Directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2005, 96 minutes, starring Yuuka, Karina, Shun Oguri, Marika Matsumoto, Kippei Shiina, and Tetta Sugimoto.
For those who've been keeping track, the J-Horror Theater series of films is slowly edging towards its second half. With each successive release, we are treated to a subsequently better film. In tune with that, each film is also helmed by a somewhat more capable director than the one preceding it. First entry Kansen (Infection), a routinely mediocre medicalsploitation film that was for some reason very, very green, was overseen by Masayuki Ochiai, director of Hypnosis and the Parasite Eve film. This was followed up by Tsuruto Norio's pleasantly better Yogen (Premonition). Norio, who directed the thoughtful and soft-focus Ring 0: Birthday (a personal favorite), raised the bar for the series from mediocre to moderately enjoyable. What then of Rinne (Reincarnation), the third entry into this grouping of scare features?
Directed by the famed and beloved Takashi Shimizu (Marebito, the zillion Ju-On/Grudge films, of which I've had the pleasure to watch around fifty of them), Rinne continues the thusfar established tradition of being a more competent and enjoyable film than the previous two, and presents a slightly more cohesive narrative than we're used to from the director. But whereas Ochiai is on one rung of filmmaking, and Tsuruta on one slightly higher than that, Shimizu is (whether merited or not) a heavy-hitter in the clique of established Japanese horror directors, adored by fans regardless of (or should I say in spite of) the critical reception of his pictures. Debuting in the United States in 2006 one month after the abysmally-received Grudge 2, Rinne was screened as part of Horrorfest's "Eight Films To Die For," marking the only Japanese entry into the festival. A lot of anticipation and hope was riding on Rinne, not just as the Asian ambassador at Horrorfest, but also as perhaps being the entry that finally brings some weighty credibility to the sometimes-derided J-Horror Theater series. So does Shimizu deliver the goods? If I answered that in the second paragraph, I'd be dropped from Snowblood Apple's review roster. So read on!
A director is casting a new film about a murder that took place in a hotel decades ago. Up for the lead are a slew of unknown actresses hoping this is their big break. Nagissa (Yuuka) is an aspiring young actress with no experience under her belt. Yuka Morita (Marika Matsumoto) is a thoroughly batshit actress who begins talking insanely during the interview process ad infinitum about her main qualification for a new film role about a murdered woman being that she was murdered in a past life. My favorite show in the history of television is Dynasty, and my favorite character has always been Claudia, the dramatically sanitarium-bound wife of that lilting creep Matthew Blaisdel, who in the 1981-82 seasons alone managed to attempt suicide a gagillion times, drive off a cliff once or twice, literally lose her daughter, bed down with Steven (Blake Carrington's scandalously gay son), and even get shot, so my artistic instincts say that Yuka should get the part in this new film since ladies who are nutso tend to keep my attention for years on end, making them that much more qualified for a two-hour departure about ghosts. Perhaps wisely, the director chooses Nagissa instead, and once more people who are Claudia-level crazy are relegated to entertain themselves (and me) by driving off of mountains to the crescendo of incidental music.
The movie's plot is pretty straightforward: two storylines, one involving Nagissa, the other involving two university students who are interested in Yuka's past life experiences. There are some scenes of bizarre dreamy quality where things from dreams come into the real world, and everyone on set slowly sees how super creepy this hotel is, and that something just isn't right. I'd wanted to write this synopsis eloquently, but to be fair, it's pretty similar to many other synopses of Takashi Shimizu films, so I'm kind of just doing it ad hoc, and besides the majority of people who are watching this film aren't watching it because of how well I wrote what happens in it. Unto a formulaic strategy of: strange doin's abound, people die, and then a shrill but thoughtful climax leads us into the tense final act. Fin.
I'm sure there's a great essay to be written about the concept of "J-Horror" and, more precisely, the almost middle-of-the-road nature of the J-Horror Theater of films, and what it says about the genre ten years after the boom began. I'm not the person to write it though, because I lack the patience to beat dead horses. I am interested, however, to see how this series plays out (the next film in the series being Kiyoshi Kurosawa's critically lauded Retribution), and to see if it overcomes what is, frankly, a pretty mediocre showing to date. All the films are perfectly entertaining and great little mind-numbing nuggets of scare cinema. But halfway through this concept series, one can't help but wonder: what do these films represent? Are they truly the very best in J-Horror? Or are they instead merely ambassadors for an epoch in mediocrity and "sameness" as the catalogue of Japanese horror films expands alongside the marketability of the genre abroad; that is, do they rightfully reflect how watered-down the genre seems to be becoming? I'm not sure, and I don't feel myself either informed or scholarly (or pretentious) enough to espouse beliefs one way or the other. But I know very plainly what people had hoped this series would bring with it, and what they instead received. Them's the breaks.
