DVD Review: ‘Gurozuka’

'The sense of mystery and intrigue never pays off' in this new J-Horror release.

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

Supernatural Japanese horror movies have gained a unique reputation, especially in the wake of breakout successes like Ringu, Ju-On, and their respective American remakes. Synapse’s Asian Cult Cinema series has been responsible for bringing a handful of J-horror titles to the U.S., in addition to their loving preservation and restoration of such questionably tasteful classics as Evil Dead Trap, Wild Zero, and Entrails of a Beautiful Woman. Synapse’s most recent Asian Cult Cinema release is Gurozuka, a gory Japanese ghost story from 2005, now available for the first time on DVD in North America. Gorozuka does a great job constructing an atmosphere of initial, creeping unease, but its lack of follow-through makes the finished product uneven.

Loosely inspired by the same folk legend that was the basis for Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, Gurozuka follows a group of female students who go away for a weekend to shoot a movie for their film club. Once they’ve arrived at their remote destination, the club’s two leading conspirators reveal their plan to shoot an unscripted short based on a real incident that occurred several years ago in the same location – an inexplicable tragedy involving two previous members of the same club, one of whom is now dead, and the other institutionalized. The inspiration for the proposed filmic exploration of the tragedy is a mysterious videotape, apparently depicting the doomed club members acting out scenes from a traditional Noh play about a weeping Yokai demon who lures humans into isolation and then kills them. A string of bizarre incidents and disappearances follow, and the girls begin to realize that their lives are in danger, either from a vindictive member of their own party, or from some lurking supernatural force.

Gurozuka has a compelling premise, plus a great auxiliary gimmick – an all-female, mostly teenage ensemble cast. The movie starts off on a dreamlike, spacy note that continues to underscore the action throughout, resulting in a tense and engaging build-up, but unfortunately, a somewhat diffused climax. Rather than the macabre, pathological brutality that the film’s opening seems to anticipate, the second half’s chase sequences and eruptions of violence are played mainly for shock and petty suspense. The sense of mystery and intrigue never pays off, and the film’s conclusion feels like a sloppy attempt to tie together and resolve two largely disparate narrative and tonal threads.

Synapse’s presentation of the film is respectable, but nothing fancy. The transfer looks nice, the subtitles are coherent, and there’s a trailer and a behind-the-scenes featurette. The movie itself isn’t terrible, it’s just not the strongest example of its subgenre, and the above-average setup makes the lackluster payoff feel more disappointing than usual.