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Shikoku (Nagasaki Shunichi 1999)


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Shikoku

Genre: Traditional Superstition Horror

review in one breath

One of the main reasons I enjoy Japanese horror is that these films so often tap into real cultural traditions and superstitions.One can actually learn or experience quite a bit about Japanese culture simply by watching the films. Shikoku is a prime example of the intermingling of actual folk lore with cinematics and as such is thoroughly enjoyable.


Shikoku is based on a children's novel by author Masako Bando, whose other written works include Inugami (which was also made into a movie). Both stories (and films) contain significant tribute to traditional Shinto/Buddhist intuitions. And thus both these films can be strongly recommended purely for their cultural value. Both these films suffered, however, by being released on the heels of Ringu which has become a standard of sorts for Japanese horror. Thus one encounters too many reviews of either Shikoku or Inugami which criticize their seeming inability to deliver terror moments akin to Ringu. But this type of criticism does no service to the films themselves nor to the viewers. The films based on Bando's works are clearly more interested in exploring the implications of actual local folk lore. And indeed few (japanese) horror films make this commitment. I personally, as a Western viewer, wish more would do so.

Shikoku is steeped in Shinto and Buddhist intuitions. The title literally means Country ("koku") of the Dead ("shi"). The Japanese ideograms (kanji) used to depict the title mean precisely this. The term (when heard spoken) also refers to the name of one Japan's major islands (but here the kanji implies fourth ("shi") island ("koku') ), the same island author Bando grew up on, in Kochi prefecture, the setting for this story. Thus the traditions and superstitions he writes about are those he knows all too well. From watching the films based on his works, it seems that Bando's sole intent is to draw audiences into those remote villages of his home province where the natural and supernatural worlds have overlapped since time immemorial.

On (the real) Shikoku, there is in actuality a rather ancient clockwise circuit around the coast of the island. Traditionally this circuit is said to have been first traveled by a Shikoku native, the 8th century buddhist monk Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi is more widely known as the founder of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. During his initial circuitous pilgrimge around the island, he is said to have established the 88 temples which dot the 1000 mile (1400 KM) trek. Since his death in 835 AD, pilgrims from throughout the islands of Japan and beyond have traveled to Shikoku to make this same 1000 mile pilgrimage, worshipping at each of the 88 temples in clockwise order, thereby following the very footsteps of Kobo Daishi.

The horror of Shikoku is built upon (the possibility of) a secret, black tradition which realized what powers emerged if one wholeheartedly fulfills the pilgrimage in reverse order. Rather than lead one honorably toward the state of death, Shikoku explores a reverse order which leads from death to life. Thus the famous pilgrimage of Shikoku Island is understood to also imply a black pilgrimage from Shikoku (Land of the Dead) to the land of the living.

The (film's) story revolves around three young childhood friends; Sayori, Hina(ko) and Fumiya. Their friendship is in all ways normal, including the faint murmur of rivalry between the two girls regarding the attention of Fumiya. But the audience is privy to the fact that nothing about Sayori's life is normal. From birth she has been trained by her parents, both shamans and mediums, to channel dead souls during loud and furious ceremonies involving fires, drums and loud chanting. And by the time we meet up with her at a very young age, she is more than adept at this, in a real way. Thus while "normal" childhood friends freely walk home from school chatting and laughing, Sayori is frequently met half-way by her father who has a client at their home, waiting to speak to a dead child, spouse or parent. She is thus jerked from her friends' presence, dressed in ceremonial gowns, and restrained with ropes as the furious ceremony commences.

All three friends are saddened by the news that Hina must move to Tokyo due to her father's employment. Hina and Sayori swear their friendship to each other before Hina is shuffled into the taxi. She tearfully looks back at the vision of her dearest friends set against the backdrop of the mountains of Shikoku. It is not until nearly twenty years later that Hina returns to the village in order to sell her parents' old home.

Once back, she learns that Sayori tragically died in a river drowning at age 16 and that for the last 8 years her father has been in a near comatose state at the hospital. She also learns that since Sayori's death, her mother has committed herself to fulfilling annual circuits of the pilgrimage around the island. On a brighter side, Hina pleasantly discovers that Fumiya is still living in the town and is unmarried. (!) Although Fumiya undoubtedly has unmentioned issues bubbling under the surface, including his dating Sayori for some time prior to her tragic death, he and Hina slowly develop a lovers' relationship.

Meanwhile...

  • all the little (stone!) buddha sculptures along the path to an ancient Shinto/Buddhist holy place have been suddenly beheaded.
  • and the entrance gate to the holy place has been shattered
  • a large mildew splotch grows on the ceiling of the hospital room occupied by Sayori's father, spelling out...
  • Fumiya and Hinako have sex
  • Sayori's incredibly aged mother completes her 16th pilgrimage circuit around the island in reverse
  • a recluse holy man stops chanting at his mountaintop bonfire long enough to warn Fumiya and Hinako about the demonic consequences of the completion of a 16th circuit backwards... (too late, eh?)
  • Fumiya and Hinako have sex again (just kidding)
  • Sayori's mother enters the holy place with the precise incantations and necessary momentos required to raise the dead.

Shikoku definitely has some creepy moments and the suspense is rather palpable throughout the entire story. However, while the story excels in its recourse to traditional superstitions, it lacks in plot sophistication. And one cannot even use the term "sophistication" when describing the film's final climactic moments, which are completely implausible if we are to believe what we saw (and heard) just moments prior.

All in all, however, I can recommend this as one to watch, if not purely for its cultural value. As I said above, it also delivers some truly creepy moments. And the implausibility factor does not rear its ugly head until the final moments of the film, which will allow you to thoroughly enjoy the story up to (nearly) the very end.

Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Enough regional folk lore and superstition to swim in. A couple expressions of bone-crunching affection. Nothing like a little "reunion" with your childhood friends. Travel the friendly skies and enjoy black magic pilgrimages! Visit the ancient phallus! Swim in the luxurious cave pool of green slime! And to top it all off, make a date with the Chiropractor from Hell!

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