For this month’s Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, we’re celebrating Women in Horror Month with the Spinsters of Horror. Jess (Spinster #1) and Kelly (Spinster #2) have been busy since 2018 building a mini-media empire, bringing a female perspective to the horror genre through their blog, podcast, and various social media outlets (including Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) where they continually engage with the horror community via conversation and live streams.
For this month’s film, Jess and Kelly chose Kôji Shiraishi’s 2005 found footage film Noroi: The Curse. Noroi’s narrative unfolds through a documentary filmed by paranormal investigator Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki) on a tape mysteriously delivered some time after his house burned down and he disappeared without a trace. The tape follows Kobayashi as he investigates a demon named Kagutaba, whose presence wreaks havoc through a series of seemingly unrelated people, including erratic single mother Junko Ishii (Tomono Kuga), psychically gifted but tormented Mitsuo Hori (Satoru Jitsunashi), and haunted actress Marika Matsumoto (Matsumoto plays herself). As each person becomes more intertwined with one another, Kobayashi tries to find where all these threads lead, which, as any horror fan will tell you, just doesn’t have a great chance at ending well (SPOILER ALERT: As part of the discussion, we will be revealing significant plot points).
Interestingly, not only had I never seen Noroi before, I’d never even heard of it until the Spinsters nominated it for this month’s film. But I wound up really enjoying it, and was eager to find out how they went about selecting it. As it turns out, their answer provides some fun insight into the dynamic that makes their partnership work so well.
Kelly: It's tricky because we needed to pick a movie that both Jess and I have seen, which is a little bit tough because Jess is a little bit newer to horror, plus obviously it’s got to be a movie that you haven’t seen. Plus, it not only has to be a movie that Jess and I have seen, but also both really enjoy. So there was just a lot of factors, and [Noroi] was a recent watch for Jess.
Jess: I'm very much a creature of habit, so if I find something I like I watch it time and again [Editor’s Note: samesies], and also I'm not very good at finding movies that really scare me. Kelly seems to know what may scare me or what may not, or at least challenge me to explore, because I'm very into paranormal and supernatural, atmospheric horror. Kelly pushes me into different genres of horror.
Kelly: Expand your horizons!
Admittedly I was initially apprehensive going into the movie, as J-horror and found footage tend to be hit-or-miss for me. J-horror, in particular, can either fall into the repetitive “spooky child ghost” trope à la Ju-On, or go so over the top in movies like Tokyo Gore Police that it almost becomes incomprehensible. But as Jess and Kelly point out, Noroi plays differently both as J-horror and as found footage.
Jess: I’m not really big into the found footage genre, but I really liked how this one was done. Because to me it felt like I was watching a real paranormal investigation documentary. It didn't feel like a movie to me. So, watching it again [for this column], I had the same thought. It doesn't feel like I'm watching Paranormal Activity. I just feel like I'm watching a real documentary
Kelly: That’s a really good point and I felt that this time around, too. The first time I watched this movie was probably four or five years ago, but I remember it being very unsettling. And there's not a lot of found footage in the Japanese horror genre, so I really like that this was very different. And you're right, there is an incredible amount of realism and a lot of it is very subtle. There's so much imagery in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean horror. That’s really what disturbs me a lot about watching these movies.
...And it's almost like this murder mystery. You're putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, which I really like, and you put that in the genre of found footage... I just am a huge found footage fan, so you know putting all that together makes for a really incredibly compelling, interesting movie to watch.
And while Shiraishi weaves a lot of seemingly disparate threads together in a way that diverges from the usually simplistic found footage format, Kelly disagrees with those who claim it makes the film too difficult to follow.
Kelly: I was reading some random little reviews today, and there was a lot of criticism against how some people found the narrative very convoluted. And I'm normally one to really pick up on very convoluted, overly complicated storylines. I'm not into it. But I actually found this one to be quite straightforward... I liked how you would get this little hint of something. For example, that young woman [Matsumoto] who is taken to the old shrine... she's seeing something, but you don't see it. It's just like slowly revealed to you... I just found that so incredibly effective and how you only get little bits and pieces until you get that final reveal, which was fantastic.
There’s also a sense that Shiraishi is trying to place the events of the movie in the real world, casting actual actress Marika Matsumoto as herself and interspersing clips from mock variety shows. This gives the events a sense of verisimilitude not even seen in perhaps the benchmark for found footage films, The Blair Witch Project. Jess and Kelly point out that even though both movies assert that they take place in the real world, there’s a stark contrast in their respective approaches.
Jess: Even though they're in the same subgenre, they are two very different films and they have two very different feels to them. When I watch The Blair Witch Project, I am tense throughout the entire movie and even though I've seen it so many times, even though I know what's coming, it still chills me. [Noroi] chills me in a different way. Blair Witch kind of gets so fantastical that I can detach myself from it, whereas the way [Noroi] was filmed in that mockumentary style, the way they go into the depth of Japanese culture and into the demon... this feels like this could be a legit thing... I used to watch a lot of Japanese anime when I was in high school and throughout university, so I got really familiar with a lot of Japanese culture through that and through my own studies.
