Posted by David Kalat on April 26, 2014
Séance on a Wet Afternoon, the chilling 1964 British classic by Bryan Forbes, will be on TCM in the middle of the night tonight. It’s a must-see. It is not, however, my favorite screen adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel. That honor goes to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s version, which effortlessly turned this mid-century British ghost story into a work of 21st century J-Horror, largely because Kurosawa hadn’t seen Forbes’ must-see version.
Our story starts in 2000. The Ring is practically printing money for its makers, and the Japanese film industry has started to wake up to the idea that the global film market is hungry for creepy, low-key horror films that eschew gore for atmosphere, shocks for chills. Kiyoshi Kurosawa was one of the architects of this new wave of Japanese horror, and his Cure was one of the landmarks of the new genre. Kansai TV called on Kurosawa, to ask him to make a ghost-themed television movie.
It was Kansai’s idea to adapt McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon; it was Kurosawa’s idea to riff freely on that source material in the service of his own private demons.
Kurosawa’s version was not a remake in the normal sense, because he was unaware of the earlier film and didn’t feel bound to be too faithful to the original story. In the spirit of collaboration, Ring screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi gave permission to Kurosawa to poach some dialogue out of the original Ring screenplay, lines Takahashi cut from his script that his old pal wanted to borrow.
Séance, or as it is known in Japan, Kourei: Ushiworo Miruna (“Spiritualism: Don’t Look Behind You”—I know, I know, that’s why they call it Séance here), inverts the formula that worked so well for Kurosawa on Cure. Whereas Cure started with the genre of detectives-versus-serial killers and gradually metamorphosed into a supernatural thriller, Séance sets up an unambiguously supernatural premise and twists itself into a suspenseful Japanese film noir that could easily have been penned by the likes of Patricia Highsmith or Cornell Woolrich.
“What interested me about the narrative story in the book,” Kurosawa explains, “was that it featured a ghost, in other words a dead human being, as well as an average couple who had been living very normal lives who, in fact, became criminals.”
Meet Mrs. Sato (Jun Fubuki), a medium. Yup, she sees dead people. Her gift is an intrusive, disruptive force that has all but denied her a normal existence. Life is dreadful, and she desperately craves either to be free of her power, or to see it bring her—just once—something other than pain. Her husband (the ubiquitous Koji Yakusho) is a professional sound effects man for a TV production company, and a mild-mannered, henpecked, unassuming man.
When a young child is kidnapped, the desperate cops turn to a psychic. Guess who.
Mrs. Sato does indeed know where the child is, but not because of any magic ability.
Her husband had been out in the woods recording sounds one day when the child attempted to flee her captor, and hid inside his trunk of equipment. Oblivious to her, he packed the box up and left it sealed in his garage, where the poor kid is now barely alive. Mrs. Sato discovers the girl, but instead of doing the right thing (i.e., call an ambulance, tell the police, return the child to her grieving family), she cooks up a cockamamie plan to keep the girl hidden until she can stage-manage “finding” her with her second sight, and thereby become a rich and famous hero.
Unsurprisingly, the plan goes wrong quickly. The Satos completely overshoot their goal of being heroes, and turn into something quite else. What’s that thing heroes oppose? Oh, right. Villains.
Koji Yakusho was Kurosawa’s onscreen alter ego—to date, he’s starred in 7 of Kurosawa’s films.
“First of all, I think he is a great actor,” Kurosawa gushed, “He can play any type of character. He can be a regular guy, but he can also become a monster, a person of whom you don’t know what he’s thinking. Secondly, he is the same age as me. So our points of view are alike. We’re on the same level as human beings.”
When pressed, Kurosawa admits to using Yakusho as something of an onscreen alter ego. For his part, the actor is mum on this point.
Born Koji Hashimoto, he was given his stage name by his acting teacher, Tatsuya Nakadai. He did not develop an interest in acting until relatively late, originally training in civil engineering. He has said that at the time he thought actors were “sissies.” But when a colleague gave him tickets to a Maxim Gorky play, he found himself so overtaken by the performance that he radically changed gears in his life.
After years of stage plays and TV soap operas, Yakusho gradually built up a loyal fan base and a solid background of experience. In 1996 he played the lead in Shall We Dance? (Richard Gere took his role for the American remake) and won international stardom and his first Best Actor award from the Japan Academy. For the next decade he would dominate the awards shows and work with Japan’s top directors. In addition to his body of work with Kurosawa, Yakusho also starred in Masato Harada’s Bounce Ko Gals in 1997, appeared nude in Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge in 2002, and helped dubbed Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ Band of Brothers for Japanese audiences.
In 2004 he starred in University of Laughs, an extraordinary comedy set in pre-WWII Japan with Yakusho playing a government censor whose attempts to suppress controversial material in a cut-rate farce causes him to morph into an increasingly politicized comedy writer himself. While it is commendable that the J-Horror boom has opened up opportunities for Japanese films to reach American audiences, it is a little sad that while anything remotely ghost-related gets a DVD release while a masterpiece like University of Laughs is unlikely to find American distribution.
Nevertheless, Yakusho is grateful that so many of his performances have reached audiences beyond Japan’s shores. “When I come to think that those films in which I have appeared are now being shown in distant foreign countries, I feel very happy,” says Yakusho, “One of the pleasures of appearing in films is that after the filming sessions are over, the films start ‘walking by themselves’ in various countries.”
Compared to the extremely male-dominated movies of his past, Séance is Kurosawa’s J-Horror take on a chick flick. Here, Yakusho’s character is so passive as to be almost more of a ghost than the one that haunts him. Instead, co-star Jun Fubuki takes the lead as the spiritualist, and her subtle performance manages to upstage one Japan’s most accomplished and decorated actors.
“I’m very interested in the position of men and women in Japanese society, especially concerning work and family,” Kurosawa said, “Men tend to be fortunate in the working world, while women are generally more bonded with their families. But things are changing and many women are reluctant to adopt these traditions and wind up alone and neglected.”
When asked why Japanese ghosts are almost exclusively depicted as women or young girls, Kurosawa suggested, “it’s a very male-dominated world, so the reason why ghosts tend to be female is that they are oppressed in life, they are more powerful in death, so they are able to avenge themselves once they are dead.”
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