Cow’s Neck Village (Ushikubi mura)

Kōki in Cow’s Neck Village.

Takashi Shimizu’s kyōfu no mura (scary village) trilogy has been, if anything, an interesting experiment. The three films—Howling Village (2020), Suicide Forest Village (2021), and Cow’s Neck Village (2022)—are standalone films with similar themes and one recurring character. The timing of their release and the nature of their production is also noteworthy—Howling Village came out just before movie theaters in Japan shut down for an extended period of time during the pandemic, making it one of the most successful domestic films of 2020, though there wasn’t much basis for comparison. Suicide Forest Village was shot under pandemic restrictions, got rare permission to film inside Aokigahara, and made use of MX4D technology at a time when audiences weren’t exactly packing movie theaters. (I wrote about Suicide Forest Village in my book, which you can find here.) Cow’s Head Village, the final installment in the trilogy, opens at a time when Tokyo infection numbers are still at an all-time high, even though the worst of the Omicron peak appears to have passed.

I can trace parts of my own pandemic journey via this trilogy. Howling Village was the last film I saw in a theater before the pandemic began. Suicide Forest Village was the next movie I saw in a theater, more than a year later, because I really wanted to write about it (and its MX4D component) for my book. I wasn’t vaccinated yet, so I made a point of going to the theater on a non-discount weekday in the morning. Now, seeing Cow’s Head Village in a theater a year after that, I’m aware that the pandemic is far from over, but I’m triple-vaxxed and other than yet again choosing a weekday afternoon to see it, I didn’t feel quite as anxious as I did for the last film. It’s worth noting that neither Suicide Forest Village nor Cow’s Neck Village make any mention of the existence of the pandemic, which seems to be the general trend for films released in Japan since mid-2020.

All three films begin with a particular urban legend—the Inunaki tunnel, the Aokigahara “suicide forest,” and the so-terrifying-you-die-if-you-hear-it story of “ushikubi,” or “cow’s neck.” All three also feature the recurring character of “Akkīna” (Ōtani Rinka), a YouTuber who introduces us to the urban legend in question via a cheerful livestream, and who has an actual in-character YouTube channel (Akkīna TV) where she cooks and chats with viewers. (I’d gotten so accustomed to seeing Akkīna’s face in these films that I actually wrote “Hi Akkīna!” in my notes when she appeared in Cow’s Head Village. Sadly, she meets a quick and violent end in each film, but she’s always reborn for the next one.)

The films begin with well-known Japanese urban legends, but they make no pretense of sticking to any of the details and tend to mix multiple legends within a single film—Suicide Forest Village includes plot elements related to a kotoribako (cursed box) and ubasute (the practice of leaving elderly relatives alone to die on a mountain, something that appears to have never actually happened on a large scale but that many people still believe was common practice hundreds of years ago). Cow’s Neck Village focuses on the scary “cow’s neck” story but also references the elevator game, a story (possibly started in South Korea) which claims that if you enter an elevator and push certain buttons you’ll open the door to a different dimension.

None of the films in the trilogy are what I’d call good. Howling Village was barely watchable, with a convoluted story line and incredibly wooden acting from almost everyone involved. Suicide Forest Village was made slightly more interesting by the MX4D technology and a more intriguing plot, but was still hardly memorable (though apparently it was memorable enough to get a U.S. release, which might just be due to the U.S.’s endless fascination with Aokigahara).

Cow’s Head Village is definitely the best of the three, though that’s faint praise. It’s more artfully shot, with interesting choices in its use of mirrors and unusual camera perspectives. The opening scene that introduces us to the nature of the spooky stuff is efficient and well-structured. The acting and the writing is better. Sadly, though, the film still suffers from the perennial problem of almost all Japanese horror films produced in the last ten or fifteen years—an overly convoluted plot and tired motifs that have long since ceased to be scary.

We open on an abandoned rural hotel, where Akkīna (who now has two friends/assistants accompanying her) is preparing to shoot a video. I wished the film had lingered on this “abandoned hotel” plot point a bit longer—rural Japan is littered with decaying resorts and hotels, victims of the boom and bust of the bubble economy, and the story of how they came to be abandoned would make for a fascinating backdrop to any horror film. The film doesn’t spend much time thinking about the hotel, though–from Akkīna, we hear the legend of “cow’s head,” a story so terrifying that it curses anyone who hears it with death. Then, though, we shift to the “elevator game” story, as one of Akkīna’s friends is forced to don a plastic cow mask and enter the abandoned hotel’s elevator. Bad things happen inside, and she doesn’t come out.

Cut to high school student Kanon (Kōki), annoyed at her would-be boyfriend Ren (Riku Hagiwara), an over-the-top doofus who might as well have I Will Not Survive This Film written on his forehead. Ren has found the online video that Akkīna shot and reveals that the girl who entered the elevator looks exactly like Kanon. Kanon, for her part, has started having strange dreams/hallucinations about a weeping girl with a cow’s head.

Kanon and Ren head to the coastal town of Toyama to find the girl in the video, and sadly it’s here that the movie begins to buckle under the weight of its own plot, which involves twins (lots of twins, Japanese horror loves its twin/doppelganger stories), ancient folk rituals, horrific child abuse, and seemingly endless “is this a dream or is this reality” scenes. There are interesting moments—the twin plot allows for some fun trick photography and spooky shots, and the characters at least have a bit of depth. But most of the second half of the film drags, recycling familiar jump-scares and images. Ironically for a film about the terror of the unheard ghost story, Cow’s Head Village shows and explains way too much (but will still likely leave audiences confused about certain key details).

One bright spot in all of this is lead actress Kōki, daughter of SMAP heartthrob Takuya Kimura, making her film debut. To be fair, actors in Japanese horror films aren’t typically called upon to do much more than look terrified, but Kōki actually needs to exhibit a certain range of emotions, and she does this well, appearing genuinely moved, heartbroken, or frightened when the situation calls for it, and never descending into over-the-top emoting or shout-acting. Her relationships with her father and with Ren feel authentic. She also just…actually has a personality that goes beyond “terrified victim” and is genuinely entertaining to watch. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Shimizu’s “scary village” trilogy seems to have been fairly successful for a group of domestic horror films, meaning that we’ll probably see similar films from him in the near future. I truly wish, though, that he and his team would go in a new direction when it comes to story and characters (and shave 20-30 minutes off of the usually 2-hour films). Or at least give us more images and scenes that are genuinely frightening—the “I saw something in the mirror but when I turned around there was nothing there” shot really needs to be retired at this point.

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