Takashi Shimizu's history is mixed at best in terms of critically-appreciated filmmaking, but I won't deny that he has an eye for the type of scares that casual and broad audiences want to see, and that's hard to own up to without watering down subjects and simplifying storylines (simple being a word I don't think he understands). But that mass appeal sometimes seems to hold him in perpetuity in a land of near-derivative output. He's made a couple of truly excellent films: kooky Marebito, and the surprisingly chilling Ju-On: The Grudge 2, both attest to his ability to really put thought, intelligence, and fresh (and sometimes borderline bonkers) ideas into a genre that is increasingly getting played out internationally. But aside from one or two features in his back catalogue, the vast majority of his films rely on similar storylines and (gratingly) similar techniques.
Rinne isn't a bad film. It's actually a halfway enjoyable film. It's a slow-starter, no doubt, the first half moving slower than perhaps is necessary for the pretty base themes presented; but it's a good movie, and it's reasonably compelling, and when it finished, I didn't feel cheated or bored or cynical towards what I'd just seen (there is no "trick ending," one of my least favorite scare techniques either in Asia or domestically in the States). It's a truly competent and able horror film, and even though there are loose ends that aren't tied up and things that just defy logic, it's still a satisfactory experience in my book. But knowing Shimizu's previous work, I feel the unforgiving notion to wonder why he insists on having two (or more) storylines at once, especially when the moods of these storylines don't meet succinctly for the viewer, as is the case for this feature. I'm conflicted about this feeling, and I'll be perfectly honest: I don't know whether to think it unimaginative since I've seen it in his work so often before, or endearing, the clever signature of his career as a writer and director.
Regardless of either option, it's something that slows down Rinne a bit, preventing it from being a tighter story. Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it is that it keeps it off-balance, as chilling scenes with the protagonist cut to much more cheerful and merrily irreverent scenarios with separate characters whose own stories never are never fleshed out as well as the Nagissa character's are. He did linear in Marebito, and was still zany and left-field and completely in outer space with it - it's not as though the concept would be restrictive of him. I love that film without reservations, so I know he can do it, and do it well. But at the same time, if progressing non-linearly and having separate storylines intertwine is how he moves best, and it's how he employs his scares (the fruit of a labor in this field), far be it from me to critique him; Rinne is several steps above the bulk of his Ju-On entries, and marks a lot of growth as a creative and imaginative pillar of the Japanese horror industry. It is truly rewarding for a long-time watcher of his career to see him allowed to step out of the boundaries that have encapsulated him for much of the last ten years, even if it's only by inches instead of miles. It's not reinventing the wheel, but it is what it is.
Incidentally, in Dynasty, Claudia accidentally kills herself when she sets her hotel room on fire in the last seasons of the show after finding herself broke following a bout of fiscal irresponsibility. Steven, who offered to marry her for reasons that escape me in the second season, ended up marrying Heather Locklear's character Sammy Jo, who he ended up divorcing for Claudia at some point (after he'd been in an oil explosion that burned his face, which allowed for him to be recast), and for the rest of the series the writers pretended he wasn't gay most of the time. There, now you don't have to watch Dynasty or Rinne, and you can spend your time focusing on your studies for school like I should be doing.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Utterly bonkers story elements: a red ball, a creaky doll, and enough gender-swapping reincarnation that I was preparing myself for a zany romantic comedy but was, alas, disappointed; maybe the Koreans will turn that premise into a wacky TV show for me
Films in a Similar Style: I don't know, the Ju-on movies, other things that are kind of like stuff I've seen before, et al.
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.j-horror.com/rinne/index.html - the J-Horror series site page for Rinne (heavy flash use)
http://www.horror-fanatics.com/reviews/reincarnation.html – positive review of the jumble of words and pictures that is Rinne
http://twitchfilm.net/archives/004713.html - trailers and links at Twitch
http://www.midnighteye.com/features/death-of-j-horror.shtml – Midnight Eye either declared J-Horror dead or didn't declare it dead in 2005, I'm not sure