Something that has always fascinated me in horror movies is that through the sheer bombastic embrace of all things repulsive in society, it can often be the best mirror image society has of itself. Whether it be through nightmare dream logic, campy visual stylization, or an over abundance of gore, when you strip the horror genre to its core there is a meaning behind the madness.
However, horror can often be just the same as any fast food order, something quick to consume and later regret. I know what I’m paying for and in the moment I’m happy, but my stomach is going to pay for it in the next 24 hours if I’m lucky for the grace period. Ouija Japan is an anomaly, a fun bit of fast food horror that often times frustrated me. Not because of what I expected to be fed, but because it had everything in place to become a five star course and decided to cheap out on its ingredients.
I’ll keep the food talk from here on out to a minimum, so lets just speak about what’s on the menu from here on out. Ouija Japan is a Japanese horror film written and directed by Masaya Koto that follows a foreign housewife named Karen Fujimoto as she goes on a camping trip with several other Japanese housewives to the mountains. What was supposed to be a bonding trip to connect with the other wives quickly becomes a fox demon cursed game of battle royal as the women must kill each other until one is left alive. A simple, yet interesting premise that is deflated through its world building and narrative. The inciting incident is muddled right from the beginning of its murderous intent. I am still unsure just what exactly causes the curse to be laid on the women when they get there. I can think of three of possible reasons, but none of them are ever clarified by the film, as if it is unsure what might have caused the plot to roll and it only snowballs from here.
Thankfully that snowball doesn’t interrupt the technique of the film itself. The feeling of being in rural Japan is beautiful as the film immediately establishes Japan as a character itself. Quiet walks down roads and sword battles are always placed before beautiful backgrounds of the nature of Japan. The moment the women make it to the mountains, you forget you were ever in the city. The lighting of the Ouija board seance invokes the intimate feeling of telling campfire stories while keeping the fear of ghosts intact. Editing is sharp to keep me engaged and hold my focus, however moments where actors are on screen with each other can feel awkward to how they are framed in camera. The action tends to be also a victim of camera framing. Moments that should feel visceral and full of tension are often framed in a way where it looks like the actors just learned the choreography that day. It never feels as if anyone is truly in danger when a blade swings or a bullet goes through a head. It all feels comical and campy when the story itself is far from trying to convey that.
The idea of a supernatural battle royal is fascinating in its concept and then wildly irreverent in its execution. Someone must die every three hours or the entity randomly chooses someone they can kill. It provided an extra level of tension to each encounter and just how much that fear grows through the surviving characters. Then there is the fact that there’s an app on their phone where they can follow along on all the mayhem ensuing in different locations. Now you heard that right, a fox demon has cursed these women into a game of battle royal through an app on their phone. If you have played a battle royal on your phone you can pretty much guess the rest of its features right down to buying weapons with loot, except the loot is your life force.
As strange as this concept is it finds its perfect use as we see what weapons characters choose to use and how much they want to win. The films strongest character, Satsuki Murakami played by the electrifying Miharu Chiba, takes the game seriously in way the others don’t. Watching Satsuki use the app to buy features, trick her friends and grow into a more ruthless behavior opposite to her caring side we were introduced to into the beginning, elevates the story from the level of schlock to an engaging piece that asks the question of what good is buying these weapons to win when your life might end as soon as you get out?
How does the film tackle these questions of weak vs strong. What happened when the veil of societal norms is ripped apart and people are left to only try to survive? Nothing really. It brings up the question and then drops it as soon as it has something new and shiny to show us in the film. This happens again and again in places where if they focused it more the movie would have benefited tremendously. Nothing more egregious of this fact is the relation ship between Satsuki and Karen. Both women at the start of the film are close friends who are outsiders of their housewife group. Karen for being a foreigner and Satsuki for being, hinted at but not confirmed, bisexual. Satsuki spends most of the film protecting and keeping Karen safe, choosing to forgo her life force in means of gaining power to kill the others. The ruthlessness the that other women know is inside Satsuki is never displayed towards Karen. Instead she tries to encourage Karen to become more like her so she is able to stand up to both the other housewives and also the game itself. So when Karen finally decides to fight back and take a life to save Satsuki, I felt pretty disappointed that it amounted to nothing more than a bombastic climax that felt out of character for the two of them. The nuance of sexuality, otherness, and rebellion is replaced with the standard #9 McHorror meal. Everyone is out for themselves and nothing more.
All of that would have been fine if that’s all it wanted to be, and maybe it was. But for me, I saw the potential this movie to be more about the world we live in, wrapped in a movie I enjoyed watching. I just wish it didn’t hide its delicious thoughts in a movie-meal I’ve seen already.