Reviewed by Chris MaGee
The J-Horror wave of the late 90’s and early 00’s was based on finding innovative new ways to tell archetypal scary stories, primarily ghost stories; but of all the crop of Japanese films that reinvigorated the horror genre during those years Ten Shimoyama’s “Otogiriso: St. John’s Wort” (2001) is probably the least innovative, and what’s more important, the least frightening.
Based on the novel by Shûkei Nagasaka the plot, or what is cobbled together to resemble plot, revolves around 20-year-old Nami (Megumi Okina), an illustrator who’s working with her ex-boyfriend Kohei (Yoichiro Saito) and his friends on a haunted house video game à la “Silent Hills”. In a very convenient coincidence Nami has just inherited a moldering old mansion from the parents who abandoned Nami when she was just a girl. Kohei thinks it’ll be a great way to get some inspiration for his game and brings along a video camera to capture the spooky ambience. Nami on the other hand wants to get to the root of the visions of a staircase and the painting of a king that have plagued her for years.
There have been very few good haunted house movies, so you’d think that setting “Otogiriso” in one would have been an interesting choice, but once Nami and Kohei reach the mansion surrounded by a lawn covered in St. John’s Wort their depression magically lifts, but they both have terrible dry mouth and Kohei can’t get it up… Sorry. Bad anti-depressant joke… When they reach the mansion Shimoyama treats us to one horror movie cliché after another: Nami receives the keys from a faceless grounds keeper, the place is filled with heavy, wooden Victorian furniture covered with an inch of dust, creepy porcelain dolls, and a walls covered with heavily impastoed, macabre paintings that would have fit perfectly into Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”. It turns out that the artist, the late Kaizawa Soichi, is not only the artist, but also Nami’s long lost father.
It isn’t just old horror movie clichés that are recycled in “Otogiriso”. Nami’s exploration of her ancestral home is captured on handheld video by Kohei in a nod to the contemporary horror classic “The Blair Witch Project”, but all the shaking and film-within-a-film conceit actually gets in the way of what the two discover behind the doors of the mansion; that Kaizawa Soichi was capturing children and torturing them, all the while immortalizing their agony in his paintings… that and the fact that Nami had a twin sister, Naomi whio may or may not hve been one of the subjects of her father’s paintings, and who may or may not be alive.
To be fair to Shimoyama the decision to cut away from the action to a video game version of events is a clever, and yes innovative way to jump some expository hurdles and in the end I didn’t have a terrible time watching “Otogiriso”. That being said I would only recommend the film to people who want to be comforted by the familiar genre clichés in the film rather than being scared by them.