A documentary filmmaker explores seemingly unrelated paranormal incidents connected by the legend of an ancient demon called the “kagutaba.”
The name Koji Shiraishi is pretty much as synonymous with J-horror as Hideo Nakata or Takashi Shimizu. The film he seems to be best known for here in the west might be one of extreme violence and very little substance (I’m talking of course about his 2009 film Grotesque that contained atrocities of such nature that British Board of Film Classification deemed fit to ban it altogether), but if you care to have a closer look at his filmography, you will find it being a rather solitary affair in otherwise quite conventional horror catalogue. And by conventional I do not by any means mean boring: throughout his career Shiraishi has covered variety of subjects, from the urban legend of kuchisake-onna (The Slit-Mouthed Woman) to the living dead roaming among us (Dead Girl Walking), all with his unique take on the subject. For me, his best work can be found in the realm of found footage horror. It is a genre Shiraishi has dipped in and out of over the years, bringing out titles like Occult (2009), Shirome (2010) and Cult (2013) and while they all have their strong points, none quite compare to his 2005 masterpiece Noroi. It is hands down the best found footage film of the decade. It’s well crafted, credible and most important of all, genuinely scary.
Mockumentary is perhaps a better term to describe Noroi. It is essentially a film about a film: The frame story tells us about a fictional documentary filmmaker/ghosthunter Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), who after finishing his latest projects has disappeared from the face of the earth in horrifying circumstances. We then of course get to see what Mr. Kobayashi was working on before his mysterious departure; while investigating a series of seemingly separate paranormal events, including a woman complaining about weird noises coming from next door, a child psychic’s (Rio Kanno) awe-inspiring performance in a TV variety show, the actress Marika Matsumoto’s (playing herself) TV appearance using her psychic powers and a local mad man (Satoru Jitsunashi) running around in tin foil hat shouting about “ectoplasmic worms”, Kobayashi finds a connection between the different events in an ancient demon called Kagutaba. After the disappearance of the child psychic, Kana, and increasingly escalating paranormal events in Mariko’s life, it becomes clear that the need to get to the bottom of these weird events is a lot greater than first expected, or else they all might end up as victims of Kagutaba’s curse.
The plot of the film is too complicated to be fully explained and as I hate spoilers myself, I will not even try. It’s not your straightforward found footage film compiled from shaky handheld, surveillance or go-pro camera footage, but rather uses documentary interviews interspliced with clips from various TV shows, news broadcasts and even a dusty old 16mm film documenting an ancient demon pacification ritual. There is some jerky handheld stuff too, but it’s in relatively small role.
By using the techniques usually seen in the world of documentary filmmaking, Shiraishi has truly created something refreshing and original, and for the most part the film feels more like a genuine documentary rather than a horror film. Of course, now over ten years later, it’s not as fresh as it was when it first came out and several other films have used the same format since. However, I would still argue that Shiraishi’s take on this genre mix is still one of the best ones out there. It’s genuinely believable in the way it goes about things, taking its time with the story and not trying to push anything too preposterous the viewers way. In fact, many of the events in the beginning of the film are indeed something that you could easily see in any of the so called ghost hunting TV shows that plague modern television; things that are slightly bizarre, but not so much so that you couldn’t possibly find some kind of natural explanation for them. Admittedly many of the characters here do end up disappearing or dying in weird circumstances, but even this does not eat away the films credibility, but rather adds to its ominous ambience. As the story revs up, things do become more outlandish, but this is not until the very end of the film and even then, they never err on the side of ridiculous.
The film does not rely on extravagant special effects and the dread comes not from cheap jump scares or ghoulish apparitions, but from the well-crafted backstory and the feeling that almost anyone could find themselves sucked into this world. The people involved are all there almost by accident; just unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place the wrong time. Of course, that’s not strictly true and there is a certain connection that ties all of these people together and to this curse, but it doesn’t mean that others can’t get hurt. Indeed, people in the periphery of this story are also affected, most of them in a frightful manner. Noroi is also free of the common fault that often seems to haunt the found footage genre: a far-fetched and unlikeable protagonist.
As is often the case in these types of stories, the main character with their unwavering commitment to whatever project they might oversee, drives the rest of the characters towards their inevitable doom. However, this is not the case with Kobayashi. While he certainly is a driven character; a man dedicated to finding the truth “no matter how terrifying”, he does not do so on the expense of others. In fact, he even invites Mariko to stay with him and his wife after the bizarre events in her life take more sinister turn. This is a welcome deviation from a tired character type and does its part in helping the plausibility of the story. Towards the end of the film, there are a few brief scenes with CGI that in all honesty are not the best of quality and do not sit that well with the rest of the footage, but as the rest of it works so wonderfully well, these moments can easily be forgiven.
Some have criticised Noroi for being over long and slow going, but personally I do not agree with those statements. I do recognise it will not be everyone’s cup of tea and if you like your found footage horror with a lot of running around and endless parade of jump scares, Noroi will not be for you. If you do however like a slow burning mystery with genuine sense of terror, this is definitely a title worth exploring. It might take it’s time to get going and you might at points wonder whether a certain segment is in anyway linked to anything else, but rest assured all will come clear in a terrifying ending that is sure to satisfy.