongs to a slightly older tradition in Japan, that of the school horror, but borrows its mythos from an alien culture – that of Western style black magic. The very title of the franchise is part of a larger incantation that is used in European witchcraft:

Eko Eko Azarak
Eko Eko Zomelak
Eko Eko Cernunnos
Eko Eko Aradia

The scenario would be familiar to most Western television viewers, too: a teenage witch, at school, confronts the forces of evil, and the burden of loneliness that her powers bring. Buffy the Vampire Slayer sounds a likely prototype for this. But things are not as simple as that - the film is actually based on a popular manga series from the 1970s, penned by Koga Shinichi. This manga is sadly unavailable in the West, and is only available in Japan in the original Japanese. Fans of Ito Junji will recognise this form of horror comic instantly, though. In the original manga, Misa Kuroi is very different from the films. She is less the adolescent ingenue coming to terms with approaching adulthood and powers that she is as yet unaccustomed to, and more of a timeless, vengeful elemental spirit - less like Buffy and more of a fore-runner of Tomie, if you will. Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness is a film the sort of which would be very welcome to Western audiences: basically a conventional teen horror of the "they died, one by one" variety, but with very clever twists, and some surprises of atomic bomb proportions that derive from the essential Japaneseness of the film.

The film opens with a thrilling action sequence that sets the tone and tension for the rest of the film. A young well-dressed woman is running through central Tokyo at night - Shinjuku or Ginza, probably. She is terrified of some unseen enemy, and running, panicking, through a crowd, bumping into people as she flees. At intervals, the focus of attention cuts to scenes of sinister figures in red hooded capes, in a candle-filled room, uttering incantations over a small wax doll, presumably representing this woman.

She flees to a less well frequented area, the edge of a building site, and is further terrified by posters on the temporary fences, showing pictures of the devil as the Goat of Mendes, and Death pictured on flyers littering the ground. Fleeing further, she stops, and is decapitated by a falling girder. This is intercut with a scene showing the little doll with a dagger stuck in its head. There is no doubt that this is black magic, and very powerful at that. The sword-wielding leader of ceremonies announces that the "pentagram is complete" (to be explained later) and that a further ceremony is to take place involving 13 sacrifices. He anoints the leader of this ceremony, whose face is concealed. The new appointee warns that "That woman may come... the woman with great powers... the woman we don't want as an enemy."

Then we move to the title sequence, and the pupils arriving at school, processing along a tree-lined avenue. This idyllic scene is rudely interrupted, however, when a pervy male teacher lecherously "inspects" a female pupil as she is walking through the school gates. This is a particularly shocking scene (to Western viewers at any rate). As he finally lets her through the gate, another figure swiftly stalks past. The teacher demands who she is, and she turns ominously toward him and glares: "Misa Kuroi!" Next we move to the class where the pupils are arriving. One of the boys, Mizuno, is talking self-importantly to a group of girls about his knowledge of witchcraft. He plots the locations of a series of murders on a map of the area around the school. He refers to a murder the previous night (the death we saw right at the beginning) and then draws lines between the locations, revealing a pentagram - he points to the centre of this pentagram and announces it as the location of the school. It seems then that the school must be somehow connected with these murders, in terms of black magic.

Miss Shirai, the stern form teacher, appears and announces the arrival of the latest "transfer student," Misa Kuroi, whose demure arrival is greeted by a few gasps of approval from the boys. At this point, any prudent Japanese school pupil would fake illness and play truant for at least a week, for as we all know, in Japanese films, transfer students usually bring death and mayhem in their wake. A girl called Kurahashi Mizuki (played by the delightful Miho Kanno) who announces herself as the class representative, takes Misa under her wing, and gets her up to speed with the school gossip. She shows Misa the unopenable door of the "old art room," a locked classroom, reputedly haunted by the ghost of a teacher who had committed suicide. In the girls locker room, she warns Misa of Mr. Numata, the pervy male teacher we encountered earlier, and also Miss Shirai, the form teacher, who "likes girls" and "is having a fling" with Kazumi Tanaka, another student in Misa's class. The moment she utters this, she is smitten by a sudden fit, where she appears to be suffocating. Misa responds instantly by uttering a spell, and running down to the school boiler room, where she finds the remains of a recent magical spell-ceremony, involving dozens of burning candles and a small wax doll with a lock of hair wrapped around its throat.

