Shadow of the Wraith

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Toshiharu Ikeda would make an interesting subject for an essay on inconsistent Japanese genre directors. He is best known for directing the excellent and hugely influential (if derivative) EVIL DEAD TRAP ('Shiryo no Wana', 1988), which was essentially the first 'modern' Japanese horror film. EVIL DEAD TRAP was extreme in every way, with perhaps the most unpleasant and realistic faux snuff footage to be found outside of a GUINEA PIG film included just for fun. Not only that, but it was also extremely well directed, and literally oozed style and confidence. Prior to EVIL DEAD TRAP, Ikeda had directed several films, most notably an episode of the ANGEL GUTS series in 1981 (ANGEL GUTS: RED PORNO). After it, he seemed to struggle to repeat his success – Izo Hashimoto made a bizarre sequel to EVIL DEAD TRAP in 1991 (EVIL DEAD TRAP II: HIDEKI) and Ikeda belatedly decided to reclaim the series with a third entry, the poorly received and little-seen EVIL DEAD TRAP III: BROKEN LOVE KILLER (1993). Ikeda continued to struggle for another few years, before turning in two entries to the XX series of films in 1996; XX: BEAUTIFUL BEAST and XX: BEAUTIFUL PREY. The latter is easily the best of the five (or six, depending on whether one includes the unofficial entry ANOTHER XX: RED MURDERER (1996)) XX films, being a true unsung gem of a film. Tom Weisser rightly heaps praise upon it in his much-maligned Japanese Cinema Encyclopedia, and it's a crying shame that so few people in the West have been able to see it. However, with the exception of the EVIL DEAD TRAP films, Ikeda hasn't really worked within the horror genre since the early 80's. When I first heard that he had returned to horror cinema with IKISUDAMA (roughly translated as 'doppelganger') I was understandably excited, though it seemed a little strange that there are no reviews of the film and practically no information about it on the internet, despite it being released in 2001

The film consists of two (almost) unrelated halves, which in my opinion isn't usually a good thing. The first half is entitled 'Ikisudama' and tells the story of a student called Ryoji Yoshino (Koji Matsuo). Ryoji is happily in love with Mariko, a fellow student at the same school. A new girl called Asaji (Hitomi Miwa) becomes enamoured with Ryoji and it soon becomes clear that she is not what she seems

She seems to be able to be in two places at once (echoes of the 'mystery man' in Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY (1997)) and is able to make glass shatter at will. She can also appear in Ryoji's dreams, and it isn't long before things start going badly wrong for Ryoji, not to mention the females in his life.

The second half of the film is entitled 'Utsuhoishino', which roughly translates as 'hollow stone'. A young girl called Naoko Nakada (Asumi Miwa) moves into a fifth floor apartment in a condo with her parents. It turns out that the family moved from their previous home because people in the next three houses had died one after the other, and their house was next. However, she soon discovers, with the help of Kauzuhiko (Yuichi Matsuo), the brother of Ryoji in the first half of the film, that people in the three apartments below hers have also died. Could it have something to do with the strange stone on the balcony? And what's with that weird closet door?

Sadly, this is not a very good film. Aimed squarely at the teenage market, one presumes that its main raison d'ętre is the gimmick of having two pairs of siblings in the lead roles. The Matsuo brothers are better known as J-Pop duo 'Doggy Bag' (aka 'Y2K' in Korea), and the Miwa sisters have each featured in several teen horror films including UZUMAKI (2000), the original JU-ON (2000) and MISA-THE DARK ANGEL (1998). Of course, none of this will mean anything to audiences outside of Japan, and the presence of a pop band inevitably means one can expect the inclusion of some awful songs. Sure enough, within the first ten minutes of the film there have been two, though things calm down a little after this (the main song is replayed through the credits though, just for good measure). In fairness, all four do quite a decent job here (even if they are way too old to be playing school kids - not that that ever seems to matter in Hollywood either), and it has to be said that elder sister Hitomi looks very nice indeed dressed as a school girl. One odd thing about a lot of recent Japanese films involving schools is the amount of time the students seem to spend on the school roof! Think BLUE SPRING (2001), KIDS RETURN (1996), SUICIDE CLUB (2002), this film, etc. Very strange, and not very sensible, it seems to me

The first half of the film is definitely the stronger of the two, and makes a little more sense than the second, which makes none whatsoever. There is little violence or sex, though there is one quite graphic impaling scene, which seems out of place in the context of the rest of the film (the fx for the film are handled by Shinichi Wakasa, the man responsible for the amazing effects in EVIL DEAD TRAP, and (with Ikeda) for the infamous commentary on Synapse's DVD of that film). There's also little that could really be termed scary or creepy – the film is almost like a Japanese version of 'Buffy'. There is a great score, which is reminiscent of EVIL DEAD TRAP (though with the Goblin rip-off elements toned down) – not surprisingly, given that the same man (Tomohiko Kira) is responsible.

The really frustrating thing about it is that in many places one can literally feel Ikeda trying to break through the tedium. His trademark gritty footage and strange camerawork do pop up occasionally, but most of the time are just to say restrained, and left simmering just below the surface. I would dearly love Ikeda to get the chance to make another all-out horror film as he is undoubtedly one of the great untapped talents in Japan today. With the boom in horror films in the latter part of the 90's, which is still going on today, it seems really odd that he hasn't been given more chances to work in the genre he kick started back in the late 80's. If you really want to see what Ikeda is capable of, then rather than searching for this film try to find XX: BEAUTIFUL PREY.

Reviewed by Tom Foster