Director Takashi Shimizu, after delivering a surprise hit with his direct-to-video Ju-on (2000) and Ju-on 2 (2000) and having international success with the theatrical releases (Ju-on: the Grudge (2003) and Ju-On The Grudge 2 (2003)), became something of a phenomenon during the J-horror craze. Yet, even after this craze dwindled, Takashi Shimizu kept churning out horror-narratives (General-note 1). His newest is Howling Village.
One night, Akina Nishida (Rinka Otani) forces her boyfriend Yuma Morita (Ryota Bando) to explore the infamous Inunaki Village together with her. While, at first, the village seems just like any other old and abandoned village – eerie at night, Akina is suddenly attacked by unknown forces.
While treating a little boy called Ryo-chan (-), clinical psychologist Kanae Morita (Ayaka Miyoshi) suddenly sees the spirit the boy talked about. Not that much later, she is called by her brother Yuma. He asks her to check Akina, who has regressed to a childlike-state, and help him with her supernatural gift. She refuses. Then, one day, Akina commits suicide. Not that much later, Yuma and his younger brother Kota (Hinata Kaizu) disappear.
While Howling village is a mystery/horror film, the core dynamic of the narrative is neither horror nor mystery. Behind the horror and the mystery hides nothing other than a familial drama. This is made clear in the very beginning of the narrative when Akira Morita (Masanobu Takashima), an authoritarian father who dictates the law in the family, condemns his son for having gone to Inunaki village – You have the same filthy blood as your mother. In condemning his son, he does not only reveal how he thinks about his son, but also implies that the family is marked by a secret, a secret concerning the maternal bloodline.
Howling village turns around this secret. It is therefore not surprising that Kanae only gets involved in the mystery surrounding the suicide of Akina and the disappearance of her two brothers at the very moment that she, due to a certain event, cannot avoid the question of her blood, the question of her descendance any longer.
Howling Village has a great narrative structure that keeps the spectator engaged from start to finish. The structure is pleasing because it succeeds in maintaining the sense of mystery up until its finale. For every fragmentary piece of information the narrative reveals, multiple new questions are raised. Of course, at a certain point, the revelation of information starts answering these questions, thereby giving the narrative a certain consistency, but the narrative is so well-structured that even when all large questions are seemingly answered the spectator remains on the edge of his seat. In other words, Howling Village, in contrast to some other horror-narratives, avoids deflating the eerie and tensive atmosphere by establishing a certain consistency at the narrative level.
Another difference with well-known and celebrated J-horror is that Shimizu’s narrative does not utilize the theme of abuse. Instead, Shimizu delivers a subtle social commentary on the destructive nature of a profit-driven desire, a desire, ignited and celebrated by capitalism, that can urge subjects to go beyond any sense of morality and exploit other subjects for their own financial gain. At another level, Howling Village also touches upon the difficulty subjects have in truly accepting the Otherness of others and other communities.
While Howling Village utilizes various elements common to Japanese horror cinema, like the nursery-rhyme-like song, Shimizu does attempt to shake things up by putting many frightful moments in a daytime setting – some of the narrative’s most impressive moments happen in broad daylight (e.g. Yukina’s suicide)
One of the reasons why the eerie and tensive atmosphere is not deflated by the unfolding of the narrative is because Shimizu keeps confronting the spectator with visual moments of horror non-sense. Even when, due to the growing consistency of the narrative, moments of horror attain a certain signification, a certain element of non-sense or beyond-sense – i.e. the aspect of unpredictability – still marks the how and when of these moments.
While one could argue that Howling Village is guilty of resorting to cheap jump scares, Shimizu only makes limited use of such moments and makes sure that these moments are well integrated into the atmosphere of the narrative. In other words, Shimizu succeeds in masking the cheapness of these jump-scares by enveloping them in an eerie atmosphere of premonition, an atmosphere evoked by the pleasing interaction between the visual composition and the musical accompaniment.
What noteworthy of the composition of Howling Village – a mix of static shots, semi-static shots, tracking moving shots, spatial moving shots, and shaky moving shots – is its use of the handy-came style for its opening. By choosing a handy cam style to compose the opening sequence of the narrative, Shimizu does not only succeed in infuse a subtle sense of realism into the narrative but also puts the spectator temporarily into a more intimate position. As our look is equated with Yuma’s, the handler of the handy cam, we are gently forced to identify with Yuma’s subjective position of fear and assume some of his fear as our own. One could, in this respect, even argue that this cinematographically forced identification prepares the spectator ‘emotionally’ for the horror to come and makes him/her more emotionally susceptible for the various elements of horror and mystery in the narrative.
To further generate horror for the spectator, Shimizu also utilizes a variety of other elements. There is a subtle cinematographical focus on facial expressions – and especially when a certain character finds him- or herself stuck in a stressful situation. Musical accompaniment is richly used to strengthen the fearful nature of certain situations and events, to underline the eeriness of a certain situation, or to emphasize the appearance of a certain fearful visual anomaly. And while the colour-design does not directly strengthen the moments of horror as such, the subdued and often pale colours that characterize the narrative’s spaces do ensure that a certain ominous desolateness marks the unfolding of the narrative. One could thus say that the colour-design dictates the basic atmosphere of Howling Village upon which the elements of horror and mystery are eventually painted.
Howling Village might not reach the heights of J-horror classics like Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) and Creepy (2016) and Miike’s Audition (2001) and One Missed Call (2003), but Shimizu proves with his latest horror-narrative that one does not need to reinvent the genre to be able to deliver a film that satisfies those spectators seeking for thrills and scares.
General-note 1: While Shimizu’s oeuvre consists almost entirely out of horror-narratives, there are nevertheless some exceptions, like Kiki’s delivery service (2014).
Narra-note 1: Without spoiling what happens in the finale, we should say that the finale does have, what we could call, a cinematic sin. What we mean by that is that a certain (unbelievable) act – i.e. the act of waiting – is done by our main characters not because it fits the characters as such, but because it serves the purpose of generating drama and emotionality. Luckily, this sin is not able to derail the entire narrative and complicate the enjoyment of the spectator.