This action saves Mizuki, but obviously there is someone practising witchcraft at this school, and there are at least a couple of prime suspects. The chief among these must be the would-be witch, Mizuno, who Misa learns is to conduct a ceremony to get revenge, on behalf of the students, on the lecherous teacher Mr. Numata. Misa intervenes and announces that the ceremony is being conducted incorrectly (the wrong type of wax doll). She takes over the ceremony and by means of some particularly evil but relatively harmless magic, gives Mr. Numata a bad case of the runs. Miss Shirai enters Mr. Numata's Biology class and announces that it will not take place as he is now ill. Misa's reputation as a skilled practitioner of black magic is cemented, at the same time as Mizuno's is destroyed. In a sulk, Mizuno goes to his favourite hiding place for a crafty cigarette, and overhears that Misa had to leave her last school after numerous pupils had died under mysterious circumstances.

When it is announced the next day that Mr. Numata has suffered a worse fate than Montezuma's Revenge, having been killed in a car accident, suspicion falls on Misa, who is now considered to be an evil and dangerous witch. At her class later in the day, the maths teacher, Miss Shirai, announces that there is to be a special resit examination, after school, for a select number of students (13, lucky for some), one of whom is to be Misa. At the end of the exam, when all has gone dark, Misa hears a mysterious bell toll 13 times (which is strange as it's half past six). Mizuki has not heard this, so it must have been audible to Misa alone. As the test is over and Miss Shirai has not returned on time to collect the papers, the boys all decide to leave, while the girls remain dutifully behind in the hope that Shirai-sensei will return.

Meantime, one of the girls goes to the toilet. The boys step out of the front entrance, only to find it brings them back into a classroom in the school, while the girl who went to the toilet is killed in a watery "accident." It is from here on that the film moves into top gear, and the Agatha Christie "Ten Little Indians" scenario of student after student being bumped off, with suspicion falling, at first, on Misa herself. The school is hermetically sealed by magic, and Misa is the only one with the power to save the students from dying as part of a sacrifice to summon Lucifer to the world, and begin a reign of darkness. In this way the film moves to its thrilling and suspenseful climax, with one or two devious plot twists along the way.

The low down

In terms of the film's influences, there are some similarities to films from other countries. Wizard of Darkness has a basic plot that will be familiar to fans of the slasher genre, and other kinds of thriller. The scenario of a group of people, gathered together in one place and being picked off one by one in ingenious and unexpected ways is hardly a new scenario, but there are variants on it, and the variant in Eko Eko Azarak is intriguing. Firstly, the killer is a supernatural one, able to act simultaneously on the astral plane as well as in the real world - possibly echoing A Nightmare on Elm Street. The ingenious, supernatural deaths of the unsuspecting victims seem like a prototype for Final Destination. However, in Wizard of Darkness, the winner is the one who had had the foresight to get his or her magic tricks in first, in a face-off that is reminiscent of that between De Nomolos and Bill and Ted at the end of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. Setting the film in a girl's school is of course reminiscent of Suspiria. The Omen is also obviously a major influence.

So far, so Western, you may think - Japan's answer to the American or European teen slasher movie. Not so - the film contains important Japanese elements. Firstly, the sadness and elegiac loneliness of the heroine's situation is very Japanese. Also, the extremely frank nature of the sexual aspects of the film, which manage to be both supremely exploitative, and yet not exploitative, at the same time. The perverted male teacher whom students suspect of choosing his profession because it gives him access to schoolgirls is a common bogeyman of Japanese manga, and Mr. Numata is one of these. His scene where he is seen "touching up" one of the pupils as she walks through the school gates is an extremely shocking one that appears very early on in the film. But the "atom bomb" in this film is a scene between Miss Shirai and Kazumi Tanaka that, though never explicit, is shockingly erotically charged. This scene, together with the unacceptably (for post Columbine America) violent events within a school, probably ensure that this film, or franchise, will never have a Western re-make. Harry Potter was never like this! In an interview contained in the extras for the MediaBlasters edition of the sequel, Eko Eko Azarak: Birth of the Wizard, the director admits that the lesbian scenes were stipulated by the producers, probably to ensure greater box office. So much for auteur theory, but given this constraint, Shimako Satou does a very good job of integrating these elements, although the Sapphism is not part of a grand unifying theme as it is in Memento Mori.

