Horror films often revolve around fears and desires, generally with dire consequences for anti-social or blasphemous beliefs. As a genre, they reinforce community standards and behavioral norms, which is one reason that audiences perpetually ask “what did they do to deserve this?” when someone is possessed, haunted, or otherwise experiences evil. With a sort of evil spirit realm paralleling our own, sometimes all it takes is opening the wrong door, unsealing that basement cupboard, even playing the wrong game. Like a Ouija Board. First commercialized in the late 1800s, the idea of a “spirit channeling board” is unquestionably intriguing. What if it did actually work? In Japan, the ouija board is known as “Kokkuri” and is believed to summon a fox spirit, hence it’s being more generally known as “Kokkuri-san”, or Mr. Kokkuri.
In the confusing mashup horror film Ouija Japan, the protagonist does indeed summon a fox spirit with dire consequences, but there’s also an “only one can survive” Battle Royale aspect, there’s a smartphone app involved, and there’s a dash of Lost in Translation too. The film revolves around Karen (Ariel Sekiya), an American who has married an older Japanese man and moved to Japan to live with him. She speaks barely any Japanese and after six months in Japan is ostracized and taunted by the other “housewives” in her apartment complex. The worst of them is the bossy queen bee Mrs. Yoshihara (Eigi Kodaka), who organizes neighborhood events and bullies those who don’t participate. Karen’s her nemesis for being a gaijin who can’t even speak Japanese.
Fortunately, Karen is befriended by Satsuki (Miharu Chiba), who is tough and gives as good as she gets towards Mrs. Yoshihara. She helps Karen understand what’s going on and is perhaps her only friend. This is a traditional Japanese world where husbands march dutifully off to work and wives are left home to cook, clean, and gossip about each other. This makes Karen an easy target with her terrible Japanese and standoffish husband (who is quite possibly the least affectionate husband in modern indie cinema).
Mrs. Yoshihara decides that all the housewives should take an overnight trip to check out a possible destination for their families later in the year (I think, it’s not very clear why they head out) and pressures Karen into joining them. Fortunately, Satsuki opts to take the trip too, and soon the group of 18 women and one “house-husband” head to a lovely rural Japanese village, complete with ancient family shrines and more. At Mrs. Yoshihara’s goading, a couple of the younger women steal some money from the collection box at a shrine so they can make a board and play, you guessed it, Kokkuri-san.
Stealing money from a revered family shrine is, predictably, a really bad idea.
Soon a woman in a traditional white kimono and a creepy fox mask appears and warns them that “only one can survive”. The Kokkuri board is completely forgotten at that point and it becomes housewife-versus-housewife as they each try to survive their murderous neighbors. There’s a time limit on the action too and when the murders slow down, fox woman re-appears and kills someone. After each death, a number appears on the screen showing the remaining survivors. Oh! And there’s an app that has mysteriously appeared on all their phones, with the worst kind of in-app purchase: The currency is how long you’ll live. This poses a dilemma; is it worth losing a few days at the end of your life to survive the current madness? Some of the women opt to do just that and gain access to live camera streams, maps showing where the others are, weapons, and more.
The best of these survival thrillers can be quite engrossing, as demonstrated in the 2000 film Battle Royale and more recently in the surreal As The Gods Will. Adding a phone app that can offer players an advantage if they’re willing to pay the cost is a nice twist. But the Ouija board tie-in seems somewhat pointless where it could have been a much more central theme, and it was disappointing to see the lazy stereotypes rehashed by writer and director Masaya Kato, particularly related to the house-husband character.
Worse, the acting overall is pretty amateurish, which can sometimes be effective, but in this instance pulls all the verisimilitude from the story. While Kodaka relishes her role as the neighborhood harpy, it’s Ariel Sekiya who just doesn’t convince as the unhappy American. She’s ostensibly trying to figure out Japan and learn Japanese but without any emotional reactions to her situation, we never really care about her. A stronger actor in the role could have helped us feel the alienation and ostracism of her peers. Her striving to learn Japanese – maybe a phrasebook or translation app she keeps checking? – would have been invaluable, could have been used for sporadic comic relief, and would have produced much more sympathy for her character in the film.
Japan has a well-earned reputation for producing some of the best horror films, including The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water and Kakashi. While Ouija Japan has some good ideas, it’s ultimately too much of an unfocused mashup of concepts and sub-genres to work well as a horror film. It might be worth watching if you enjoy “BR films”, as fans refer to these sort of kill-or-be-killed thrillers, but otherwise, there are lots of better Japanese horror films to watch before you tune into Ouija Japan.
Dad At The Movies Note: There’s plenty of chaotic violence and splattery blood in this film, but more upsetting to a younger viewer might be the idea that women all despise each other and want to kill everyone else. Inappropriate for pre-teens and for teens who aren’t already inured to some level of violence through their media choices.