Friday, July 25, 2008

REVIEW: Tamami: The Baby's Curse (Akanbo Shôjo) - Yudai Yamaguchi (2008)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Kazuo Umezu is considered the godfather of horror manga, the Osamu Tezuka of the bizarre and the horrific. He’s influenced generations of both fellow manga artists and film makers alike, and his tales of terror have been adapted into countless cinematic exploits. Shochiku films released a series of Umezu adaptations a few years back, aptly titled Kazuo Umezu Horror Theatre, utilizing such notable directors as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Noboru Iguchi and Yudai Yamaguchi. The films were a mixed bag, and at less than an hour in length each, were obviously made for the video market in Japan . Yudai Yamaguchi of Meatball Machine, Battlefield Baseball and Cromatie High School fame seemed inspired enough to continue on his path of Umezu adaptation’s by translating the horror series Tamami: The Baby’s Curse aka Akanbo Shojo into a unique cinematic experience. What could have been routine turns out to be a refreshing change for both Yamaguchi and Japanese horror cinema as a whole, although it just falls short of the mark.

Naku Mizusawa plays Yoko, a shy but independent orphan seeking acceptance from some sort of parental figure. When she is finally reunited with her parents after 12 years, thanks to a devoted social worker of sorts, things don’t initially go as planned. They arrive at the gothic, secluded mansion on a dark and stormy night. They are told it’s feared by all the locals, and it comes complete with a garden maze and electric fences, surrounded by a dense forest filled with ravenous dogs. It also features a creepy tower where in Yoko’s father spends most of his time, working away at whatever it is he does. When she finally meets her father, he is surprisingly loving and caring, a nice change from the cold shoulder she receives from the cruel elderly maid. Her mother, obviously suffering from some sort of mental disorder, is obsessed with the loss of their second child, Tamami and walks around with a blanket and doll, pretending it’s alive. She refuses to accept Yoko as her own child, instead spending all her time doting on her imaginary child. Or is it imaginary? A mysterious figure seems to haunt the oppressive halls of the dark, creepy mansion, taunting Yoko, while the rest of the household seems to remain ignorant at its existence.

Akanbo Shojo starts off with such promise. Yamaguchi forgoes the usually oddball, ‘Looney Toons’ style that pervades most of his films, instead basing the film on a tense atmosphere. Even after the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, and the baby’s curse comes charging down the hall full force as a freakish monstrosity of a perpetual child, bearing one giant clawed hand (reminiscent of Evil Dead), that can propel it down corridors and through trees at breakneck speed, Yamaguchi manages to keep the film somewhat grounded, with only brief bursts of effectively bloody and brutal scenes of dismemberment. Unfortunately, it’s around the time the brother of the social worker responsible for Yoko’s return to her family appears, searching for his missing brother, that things begin to fall apart, venturing into Yamaguchi’s old territory of the outrageous. He quickly trades in tension and shock for the ludicrous.

Tamami is for the most part a solid film. While a breath of fresh air from the usual J-horror tripe that still seems to be ever present these days, it just falls short of being great. Perhaps if it wasn’t so effective as a creepy and haunting cinematic experience for the first two thirds of the film, its descent into the ludicrous would be more easily forgiven. As it stands, it starts strong, offers us a lot of blood and then literally throws itself off a random cliff.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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