Kelly: Yeah, I think it comes back down to the realism that you were talking about, Jess. Noroi feels like it could actually be a real situation, whereas Blair Witch is more fantastical, which I think makes it more spooky.
But that real-world atmosphere in Noroi leads to an even harder gut punch in the climax, as we find out that the seemingly Kagutaba-possessed Junko was merely a pawn for the real vessel, her young “son,” who Kobayashi and his wife had adopted following Junko’s death. The final scenes, with Kagutaba wreaking havoc in Kobayashi’s home, give the film a real sense of tragedy.
Jess: Then, of course like at the end, too, you're like, “Why did you adopt this random child?” It does not make any sense!
Kelly: I'm glad that he did get adopted, but I would not have taken that child [Editor’s Note: given the creepy circumstances under which he was found, lurking in Junko’s home after she’d hung herself]!
Jess: And it makes you wonder if Kobayashi wondered... like, he already knew that by letting the child go elsewhere, he was endangering another family. So he's probably taking that on himself, like taking on that martyr role of containing the demon... maybe it's just like a subconscious thing... that and maybe a cultural thing, too. Maybe in Japanese culture there's a lot about honor and taking responsibility for things and actions and so that could be a part of that as well.
The cultural element brings an interesting aspect to the film, particularly the lack of skepticism. Notions of the afterlife and the supernatural are accepted across the board in the film, which provides a different dynamic than what you might see in North American films.
Jess: What I really liked about it is they... brought in the element of natural respect that a lot of Japanese culture has for the dead and for spiritual experiences. Because as you're watching, you see that no one questions what’s going on. They are equally ready to report what they're hearing and then talk very openly with Kobayashi.
And there's a lot of heightened supernatural beliefs in Japan, and what I really thought was interesting was the character of Mitsuo Hori, the gentleman in the tin foil-lined apartment. He's treated as a psychic... but here in Americanized culture we make fun of the person wearing a tinfoil hat. If you're wearing a tinfoil hat and you're talking about ectoplasmic worms coming at you from space, you're crazy. [But in the context of this film] it's like, “We know he's unhinged, but he actually has a gift and we wanted to know more about this.”
Kelly: For sure, he actually has knowledge that nobody else has. I found him to be pretty heartbreaking, but you're right, I think that's a very important point. They never once made fun of him. He wasn't a joke. They treated him very seriously and they knew that he was kind of the key witness to all of this.
This willingness to believe in the supernatural helps to avoid a common trope that really gets under Jess and Kelly’s skin: disbelieving feminine characters. In most North American horror, there’s often an element where a character, usually a woman, will try to reveal that something otherworldly is going on only to be met by (often male) skepticism. But in this movie, everyone is at least given the benefit of the doubt.
Jess: It was more like, “Okay, so this is happening, let's find out more.” And even when Kobayashi is talking to all those doctors, they’re just willingly sharing information, even though they don't know why they're helping. They're like, “Okay you're asking these questions, so we’re going to help you.”
Kelly: Jess and I have talked about this. Here in North America, death is still a stigma. Believing in ghosts, there's just a stigma towards all of it. We take it in jest. Everyone's a skeptic, everyone's a critic. We just don't take it seriously. In Japan, it's part of their belief system. It's very normal and very okay (or at least acceptable) to believe in ghosts, because that's part of their culture. Ghosts are normal, the afterlife is normal. These are all acceptable things to believe, and [in the US] it’s not.
What’s more, by shaking up the possession narrative for North American audiences who are more likely to be familiar with possession from a primarily Catholic context, the film presents a narrative that doesn’t demand that the woman be controlled.
Jess: They don't ever actually mention “possession.” [Junko] doesn't seem like she's possessed to me. She just seems very agitated, and we're talking about how we're used to the very North American notion of possession. You’re writhing, you’re back bending, doing all this dramatic stuff where you're speaking in tongues. Whereas with this, they're just describing her as becoming very erratic, and being very cranky and doing odd things.
Kelly: They mentioned possession once when they’re watching the end of the [Kagutaba summoning] ritual. “Watch this video, yeah she's possessed.” But that's where they leave it. They don't force her not to be possessed. They don't do an exorcism, this big dramatic thing. It's, “Oh yeah, they say that she's possessed.” And then she's just like this “weird woman” at the top of the hill with all these weird loops around her house. They kind of just leave her be, which is dramatically different than what Christian or Catholic-based possession movies would be, where those people 100% have to be exorcised, right? We have to gain control of these women. Whereas [in Noroi] they just sort of left her alone.