There are moments when Kodomo tsukai, the latest effort from Ju-on director Takashi Shimizu, teeters on the edge of bonkers, and I truly wish there had been more of them. There’s the flamboyant villain’s costume, which is made partially of live animals that he frequently yanks off of himself, leading to yowls of protest. There’s a bouncy castle that turns vengeful. There’s occasional fisheye camera work.
Sadly, though, the movie never goes completely off the rails, sticking fairly close to a well-established J-horror formula: unexplained deaths and disappearances, people in over their heads trying to figure out what’s going on, dead-eyed children, and a final showdown with some sort of malevolent entity. When the premise was somewhat new (as with Ringu) or helped along by solid performances and three-dimensional characters (as with Dark Water and almost any Kiyoshi Kurosawa film), it worked. Now, though, it’s all a bit tired.
Kodomo tsukai translates roughly to “child whisperer,” though the official English title is Innocent Curse. The story riffs on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin (in case any audience members don’t get the many references, at one point an adult is seen reading a Japanese version of the picture book to a child). Children disappear but then return and behave strangely, all quietly singing the same song. Many of these children have been abused or neglected in some way. Three days after they return, an adult who’s come into contact with them (perhaps their abuser, but perhaps not) dies under mysterious circumstances. Shunya (Daiki Arioka) and his girlfriend Naomi (Mugi Kadowaki), the young couple caught in the middle, start to make connections between the disappearances, a mysterious, flute-playing figure (Hideaki Takizawa) that only some people can see, and a children’s circus.
Child abuse and neglect are central to the story—we learn early on that Naomi, who works at a kindergarten where one of the children’s parents has gone missing, is ambivalent about having children of her own because she was abused by her mother. More than a few Japanese horror films center around abused and neglected children—this theme figures in Dark Water, Shibuya Kaidan, and One Missed Call. In Kodomo tsukai, there’s not only physical and emotional but sexual abuse as well, though that particular plot thread is tossed in only to be mostly forgotten about.
In the past, a child abuse subplot in J-horror served to make certain characters more or less sympathetic. In Kodomo tsukai, though, we never get a chance to feel much of anything for any of the characters, who mostly pop in and out of scenes without providing much sense of who they are as people. This was also a key weakness of the Ju-on series, which always felt like a collection of ghoul-sneaks-up-behind-victim moments held together with an almost nonexistent plot and little sense of who the characters were or why we should care about them.
Part of the problem with the current version of this ghost story is mainstream Japanese cinema’s unholy alliance with the tarento / aidoru industry, which builds films on the backs of attractive young people whose acting abilities vary (and who, due to the iron grip of their agencies, have difficulty taking on roles with any whiff of controversy surrounding them). Takizawa and Arioka, both former Johnny’s Jr. stars, do fine in their roles, but always look just a little too pretty and put-together. Glancing at the film’s promotion page, we learn that the two men are the subject of more than 60 magazine feature stories in May and June 2017. I came across one of these in the magazine an an, which featured glossy photos of the two actors and questions about their favorite summertime activities. Judging by the large numbers of young women chatting about Takizawa and Arioka at the theater where I watched the film, the “cast idols and they will come” strategy seems to be working, even if the actual quality of the film suffers.
As the villain, I’m guessing Hideaki Takizawa is supposed to be scary-sexy, but he’s utterly goofy from his very first appearance, swooping in looking like a combination of the pickup artist Mystery and a visual-kei band reject. The film’s army of milky-eyed children also come off as more lethargic than frightening. We feel some sympathy for Naomi, who is clearly dealing with a lot of residual trauma along with the usual horror movie challenges, but her boyfriend Shunya is one-dimensional, existing purely to investigate the disappearances and give Naomi someone to talk to.
Strangely, Kodomo tsukai isn’t exactly dull, though that’s mostly due to its wild shifts in tone and cinematography style. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have been better, given its potential to explore an issue like child abuse in a meaningful way. Japanese horror films have always been more willing than other mainstream genres to explore serious Japanese social problems, but these days they’re mostly doing it in sloppy, derivative ways with casts who can’t really carry the weight of the story. I’m still waiting for a second J-horror renaissance in which the scariest parts of these stories—the darkness of human nature and the challenges of living in the present-day, non-supernatural world—take center stage.