In a Hollywood that is increasingly obsessed with superhero blockbusters, the place to see many acclaimed filmmakers these days is on the small screen. In Japan, though, the Wowow entertainment channel has been producing original dramas by local auteurs for some time.
One such auteur is Kurosawa Kiyoshi, whose five-part sci-fi series on Wowow has been edited into a theatrical film titled Yocho (Foreboding). It’s a companion piece to Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish, which was released in September. Both are based on a play by Maekawa Tomohiro about an unusual alien invasion.
Instead of recycling the earlier film, Yocho is quite different in story and tone. In contrast to the opening scenes of Before We Vanish with Nagasawa Masami’s prickly wife comically raging at Matsuda Ryuhei’s fuzzy-minded hubby, Yocho is darker and scarier from beginning to end. It also has a better villain in Higashide Masahiro’s Dr. Makabe, who is physically intimidating and completely ruthless.
The heroine is Etsuko (the single-named Kaho), a factory worker who senses early on that something is amiss when her friend and colleague Miyuki tells her a ghost is haunting her house. The “ghost” turns out to be Miyuki’s father and, when a worried Etsuko takes Miyuki to the hospital, the doctor delivers an unsettling diagnosis: she no longer understands the concept of “family.”
Meanwhile, Etsuko’s husband, Tatsuo (Sometani Shota), who works at the hospital as a custodian, encounters Makabe, a new doctor with an uncanny air. He is an alien who has taken over a human host and is now looking for a “guide” to help him understand humankind in preparation for an alien invasion. The cowering Tatsuo becomes that guide, helping Makabe strip his victims of their concepts of past, future, fear and even life itself, leaving them less human – or dead.
When Etsuko learns the truth about Makabe and Tatsuo she is horrified, but when Makabe tries to pick her brain – or rather destroy her soul – she foils him without even trying.
Those expecting an alien invasion flick with eye-popping CG will be disappointed: when Makabe messes with someone’s mind he simply extends an index finger to his victim’s forehead, though he can also make humans dramatically collapse just by walking past them, like a Grim Reaper in a white lab coat.
The film gets many of its scares with the same mundane materials that have long been a Kurosawa trademark – a mysterious rumble here, a spooky rustling curtain there – but the most frightening element by far is Higashide. This former male model has been expanding his range since playing the lead as a schoolyard fighter in Toyoda Toshiaki’s 2014 film Crows Explode. In Yocho his stiff, purposeful movements, dead eyes and contemptuous grin will send chills down your spine, but they never shade over to the cartoonish.
Meanwhile, Kaho’s Etsuko reminded me of Shelley Duvall’s Wendy in The Shining. She’s frightened out of her wits but surprisingly resourceful. Etsuko, however, possesses a kind of super-power (or perhaps genetic quirk?) that Wendy lacked. Where does it come from? And how can it fend off an alien invasion? Yocho: Season 2 (which has yet to be made) could have the answers.
Kurosawa Kiyoshi (b. 1955) had his international breakthrough with the 1997 horror Cure (Kyua). Such films as Charisma, Séance, License to Live, Pulse and Doppelganger further extended his reputation as a master of not only horror but also apocalyptic SF. With the 2008 Tokyo Sonata, Kurosawa made a radical shift to dysfunctional family drama, winning the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes festival. Kurosawa followed this triumph with Real, a 2013 return to the SF genre, Journey to the Shore (2015) and Creepy (FEFF2016). Last year Kurosawa released Before We Vanish and Yocho (Foreboding), both based on a stage play about an alien invasion.
1997 – Cure
1999 – License to Live
2000 – Charisma
2001 – Pulse
2003 – Doppelganger
2008 – Tokyo Sonata
2013 – Real
2015 – Journey to the Shore
2016 – Creepy
2017 – Before We Vanish
2017 – Yocho (Foreboding)