The Discarnates

An old fashioned ghost story from Japan now.  I actually had a strange way of coming to see this movie.  I had read the book “Strangers” by Taichi Yamada a few years back, and ordered the DVD of this film somewhat sight unseen from a now defunct Asian DVD site, without realising that the film was an adaptation.  It did not take long for me to realise the connection, and it was actually in mind to be one of those early films I was originally going to look at.  A quiet Friday night came along, and I thought it would be good to catch up with it again.

The Discarnates” follows a period in the life of Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama).  He is a successful TV Scriptwriter, but his personal life is a mess.  He is recently divorced, and has barely a connection with his son.  He lives in a half abandoned apartment building, most of which is let to businesses, so he is basically alone.  A young woman, Kei (Yûko Natori) also lives there, and after he initially spurns her, they start a relationship.  It becomes a sexual one, although she has one request – that he never sees her breasts, as she says she has horrible scarring from an accident.  One day he wanders into the neighbourhood of his youth, and whilst at a comedy show, he runs into a familiar man.  It is the spitting image of his Father (Tsurutarô Kataoka) !  He goes home and is introduced to his wife, who is the spitting image of his Mother (Kumiko Akiyoshi).  The thing is, they died some 28 years ago, when Harada was only 12.  He spends more and more time with the couple, who are quite open about them being his parents.  The problem is, although he has never been happier, and is greatly enjoying living his lost childhood, it is having an awful affect on his appearance and Health.  Only those around him are able to see this, which includes Kei, who tells him that they are ghosts and are draining his life force.  Can Hidemi break free of the lure of his past?  And what secret does Kei hold?

The film is a really close adaptation of the book, and is directed by Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, who long term readers might remember as the Director of the utterly crazy “Hausu”.  This film could not be more unlike that psychedelic explosion of ideas, being a much more restrained and frankly “Japanese” style of film.  The fact Ghosts are involved are really only means to an end, this is really a story of a lonely man who is trying to recapture his lost youth, although this earning for the past is actually hurting his ability to cope in the present.

Filmed in 1988, it is pretty low budget stuff, with the picture quality being soft at best, and little in the way of smart camera work (other than a little trick where many scenes shrink down to the centre of the screen, like an old fashioned CRT Television being switched off).  But it works as it allows the story to speak for itself, allowing us to share in those wonderful moments like a son playing catch with his Father, or tasting his Mother’s home-made ice cream.  Even the sex scenes with Kei, although vaguely explicit, are not sensational, more about two lost people finding themselves, expressing themselves physically.  Only in the final reveal, do we really get into the realms of horror.

Which is probably for the best, as when it tries to show the effects of the Ghosts on his health, the makeup looks pretty awful, starting with Zombie style makeup that would put a young Halloween party goer embarrassed, eventually becoming something more akin to an Alien.  But it is far from off-putting, it just shows the low-budget roots of the film.  Music is important here, using a sequence of Puccini over again, played in different ways, with different instruments, which both works to create the nostalgic mood, and to show that things are not quite right. 

The women are very strong here, and I was especially taken by Kumiko Akiyoshi, who played his mother with a youthful innocence, making even a quite difficult scene where there may have been an oedipal subtext into something totally natural.  The Father is also realistic, being both strong and maybe a little controlling, hiding his feelings, but also secretly delighted to get this extra time with his Son.

Although it is a bit scrappy around the edges, I really like this film, which captures the mood and feeling of the book very well.  There are really two ghost stories at play – one more traditional shock and scare, the other using ghosts as a metaphor for something else.  It is very typically Japanese, and maybe not for everyone who is looking for a fright.  But here, well it comes Highly Recommended.

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