31 Days of Hell: Séance (2000) - Reviewed

By the time Japanese surrealist and horror filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 film Pulse reached the United States, he was already coined ‘the Godfather of J-horror’.  Minimalist, elliptical and methodically paced with an uncanny ability to present modern day Tokyo, Japan as a rusty derelict in decay and ruin, the prolific young auteur not to be confused with relation to the world-renowned Akira Kurosawa rapidly carved out his niche in a territory overrun with new young horror directors such as Takashi Miike, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Shimizu. 

As with the aforementioned three filmmakers and germane to the Japanese film industry, Kiyoshi Kurosawa didn’t limit himself to primarily directing theatrical feature films, leaving ample room to dabble in and out of V-Cinema and television features/series.  In between his masterful 1997 crime thriller Cure and the loosely related 2000 semi-sequel Charisma, Kurosawa returned to the small screen with a quickie in the form of Séance, a film which continued in the director’s tradition of surreal gothic horror.

Loosely based on the 1961 Mark McShane novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon which was also made into a film in 1964, Kurosawa’s reworking of the material transposes the setting to Japan with some slight deviations from the source.  Surrounding a psychic medium named Junko (Jun Fukubi of Pulse) and her sound effects designer husband Koji (Koji Yakusho), Junko finds herself life in shambles when her abilities to communicate with the undead become at odds with her daily job duties. 

Eager to prove the validity of her psychic abilities to a skeptical world, she becomes involved in a police investigation involving the kidnapping of a young girl in the hopes of locating her.  However, in a bizarre turn of events, the search lands Junko and Koji into deeper, hotter waters than they initially bargained for and what initially began as an attempt to help the investigation rapidly descends into a waking nightmare for the young couple.

Produced by Kansai Telecasting Corporation and shot on film despite being intended for television, Kurosawa’s subtle reimagining of the 1961 novel with slight alterations to the chain of events joins Cure and Charisma by being an enigmatic, atmospheric thriller that poses far more questions than it answers.  As with the prior theatrical features, Séance is heavy on bleak tonality with intentionally desaturated colors and dense grain levels thanks to Takahide Shibanushi’s moody fullscreen cinematography and frequent collaborator Gary Ashiya’s somber electronic score.  Performances from the two leads are especially strong with Kurosawa’s favorite leading man Koji Yakusho exhibiting a mixture of fear, anxiety and guilt with a careful choice of words.

While not overtly aiming for screams in the way his Pulse did, Séance like Cure and Charisma creates a mood of palpable spooky unease that burrows deep into the viewer’s subconscious, making the proceedings and denouement far more difficult to easily dismiss.  That many of the film’s most unnerving scenes take place in broad daylight, including one shot of a spirit floating freely and silently in a crowded public setting, are a testament to Kurosawa’s uncanny ability to creep out the viewer with the slightest and subtlest of effort.  Some may consider this to be one of the director’s lesser works for being so small in scope and having to restrain himself from his usual bevy of blood and gore to appease network censors, but for my money it’s a stellar example of how much Kurosawa was able to do with so little resources at his disposal.


- Andrew Kotwicki