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The classic context for telling a ghost story is in a group squatting around a benighted campfire or in a room where friends seek to while away the time recounting supposedly true weird tales. "Hey, you want to hear something spooky that happened to a friend of mine?" someone says; wind howls in the darkness surrounding the group and everyone shivers in delighted anticipation. That the stories are supposedly true adds to the fun. In this context, of course, the tales are inevitably anecdotal snippets, relying on the pizzazz of the teller and the mood of the audience for their effect. There can be, inevitably, very little build-up and limited plot complication.

Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan, currently in two volumes from Tokyo Shock, collects episodes of a TV series popular in Japan during 2003-2004. Each episode is a (roughly) 5-minute short film, based on stories culled, apparently, from Hirokatsu Kihara and Ichirô Nakayama's Shin Mimibukuro: gendai hyaku monogatari: dai-roku-ya, a collection of "true" stories gathered by the authors from around the country. Their idea was to produce a modern equivalent to the classic work of Negishi Shizue, a samurai in the Edo period who obtained tales from prisoners in his care, and later published them in a ten-volume anthology under the title Mimi Bukuro [Bag of Ears].

For the TV series, a slew of Japanese horror directors (including Ju-on: The Grudge’s Takashi Shimizu, and Ringu 0: Birthday and Premonition’s Norio Tsuruta), were given the task of filming a tale or two in their own style. The result is a curious mish-mash of anecdotal moments, ranging in mood from the creepy to the humorous to the surreal. In this context, there’s no attempt made to mold the separate tales into some coherent whole; the sequence of short films in each volume has no overriding thematic arc or perceptible structure beyond being a collection of ghostly moments -- some with a nascent plot, some making an attempt at brief character development, some simply a leisurely snapshot of weirdness. Naturally, the episodes are a little hit-and-miss; some are narratively better than others, some have more intriguing scenarios, some survive on their cinematic creativity alone. Personally I greatly enjoyed these collections, which can easily be watched piecemeal and which occasionally provide enough of a frisson to satisfy anyone interested in ghost cinema.

Highlights do tend to come from the two best-known directors, though this is not always the case (as in, for example, "The Backwards Suit"). Several of the pieces take a pleasantly unexpected stylistic approach to their often standard subject matter.

It should be noted that HK DVDs bearing the same titles and artwork in fact include a different mix of the tales (and fewer of them). There is also a cinema-release film under the Tales of Terror [Kaidan Shin Mimi Bukuro] banner, which includes "eight of the best" episodes, different from those on the collections reviewed here. For reference these episodes are:

The Night Watchman (Yoshida Akio), Wisps of Smoke (Suzuki Kosuke), Gloves (Sasaki Hirohisa), The Weight (Suzuki Kosuke), Full-Length Mirror (Miyake Ryuta), Line of Sight (Toyoshima Keisuke), The Promise (Amemiya Keita) and Hisao (Hirano Toshikazu).

Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan, Volumes 1 and 2

[Kaidan Shin Mimi Bukuro]

Japan, 2004

Director: various (see below)

Volume 1 contains 15 shorts as follows:

Elevator (Takashi Shimizu), Enlightenment (Takashi Shimizu), Waiting Time (Takashi Shimizu), The Visitor (Keisuke Toyoshima), Covering The 100 Tales (Inchiro Nakayama), Examination Room #3 (Part 1) (Akio Yoshida), Examination Room #3 (Part 2) (Akio Yoshida), Cassette Tape (Shiro Sano), A Drop Of Blood (Eiji Arakawa), The Backward Suit (Ryuta Miyake), Kengo Nishioka (Norio Tsuruta), The School Excursion (Ryuta Miyake), Spilt Water (Norio Tsuruta), A Forgotten Item (Ryo Nanba), Video (Hirokatsu Kihara).

Volume 2 contains 18 shorts, as follows:

Stones (Keisuke Toyoshima), The Lover (Norio Tsuruta), Off the Shelf (Akio Yoshida), The Train (Ryuta Miyake), My Sister’s Room (Keisuke Toyoshima), Please Don’t (Yudai Yamagudhi), No More, Please (Yudai Yamagudhi), Come, If You Dare (Yudai Yamagudhi), Take Good Care of Him (Kei Horie), Fox and a Bath (Hiroshisa Sasaki), An Interrogation (Kei Horie), Family Crest (Hiroshisa Sasaki), Getting Closer (Hiroshisa Sasaki), Don’t Ever Open It (Kei Horie), The Garden (Yo Takahashi), A Motel (Takafumi Ota), Let’s Play (Toru Moriyama), Handprints (Takafumi Ota).

Rating: 6.5/10

copyright©Robert Hood 2006

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