Ghost System (2002) Movie Review

Although it clocks in at just a shade over 70 minutes, writer/director Toshikazu Nagae’s “Ghost System” really has no business being a feature-length film. Or, in this case, a pseudo feature-length film. Aside from its short running time, the movie doesn’t have enough material to make an hour-long movie, much less a 70-minute movie. The result is a lot of padding made up of characters wandering to and fro for no apparent reason, sitting and talking, then walking around and talking some more. There are also endless inane exposition dialogue that tells us, the audience, what we are already seeing onscreen. For instance, when a character sees an old, dilapidated house, we hear narration by the heroine that we’re seeing an “old, dilapidated house”. Well duh. We can see that.

“Ghost System” opens with Misaki (Chikako Sakuragi) entertaining the audience with her thoughts on life, death, science, and the mysteries of the afterlife. Misaki then remembers the hours leading up to her current predicament — cowering inside the aforementioned dilapidated building in a forest. It all started with the disappearance of Misaki’s best friend Mai (Maria Yanagisawa). One day both Misaki and Mai’s boyfriend Wataru (Hiroshi Tamaki) receive emails on their cell phones supposedly from Mai. But there are no messages, only a picture of some trees in the aforementioned forest. The two are determined to find her, even though looking for some generic trees in a large wooded area is not, as you might imagine, be that easy.

But alas you would be wrong, because the two, after a lot of walking around and doing nothing, finally locates the trees in the photos (it’s a miracle!) — and nearby, the old building. No sooner does the duo proceed to investigate the building does Wataru go missing and Mai (who as it turns out is dead) comes back to say Hi to her best friend by stalking her. And if you guessed that Mai comes back as a ghost with back problems that make her hunch over, with long black hair draped over her face, then you’ve been watching way too many Asian Ghost movies.

After her initial encounter with the ghostly Mai, Misaki wakes up to find herself in the care of scientist Ryo (Atsuko Rukawa), who claims to have found a way to prove the existence of spirits through — what else? — a ghost system. Apparently our Mad Scientist has been doing experiments in the old building, and Mai’s recently deceased spirit was one of her first visitors. And if you were wondering what the “ghost system” looks like — well, it sort of looks like what it is, which is a giant industrial-sized fan churning away behind a sheet that looks like a design made by art students for a nominal fee. Who knew giant fans could summon the dead?

To be honest it’s a bit disconcerting to see just how generic, derivative, and superfluous “Ghost System” is, especially since it’s a Japanese movie and the Japanese were the ones who pioneered the genre in the first place with the seminal “Ringu”. Here, Nagae is just rehashing everything that’s already been done and never bothers to inject an ounce of originality. Perhaps the biggest stroke of ingenuity that could be credited to Nagae is that the ghosts are made to shuffle to and fro like retarded zombies. Actually, your average shuffling zombies would run rings around these slow pokes. Needless to say, aside from the limited budget, there’s a limited location and a limited cast, marking “Ghost System” as low budget.

If there is one plus, it’s that Nagae shows promise as a director. “Ghost System” offers up some interesting visuals, especially in the way the ghost system “sees” the spirits — as shuffling zombies with an aura of light around them. And by shooting the film with digital video, Nagae achieves a sort of unnatural, surreal glow that I also saw in “Stacy”, which was also shot on DV. This “glow” effect seems very natural with DV, and would look like a special effect with film — if that makes any sense. Nagae even throws in POV-through-forest shots inspired by Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead”, but one might not be too far off to suspect that these shots are just to further pad out the running time.

If Nagae shows promise, his cast doesn’t. Not the least bit. The movie has a limited cast — four speaking parts total — and not a single one can act. To say that they’re stiff is an understatement; they make the ghosts look lively! Even when the scene calls for them to do nothing more than stand still and spit out Nagae’s lengthy, pseudo intellectual meditations on life and death, the actors can’t manage it. When they turn, you can practically see their heads spinning as they tell themselves, “Okay, this is when you turn. Okay, turn, turn, are you turning?” Now that’s stiff.

There are some minor things to appreciate with “Ghost System”, but it’s essentially a 30-minute short film padded out into feature-length. Even then they could only manage 70 minutes, which should tell you something. Rumor has it that the filmmakers have constructed a burgeoning merchandising empire out of the “Ghost System” premise, which further insinuates the film’s existence as nothing more than a moneymaking enterprise. No wonder — only filmmakers overly concern with mass marketing could come up with something so generic and stiff.

Toshikazu Nagae (director) / Toshikazu Nagae (screenplay)
CAST: Chikako Sakuragi …. Misaki Saegusa
Hiroshi Tamaki …. Wataru Higure
Maria Yanagisawa …. Mai Mizukawa
Atsuko Rukawa …. Ryo Nonomiya

Buy Ghost System on DVD