Genre: Shinto-based Supernatural Horror
Director: Yamamoto Kiyoshi (2006)
review in one breath
An earthquake in a remote mountainous region unearths an ancient Shinto shrine dedicated to Yomotsu - Hirasaka, the mythical entrance to the Shinto underworld and its Fountain of the Dead. The discovery is significant both archaeologically and academically, but soon impacts surrounding residents as its terrible secret seeps into the local water supply causing horrific thirst, mind-bending visions and violent deaths.
This film is the latest horror story from Kadokawa Shoten Publishing to be adapted to film. Kadakawa Shoten has been a long-running and important resource for film directors in the contemporary Japanese horror genre including the likes of Ring (1998), Kakashi (2001), Inugami (2001), etc., all of which were originally published as short stories under the Kadokawa banner. Kadokawa itself has also been more directly involved in recent made-for-TV horror series based on its publications with Mail (2004) and the Kadokawa Mystery & Horror Tales (2003) collection which, while adequately spooky and effective in their own way are obviously qualitatively different (ie, lesser) in production, budget and overall audience impact.
Mizuchi is based on the novel (also entitled "Mizuchi") by Hirofuni Tanaka, a fairly prolific writer of manga and short tales in the horror genre. Directing this film is Kiyoshi Yamamoto who has been a persistent albeit less successful contributor to the contemporary Japanese horror craze. His directorial debut was the theaterical release of Onryou (2004) comprised of five short vignettes from the Honto ni atta! Kowai Hanashii TV series in which he continues to remain primarily involved. He also directed a version of Honto ni Atta! Noroi Bideo (2004) and the first three versions of the Kaidan collection (2006).
Based on my exposure to these prior projects of Yamamoto, I sat down to watch Mizuchi with, shall we say, a certain lowered expectation. But in all honesty I was pleasantly surprised and felt that this film comes very close to being a very good and eery addition to the continuing collection of contemporary Japanese horror. For one thing, this film wholly avoids the classic ghoulie-little-girl-which-is-hugged-in-the-finale. There is no (all too frequent) female ghoul with long black scraggly hair covering her face. In fact, there are very few, if any, of the common plot props and characters which we have come to expect from such tales. Instead we are given an exploration into the very terrifying contemporary impact of an ancient Shinto myth.
The Kojiki contains the central Shinto Creation Myth outlining the emergence of the natural world, the underworld, and the supernatural deities occupying them. When one of the central female deities (Izanami) dies during childbirth, her distraught husband (Izanagi) determines to visit her in the underworld, the Land of Yomi. The adventures of Izanagi in the underworld and his encounter with his deceased wife provide ample and significant insight into the ancient Shinto view of the afterlife. A key aspect of the tale involves Izanami's confession that since she has eaten and drunk from the food and water of the Land of Yomi, she has been (negatively) transformed and must now irrevocably remain an occupant of the Land of the dead. This tale has been the basis of religious notions in all subsequent generations regarding the association of death and spiritual impurity and physical pollution. (And is why, for example, water flows in front of Shinto shrines, so that adherents may ceremonially purify themselves before petitioning deities.)
It is this specific portion of the Kojiki creation myth which Mizuchi taps into, suggesting that the long-buried Fountain of Yomi is somehow breached by an earthquake and that its deadly waters, along with all their supernatural side effects has come into contact with the natural world's water table. One observation worth mentioning is that Tanaka's original novel and thus Yamamoto's film seem to diverge from the traditional Shinto location of Yomi. I say "seem to" because Mizuchi seems to emphasize Miyazaki prefecture which is on a different island altogether, and (yet) places the earthquake's epicenter somewhere in the central Kanto region. (To its possible merit, the film does list several cities, the sites of the suicides, which might answer this question, but I failed to make much of them at the time and don't recall them now. Aargh.) Meanwhile, the traditional reading of the Kojiki locates Yomotsu Hirasaka, the mythic entrance to Yomi and thus to its Fountain , in Izumo province now located in contemporary Shimane prefecture. Make of all that what you will.
Investigative reporter Kyoko Togakure (Haruka Igawa) stumbles across a series of seemingly random suicides with similar horrific characteristics. Though taking place at different times and towns throughout the Kanto region, all of the suicides victims damaged his or her own eyes and prior to taking their lives exhibited an insatiable thirst and graphic hallucinations. One of Kyoko's own university professors succumbed to such a fate after travelling to Miyazaki to research a recently unearthed archaeological find following a series of earthquakes in the area. From him she learned that the site was associated with the ancient Shinto creation myth and "Mizuchi" or Fountain of Yomi whose springs were said to feed the underworld.
Though all of this initially sounds to her like an implausible and esoteric stretch of the imagination, her investigative efforts continue to uncover a critical mass of disconcerting evidence that something may in fact be polluting the local water supplies, causing insanity and suicidal tendency in those who ingest it. By comparing the locations of the suicides, she finds that they all surround Yomohira Mountain, the epicenter of the recent earthquake and the site of the archaeological discovery. With the help of her ex-husband Yuichi (Atsuro Watabe) who works for a local Water Reclamation Department, they set out to discover the source of the strange contamination as the number of victims experiencing devastating hallucinations and untimely death rises exponentially.
In relation to director Yamamoto's other work, this is miles ahead in terms of its cinematography, narrative and spook factor. In fact, this comes oh-so-close to being a truly unique and highly recommendable film. It suffers in only a couple spots from a lack of momentum, but the pervasive sense of foreboding followed by a relatively unexpected, mind-bending ending makes for a rather strong impression when all is said and done.
The special effects here are minimalist and sparing, yet work well with the mysterious nature of the storyline. In a few ways this felt similar to the pace and visual presentation of Kakashi, another tale wherein the story is bound to a specific geographical location and in which the primary malevolent force is neither ghost nor demon, but rather the manifestation of an ancient myth and the eruption of the underworld up and into the world of contemporary living souls. In Kakashi we are not explicitly shown the "portal" but only the symbols (scarecrows) it acts upon. Here too, director Yamamoto wisely does not attempt to depict the source of evil, but relies wholly on associating its dread with this film's primary symbol, water. And the association is made in a convincingly creepy enough manner so that the audience's own imaginations are thoroughly engaged in grappling with and deciphering the unfolding of this tale.
I personally prefer horror tales built upon geographic, historical or religious pillars since I believe this gives audiences something truly unique to Japanese horror. Mizuchi is such a film and I enjoyed seeing all three of these aspects taking a central role in the narrative. I also felt the film's conclusion was strong, underscoring how irrevocable and pervasive the Mizuchi Curse may in fact be.
This film is not yet released in any mainstream subtitled version, though I have run across a release coming out of China. The film seems fairly well known and so I expect that it will be relased in US markets soon, most likely under the title Death Water.
Version reviewed: Region 2 DVD (no subtitles)
|Interesting storyline involving Shinto myths and their havoc upon modern society.||Some graphic display of self-mutilated eye sockets.||People here are hallucinating too severely to get their groove on.||Adequately eery and foreboding story which will keep you wondering. PLUS there are no ghoulie cliches here.|