“Kyofu” marks the end of the “J-Horror Theater” Japanese horror series, brainchild of famed producer Takashige Ichise, the man behind many of the country’s most influential genre films of the last couple of decades, including “Ring”, “The Grudge”, “Dark Water” and others. The film (also released in the west as “The Sylvian Experiments”) is seventh in the series, which began back in 2004, and fittingly enough was written and directed by “Ring” scripter and “Sodom the Killer” helmer Takahashi Hiroshi, who presents an odd tale which mixes traditional horror elements with science and troubled family drama.
Actress Katahira Nagisa (“The Incite Mill”) plays an obsessed rogue scientist called Etsuko, who along with a gang of helpers kidnaps victims and carries out bizarre live brain experiments on them in an abandoned hospital, attempting to stimulate the sylvian fissure in order to bring about hallucinations and explore the afterlife. By strange coincidence, her latest haul of unfortunate guinea pigs turns out to include her own estranged daughter Miyuki (Nakamura Yuri, “Shuffle”), though Etsuko still presses ahead with the operation, cutting open her brain and successfully inducing visions. Unexpectedly, her sister Kaori (Fujii Mina, “Bloody Monday”), with whom she shares a telepathic link, also begins to see things, and tracks down the missing Miyuki to the hospital.
This plot summary really just scratches the surface, and “Kyofu” certainly is an odd affair, recalling the more far out and ponderous aspects of the “Ring” series. Takahashi Hiroshi packs in a great deal without ever really attempting to explain much, and the film is quite deliberately ambiguous and obscure throughout, building to a leftfield final act and a conclusion whose meaning is very much open to debate. This is furthered by an unconventional trio of lead characters, with markedly perverse sibling and mother-daughter dynamics making for some alternately hysterical and nihilistic moments. Whilst all of this may frustrate viewers looking for conventional horror, the film shows an interesting mix of approaches and motifs, and it engages both through its weirdness and overall sense of ambition. The combination of science and the supernatural is intriguing and neatly handled, and though the film rarely makes sense or shows any concessions to logic, it does offer something pleasingly different to the usual J-horror long haired ghosts and revenge mysteries.
In-keeping with the mood, Hiroshi aims mainly for atmosphere over scares, and aside from a few sudden looming spectre type shots, the film generally moves along at a creepy, if sometimes rather slow pace. This works well and there are a number of reasonably creative surreal sequences as the girls have their visions, with some decent use of CGI and a suitably off the wall visualisation of what may or may not be the afterlife. The film also has a fair amount of surgical gore, including some gruesome scenes of brains being poked and prodded, adding to the air of bleak grotesquery.
Although “Kyofu” probably isn’t for all horror fans, it’s an entertaining and wilfully curious outing which earns extra points for its outlandishness and refusal to provide the expected easy answers. Takahashi Hiroshi again proves himself a talented and imaginative writer, and a director who really should be more prolific, showing a fine sense for the sinister and bizarre.
Hiroshi Takahashi (director) / Hiroshi Takahashi (screenplay)
CAST: Yôko Chôsokabe
Mina Fujii … Kaori
Nagisa Katahira … Etsuko
Yuri Nakamura … Miyuki