That Takashi Miike, famous for his violent horror films Audition (1999) and Ichi The Killer (2001), would be asked to direct a more straightforward j-horror movie will not surprise anyone. And that Miike, notorious for accepting almost anything that comes his way, gladly accepted the offer to bring Yasushi Akimoto’s horror novel to the silver screen will not come as a shock either.
Late due to a funeral of Rina, a high-school friend, earlier that day, Yoko Okazaki (Anna Nagata), dressed completely in black, joins her university friends sat the izakaya. While talking about her high-school friend’s death with Yumi Nakamura (Ko Shibasaki), Yoko’s phone suddenly starts to ring. Yumi informs her of an incoming call, but Yoko, surprised, tell her that’s not her ringtone. When checking the missed call, she realizes that the number that called her was her own and the voice-message dated the day after tomorrow her own voice and scream.
Even though her friends are eager to dismiss this strange occurrence, Yoko does die, in mysterious circumstances, around the time her voice-message indicated. Yumi decides to investigate the death of her friend and soon discovers that the phenomenon has been occurring throughout Japan. And then, Yumi receives a call.
That the deaths are not normal accidents or suicides is made immediately evident when Rina’s high-school friends, in referring to the deaths, use the signifier ‘killings’. The deaths are supposedly caused by a woman who died full of hate and her curse spreads via the mobile phones of her victims. This rumour gets substance when Yumi’s friend Natsumi Konishi (Kazue Fukiishi) receives a video message with ghastly female arm behind her.
The investigation of Yumi, who has by then teamed up with Hiroshi Yamashita (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), eventually leads to a real lead. In a hospital, she links the sound of an asthma inhaler with the sound she heard before the death of her friend Kenji Kawai (Atsushi Ida). This association results in the discovery of the autopsy records of a girl, Mimiko Mizunuma, who died of an asthma attack at the age of ten. Alas, there is no way to contact her mother, Marie (Mariko Tsutsui), who has gone missing.
While trauma, suicide, and Shinto-exorcism all play a role in One Missing Call, the overarching theme of the narrative is abuse in general and child-abuse in particular. One Missed Call may not be a narrative trying to formulate a critique on certain aspect of Japanese society, one can perceive, in the exploration of the familial situation of Mimiko Mizunuma, a subtle critique on the inability of child-care services to intervene in toxic and problematic situations of upbringing.
The most interesting element in One Missed Call concerns the fact that the narrative is structured around two elements of anticipation – anticipation felt by both the characters and the spectators. We have the anticipation of receiving a cursed phone-call as well as the anticipation of death after having received such a phone call. While both are instrumental in creating tension, the latter is, in our view, more important due to the fact it instigates a dynamic between anticipation and non-knowing.
Even though receiving a cursed voice-message – a fragment of speech and a scream – detailing one’s time of death lets the spectator know that death will follow, the spectator does not know – an aspect of non-knowing that entices the spectator – how this death will come to fruition. It is this tension between anticipation and non-knowing, a tension which forms the main dynamic of One Missed Call, that makes Miike’s narrative so enjoyable. It is, in other words, this tension that makes Yumi’s subtle attempt to escape the curse and her search to elucidate the truth of the curse so compelling.
Fans of the J-horror genre may feel that have seen this kind of narrative before. The aspect of a curse and the narrative of investigation among others are, in fact, elements that have been used to great effect in those movies, e.g. Ju-on (2002), Ring (1998), and Cure (1997), that defined the J-horror renaissance. While those spectators looking for something fresh or a fresh take on the genre might thus be disappointed, the fans of the J-horror genre will find all the tropes that made the genre so enjoyable.
The only flaw – calling it a flaw may be too harsh – of the narrative is that the cursed super-natural being is shown too clearly. This reveal, instead of empowering the horror, allows the spectator to master the uneasiness associated with the presence of the cursed being. Even so, this reveal does not annul the so masterfully evoked atmosphere of tension/suspense that is and the fear-inducing potential of the twist-rich finale (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)).
What’s fun to become conscious of is that the very anticipation of One Missed Call being a horror-narrative allows the slow-paced cinematographical movement, from the very beginning, to infuse a sense of looming danger into the atmosphere (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). Differently put, the slow-pace of the cinematographical movement hooks the spectator’s anticipation of horror. But the evocation of this atmosphere of looming danger is not only by way of the camera-movement, but also due to how the narrative space is ‘coloured’ and the way lighting is applied. Every narrative space is marked by a subtle darkness – colours are faded, lightning is subdued, shadows are everywhere.
Additionally, there is another visual aspect that, by disturbing the flow of certain scenes, aims to empower the sense of discomfort the spectator feels. The snappy insertion of shots visualizing elements touched upon by conversations as well as the snappy compositions framing Yumi’s fragmentary flashbacks function like this (Narra-note 2). The latter has another effect, that of transposing Yumi’s subjective discomfort by trauma onto the spectator and the way he experience the unfolding of the story.
Both the threatening atmosphere as well as the lingering sense of discomfort is supported by the subtle but ever effective musical accompaniment by Koji Endo. The successful evocation of a threatening atmosphere is also the reason why the sound of the ringtone – even before anything bad has happened – and various other sounds (e.g. the sound of the asthma inhaler) are able to become ominous signs that, in turn, support the unsettling atmosphere of dread.
That the various cinematographical elements and the musical accompaniment work so well together in evoking this threatening but compelling atmosphere underlines the talent and ability of Takashi Miike, Yasushi Shimamura (the editor), and Hideo Yamamoto (the cinematographer). While the narrative may not be the most original, fishing in the same super-natural pond like iconic horror-narratives like Ju-on (2002) and Ring (1998), Miike anKoji d Shimamura succeed in framing Yumi’s nightmarish story in an exciting and gripping way (Acting-note 1).
While One Missed Call will not win any prizes for originality, Miike’s horror-narrative does provide all the thrills, and tropes for that matter, fans of J-horror have come to expect from the genre. That One Missed Call, despite its lack of originality, becomes so enjoying and thrilling is due to Miike’s masterful evocation of an atmosphere of looming danger and his ability to exploit subtle narrative incoherence for creating a sensible feeling of dread.
Cine-note 1: Some ‘continuity’ errors serves a similar purpose as Yumi’s flashbacks, they aim to disturb the narrative space as such and evoke that there’s something really wrong. But these errors, which are obviously done on purpose, aim to play with or manipulate the expectations of the spectator, without overturning them.
Cine-note 2: The shaky semi-pov shots that imply that a super-natural something is spying essentially have the same purpose: to evoke a sense of impeding danger. Nevertheless, in this case, the impeding danger is associated with that something the spectator is forced to share his viewpoint with.
Narra-note 1: The narrative’s thrilling finale, at least before the twist, seemingly implies that if there is something that can redeem the vengeful it is love. But, in the end, One Missed Call implies that it is a mother’s ‘missing’ the ‘call’ of her problematic child that can turn that child into a vengeful spirit.
Narra-note 2: These compositions become contextualized later in the narrative, revealing Yumi’s past of abuse for the spectator.
Acting-note 1: The dynamic between the mentally unstable Yumi, played very well by Ko Shibasaki, and the more straight-thinking Hiroshi, played convincingly by Shinichi Tsutsumi, is another element that helps the spectator staying engaged throughout the narrative.
Even though this dynamic works very well, Shibayaki’s acting, when staging the hysterical fear of dying her character feels, often verges on dramatic over-acting. While this did not bother us that much, some spectators might find it bordering on the comical.