Like “Uzumaki”, “Kakashi” is based upon a manga by Japanese artist Ito Junji. There are actually a number of similarities between the two films, as both are set in small rural towns in the Japanese countryside and both depict a series of unexplained supernatural events. However, whilst “Uzumaki” was a wacky affair, featuring wild special effects and odd transformations, “Kakashi” takes a very different route, focusing instead on atmosphere and melodrama, recalling more adult films such as “Inugami”.
The film is more of a mood piece, and for the main characters, the transformation is emotional rather than physical. As a result, the film does not resemble what is generally expected from a manga adaptation and is both more and less than its source material. On one hand, it lacks the pulpy entertainment value and exciting cartoon shocks; whilst on the other, it stands apart as a mature, often beautiful piece of cinema. “Kakashi” also benefits from being deeply rooted in genuine Japanese folklore, which gives it a fascinating backdrop against which to play out its creepy and unexpectedly moving events.
The plot follows Kaoru (Maho Nonami, “2LDK”), a young woman investigating the disappearance of her brother, Tsuyoshi (Shunsuke Matsuoka, “Freeze Me”). After searching his apartment, she finds a letter from his supposedly dead girlfriend begging him to visit her in the remote mountain village of Kozukata. Kaoru arrives in the village in the middle of their annual scarecrow festival, and is given little help from the odd inhabitants in looking for her brother. The longer she stays in the village, the more she becomes aware that something very strange is happening, seemingly connected with the creepy scarecrows that seem to out number the people. After stubbornly staying on to investigate further, Kaoru finally locates Tsuyoshi’s girlfriend, Izumi (Kou Shibasaki, “Battle Royale”), who appears to be very much alive, albeit in a somewhat bizarre manner. As she learns more and more about the village and the scarecrows, Kaoru realizes that not only has she outstayed her welcome, but also she may not be allowed to leave after all.
“Kakashi” is directed by Norio Tsuruta, who also gave us “Ring 0”, and more recently, the female samurai flick “Sky High”. As with both of those films, Tsuruta seems far more concerned with character development than action. Fortunately, this approach fits “Kakashi” far better than either of the other films mentioned, and his investment in the characters really pays off, giving the events and the admittedly fairly marginal horror elements both an emotional core and a greater impact than they would otherwise have had. This is true of the smaller roles in the film as well, as the villagers are kept as realistic human beings instead of quirky oddities.
Thankfully, the actors in the film are up to the task, especially Nonami, who generates a great deal of sympathy as Kaoru, and Shibasaki, who displays touches of the same fury she has shown in past roles. As well as his characters, Tsuruta creates a wonderfully understated and creepy atmosphere. The cinematography is truly beautiful, really bringing the village and surrounding countryside to life with a sense of its isolation, sadness and mystery. Tsuruta does this unobtrusively and skillfully, with both sweeping pans of the scenery and patient, static shots of the old buildings. This attention to detail pays off, and the viewer really feels transported to this sinister, yet picturesque region along with Kaoru.
The fact that the scarecrow celebration is a very real event, called the ‘Kakashi Festival’, which takes place in the town of Yamagata during the Autumn of each year, gives the film a real boost, making the supernatural elements all the more plausible. The downside to this is that “Kakashi” is undeniably a slow moving film, and one in which there is very little in the way of visceral thrills. Although the scarecrows are quite creepy, they don’t actually do a great deal, and those expecting death scenes or sudden shocks will be sorely disappointed.
Similarly, the ending of the film may come as an anti-climax, or for those who have not embraced the film’s emotional core, it may make little sense. Either way, there is a fair chance that less patient viewers, or those who do not appreciate films which build gradually and subtly, may well be bored and mystified. Viewers who are looking for action or disposable thrills should not even consider watching “Kakashi”, as they will gain nothing from the experience. However, those who enjoy deliberately paced, mournful films that focus on mood and character are likely to be entertained and satisfied, as this is one of the better examples of the last few years.
Norio Tsuruta (director) / Junji Ito (comic), Ryuta Mitaku, Osamu Murakami, Satoru Tamaki, Norio Tsuruta (screenplay)
CAST: Maho Nonami …. Kaoru Yoshikawa
Kou Shibasaki …. Izumi Miyamori
Grace Yip …. Sari Chen
Yoshiki Arizono …. Noji