Spectators that love Japanese thriller and horror narratives cannot ignore Shugo Fujii’s recent work. Working at the edge of Japanese cinema, he is able to unleash his creative energy in his own personal projects and introduce the spectator to the societal corruption that marks Japan. Red Line Crossing (2017), Mimicry Freaks (2019), Frantic (2021) and Kingdom Of The Apes (2022) are all in their own way a creative protest against certain societal currents in Japan. And now, with his latest horror Onpaku (2022), he tackles the dimension of societal image and its link to racism.
Arrived in Japan, Sarah Kwan (Josie Ho) is somewhat shocked to discover that the realtor who is going to help her visit some properties in Japan in no one other than Shawn Tum (Lawrence Chou), a man with whom she has some history.
Once arrived at her hotel, she receives a call from Daniel who tells her he does not have enough money to pay for an abortion. Then, just when she finishes her call, Shawn Tum informs her that the hotel has made a mistake and cannot find her reservation. Having no place to stay, Sarah Kwan decides to spend the night at the old rundown minpaku that Shawn Tum introduced to her. Arrived at the dilapidated place, she is strangely awaited by its mistress (Kazuko Shirakawa).
Onpaku is a horror narrative that fluidly blends the material present and ghostly past and elegantly manipulates time and space to not only deliver an unsettling experience, but also enthralling narrative that succeeds to deliver a societal critical element in an subtle but sensible manner.
Fujii’s narrative, while centred around the element of the family secret, touches upon the lingering cultural tensions between Japanese and East-Asians (e.g. people from Hong Kong), the difficulties that arise from not sharing a common language, and the frictions caused by certain prejudices (e.g. Japanese cannot speak English).
These tensions ultimately allows Fujii todelineate and stage the racist reflex against east-Asian foreigners that lingered and still lingers within Japanese society. By evoking the problem of prostitution, he beautifully underlines that while the foreign subject is refused – i.e. his signifiers – the foreign body is readily embraced to be sexually exploited.
Moreover, via the image of the police officer Oyamada (Kazuya Takahashi) and his relation to his sister Mayumi (Tomoka Kurokawa), Fuji sketches out a societal system that by putting so much emphasis on reputation and image instigates the joyful dynamic of gossip and drives certain subjects to alcoholism and that by starving the fabric of social bonds creates a feeding ground for cultist-like behaviour. Moreover, Oyamada’s acting-out of his lingering frustration on Sarah and Shawn echoes how easily the letter of the law is spoiled and poisoned by subjective injuries and conflicts.
The effect of the haunted house on the subject is, as is ultimately revealed, directly linked with the imaginary and thus deceptive field of reputation and the ego. Staying at the minpaku is supposed to enable you to find your true self, to reach behind the maelstrom of imaginary deceptions and touch one’s subject (i.e. the unwritten signifiers etched in one’s unconscious). Yet, is that truly what the minpaku enables? Or does it merely offer the subject a thing that mends his fractured state of his ego?
The composition of Onpaku does not only stand out due to its rough and wild dynamism but also because of its energetic cutting. By using the cut so wildly, Fuji does not only keep the pace of the narrative high, but also forbids the spectator to find a position where he can be at ease (Cine-note 1). The rapid cutting ensures, in a certain sense, that a certain tension remains lingering within the spectator.
His compositional energy also helps Fuji create a frame that emphasises the unsettling nature of certain imagery (e.g. the smiling twins etc.) or situations (e.g. the monk that approaches Sarah Kwan, … etc.). In other words, Fuji’s vicious but thoughtful cutting does not only create a gate through which the visual elements of horror and shock can powerfully appear but also enable them to function as a support that keep their unsettling effect lingering within the visual fabric of Onpaku.
Moreover, Fujii’s amazing composition creates a pleasant play of appearances and disappearances that fleetingly disorients the spectator and elegantly manipulates his anxious expectations, fluid transitions between the physical into the ghostly world and well-integrated ghostly intrusion into the physical fabric of reality.
While the use of static moments, for example to frame conversations, slows the pace of Onpaku down, Fuji ensures, in many cases, that a quantum of tension or mystery remains present either by integrating a fleeting image that unsettles or by decorating the unfolding of the scene with a subtly threatening musical piece.
The threatening and unsettling atmosphere of Onpaku is function of the darkish and slightly washed-out colour palette, the musical accompaniment and the great sound-design (Cine-note 2). The pieces of music do not only infuse a sense of mystery into the the narrative but also give certain images their foreboding and unsettling quality (e.g. Sarah sipping beer, the sudden presence of the fortune teller, the gaze of the dolls, … etc.).
While Fujii does not re-invent the J-horror genre with Onpaku, he does prove the horror-frame can still be exploited to deliver satisfying horror narratives. In fact, of all the Japanese thriller/horror directors working today, Fujii is the only one that combines a visceral and creative composition that delivers shock and horror with a fragmented narrative that critiques the Japanese societal fabric. Onpaku confirms, once more, that Shugo Fujii might very well be the unsung master of contemporary Japanese horror and thriller cinema.
Cine-note 1: What also plays an important role in keeping the spectator ill at ease is the use of many close-ups. By relying on close-ups and dynamism, Fuji creates sequences that are highly fragmentary and, as a result, unsettling. These sequences give visual information, but refuses, at least initially, to give the spectator the key to organize these visual fragments into a pacifying whole and to give these elements a signified that resolves their mysterious quality.
Cine-note 2: The ghostly sequences in Onpaku stand out due to their strange yet compelling colour-schemes. While the greenish and blueish colours highlight the ghostly nature of the scene, the washed-out nature of those colours enables those scenes to infuse a sense of discomfort in the spectator.