Noroi: The Curse (Noroi) (2005)

Noroi: The Curse (Noroi) first published by

Around the turn of the millennium, a slew of Japanese horror films came out which updated old superstitions and traditional long-haired spectres to a new technological era, and spread their malign influence across the Pacific. For each of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998) and Dark Water (2002), Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) and Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (2003) would be blessed – or cursed – with a Hollywood remake (arguably the best of the bunch from this period, Miike’s shocking 1999 psychodrama Audition was also the odd one out, featuring no ghosts, and inspiring no remake – but it did indirectly lead to the ‘torture porn’ subgenre that would dominate American horror in the second half of the Noughties). The tropes of these films, once so fresh-seeming, quickly began to repeat themselves and ossify (One Missed Call already felt more like a parodic spoof of J-horror than like the genuine article) – and while there was still plenty of Japanese horror being made by the time Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi: The Curse came out in 2005, the local genre’s international popularity had all but run its course. Noroi was not remade in Hollywood. 

Rather than just retreading the same, now well-established J-horror paths, however, Shiraishi’s Noroi genuinely does explore different directions, by introducing found footage – or at least something like found footage – into its narrative texture. For the vast majority of the film purports to be a documentary made by Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki) – but that documentary, despite featuring much of the handheld investigative camerawork that characterises ‘first-person POV’ films like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999) and its many Noughties imitators, is in fact a finished, edited and scored product. Here the only ‘found footage’ comes right at the end of Noroi, in a video cassette coda that does not – indeed could not – form part of Kobayashi’s more polished documentary. The documentary itself, however, is composed not just of Kobayashi’s on-camera investigations, but also of 16mm reels from 1978, news excerpts and television offcuts – all ‘found footage’ of a sort – that he has discovered along the way and incorporated into his work.

“I want the truth,” reads a quote ascribed to Kobayashi at the beginning of Noroi. “No matter how terrifying, I want the truth.” He is a peculiar character – a middle-aged, childless, somewhat schlubbish journalist who has been “chronicling supernatural phenomenon since 1995”. Yet far from being either a cynical debunker or a true believer, he is simply, straightforwardly open-minded. We know from the start, thanks to an introduction with a narrator’s voiceover, that his latest and last investigation will end badly, with his house burning down, with the death of his wife Keiko (Miyoko Hanai), and with his own mysterious disappearance. So this is, ultimately, to be a story of violent domestic dysfunction – but the route that takes us there is long, oblique and twisty, even as the self-authenticating reality effects of Shiraishi’s film constantly play games with different levels of the truth that Kobayashi claims to seek.

It starts with Kobayashi looking into the complaints of a single mother Mikako Okui (playing herself) that there are strange baby-like sounds drifting in from the home of her baby-less next-door neighbour. Soon afterwards, the neighbour, an aggressively rude woman named Junko Ishii (Tomona Kuga), moves out again with her son, and this would seem to be the end of the story, even if – or perhaps especially because – Mikako and her daughter Ryoko (also playing herself) die five days later in a freak driving accident. Yet Kobayashi’s apparently unrelated inquiries into several psychics – respectively, the young, talented Kana Yano (Rio Kanno), the clairvoyant actress Marika Matsumoto (playing herself), and the raving, tinfoil-wearing ‘psycho’ Mitsuo Hori (Satoru Jitsunashi) – all become increasingly interconnected, leading the journalist back to a village submerged beneath a dam project in 1978, to Junko Ishii, and to an ancient demon desperate to spread death and destruction in the world once more.

If the different steps that bring Kobayashi to Shimokage Village are convoluted and irrational, there is also the sense that he and the psychics are being manipulated and driven to their doom while imagining that they are in command of their own destiny. The demon Kagutaba is seeking a medium for his resurrection – and while on one level that medium will be a psychic capable of bridging the natural and supernatural worlds, on another the medium that he seeks is Kobayashi’s brand of video reportage. This is an entity that likes to be captured on film. Even the demon’s name, built from the kanji characters for ‘disaster’, ‘spirit’ and ‘tool’, means, as the ethnologist Professor Kazuhide Shioya (playing himself) explains, “a tool that’s capable of causing disasters” – a neatly ancient-sounding formula to refer to the rôle played by cameras in this demon’s apocalyptic intentions. All the footage that Kobayashi finds and studies for clues, is not so much guiding him to the truth that he so craves as drawing him down a garden path into a diabolical trap.

The trick of Noroi: The Curse is to take the most everyday of human horrors (suicides, disappearances, domestic murders), and to find the most uneconomic, convoluted and crazy explanations for them in an elaborate paranormal frame. It is as though the mere intermediacy of a camera, and the very format of ‘found footage’, can get us to believe any old madness. After all, how much worse would it be to see someone like Kobayashi – an average guy whom we have grown to like over the course of the film despite really knowing very little about him – as a vicious uxoricide? This is the truly demonic power of the filmmaker’s tools, and of horror in general: to mask the utterly ordinary with the unbelievably extraordinary. On any reading, though, in pursuing the unknown and the occult, Kobayashi invites the devil into his home.

Summary: Koji Shiraishi’s ‘found footage’ J-horror shows a paranormal investigator being manipulated into pursuing – and filming – his own and others’ doom

© Anton Bitel