Somebody really needs to write a book of film history that’s not about the hallowed classics—Citizen Kane and Tokyo Story and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans—that are staples of survey classes and “best of all time” lists, but about the great mass of entertainment films that connected with a contemporary audience but have since been largely forgotten. I’m thinking about films that do their job, but not much more—and even some films that are clearly aiming at a mark they don’t quite hit.
October is a great month for watching modest, not entirely successful films, because many horror films fit that description—probably because you can make an effective horror film on a small budget, yet can really cash in at the box office (cases in point: the original Halloween, The Blair Witch Project, and the Paranormal Activity franchise). And if there’s no big payday, and the film itself is not a success, at least everyone involved gains experience and that will help them go on to do bigger and better things. One hopes such future success for the cast and crew of Ouija Japan,particularly since several of the actors, as well as the writer-director Masaya Kato, appear to be first-timers.
Karen Fujimoto (Ariel Sekiya), an American married to a Japanese man (Takeaki Abe), has been living in Tokyo for six months but can’t seem to fit in with her neighbors. She hasn’t learned much of the language, makes basic cultural mistakes, and is terribly self-conscious about her shortcomings (and as a childless, stay-at-home housewife, she doesn’t have a lot else to think about). The neighbors (among them Miharu Chiba and Eigi Kodaka) aren’t particularly nice—they persist in saying rude things in Japanese in front of her because they know she won’t understand them—but it’s up to her to fit in, so she really does need to make an effort.
Karen agrees to accompany a group of the ladies to scope out a rural inn that may be used for school holiday. In the evening, they play Kokkuri-san, the Japanese equivalent of the Ouija board. Both a game and a method of fortune-telling, it came to Japan in the late 19th century, and has enjoyed waves of popularity ever since—sometimes to the point where schools have banned it outright. In the Japanese version, you invoke Kokkuri-san (“Mr. Kokkuri”) and ask questions which are answered by a coin moving about a piece of paper bearing the image of a Torii gate plus Japanese characters. Of course the participants each place a finger on the coin also, as is done with the planchette when using a Ouija board, so you can draw your own conclusions about who is moving what in a real-life game. Within this film, however, the spirit world is real, and the inhabitants don’t like being meddled with.
In retrospect, maybe the ladies shouldn’t have tried playing with a coin that was a temple offering. Be that as it may, they manage to summon up an angry fox deity who takes revenge in a very modern way—by installing software on their phones that leads them into a middle-aged version of Battle Royale. The fox deity appears both on their phones, and as a robed woman wearing a fox mask—and while a low budget may have been the motivation for such a low-fi solution, the effect is good. In fact, it reminds me of the homemade animal masks in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), which are all the more effective because of their crudity.
Ouija Japan is an odd little film with a promising premise that is most interesting when it’s focusing on interactions between the characters and their environment, and less so when it’s trying to stage battle scenes. So it all depends on what you want from it—if you come looking for professionally-quality action scenes or can’t get past some remarkably bad dubbing, you’ll probably leave disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re interested in the weirdness of the premise and what a first-time writer-director can do with it on what seems to have been a very small budget, it offers more than enough to be worth a watch. | Sarah Boslaugh
Ouija Japan is distributed on streaming in the United States, beginning October 19: you can find out your choices for accessing it on Reelgood.