In the interviews that form part of the extras of the MediaBlasters DVD of this film, director Shimako Satou says she read the original Eko Eko Azarak manga in elementary school. If you consider that this comic would be thought far too strong for children of that age in the West, we have some idea of how she came to direct the film in the way she did. On the evidence of this film, this director looks like one to watch, but the Internet Movie Database lists surprisingly few films to her credit. One would have thought that her evident ability to turn in top quality entertainment on a low budget would have made her a very major player by now.

So do we like the film? Yes! This is a thriller, not a drama, and as such is true unto itself. It is not particularly meaningful, and is no Kairo, but was made at a crucial stage in the development of Japanese and Asian teen horror, with key aspects being seen later in Memento Mori (lesbianism at school, flooding bathrooms), and even Battle Royale (a count down as students die in grisly ways). It is extremely stylish, effective, and atmospheric, with dramatic tension and suspense (although in these terms it certainly falls well short of being as good as a Hitchcock film). What lets the film down is partly the constraint of the budget, and partly the youthfulness of the cast. In the first case, the sets are really too Spartan. The school is a very modern one, built to a modular system. Once you have seen one classroom, you have seen them all. The schools in the Whispering Corridors series of films all have a much better spirit of place. There is also a much more gothic school in the third film of the "Eko" series: Misa the Dark Angel.

The cast do a good job of acting, but there is sometimes a lack of "oomph" in their performances. Having said that, special mention must go to the acting of Miho Kanno, who plays her role with just the right air of camp abandon. Kimika Yoshino gives a sensitive and understated portrayal of Misa Kuroi as a gentle and shy teenager, coming to terms with the loneliness that her powers bring to her, and misunderstood by her peers despite her well meaning attempts to protect them. This interpretation of the character of Misa Kuroi is very different from the terrifying vengeful spirit we see in the comics.

Wizard of Darkness is a perfect stylistic exercise in Asian gothic horror. Where other productions, such as Memento Mori, or Buffy, only go half way, this explores all the possibilities to their maximum. It won't change your life, but this (nearly) perfect little horror / exploitation film will give you cracking good Friday-night-with-a-cooler-full-of-beer entertainment.

Sometimes it's better not to be teacher's pet.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment: 9/10
Litres of tomato ketchup: arterial spray, decapitations. Need I say more? Oh yes - one character dies through loss of blood in a tabletop crucifixion. A tanker full.
Violence: 9/10. Battle Royale surpasses it. Just.
Miho Kannos: 1. This film carries a health warning for MihoKannophobics.
Shock factor: 11/10. The pervy teachers, lesbonic couplings and satanistic ultra-violence in a school setting will be shocking to Western audiences, but probably wouldn't faze a Japanese teenager.
Sacrificial victims: 13

Films in a Similar Style: Whispering Corridors, Memento Mori, Wishing Stairs, the other Eko Eko Azarak movies, Lovesick Dead

*** Essential! ***

Examples of Eko Eko Azarak Manga
click on each thumbnail for a larger version

Wizard of Darkness Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Mandi Apple, 2005

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Shimako Satou
Miho Kanno
Kimika Yoshino


Links

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112939/ - IMDB entry
http://mitglied.lycos.de/uzumaki/reviews/eko1.htm - Site: Weird Asia. An enthusiastic review by "Uzumaki"
http://www.sibyllineorder.org/rituals/rit_eko.htm - The Eko chant
http://www.cultmovie.com/cgi-bin/blosxom.cgi/Movie-Reviews/0020.html?seemore=y - Cult Movie liked it too
http://www.sanchodoesasia.com/article.php3?id_article=122 - As always, an extremely erudite review by Sancho, en francais, naturellement.

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