Shiraisan (English title: Stare). 2019.
Directed & Written by Otsuichi (a.k.a Hirotaka Adachi).
Starring Marie Iitoyo, Yu Inaba, Shugo Oshinari, Mitsuki Tanimura, & Manami Enosawa.
Shochiku Company Ltd.
Not Rated / 98 minutes
Drama / Horror / Thriller
Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers
This year’s Fantasia Festival in Montreal features a couple creepy Japanese films: Sadako, Hideo Nakata’s Ring reboot or reimagining (or whatever you want to call it), and a new horror-mystery from Hirotaka Adachi (a.k.a author Otsuichi), Stare. While Nakata’s latest may not entirely thrill Ring fans, or J-horror fans in general, Stare offers a pretty good urban Gothic story riffing off the urban legend stories typical to the genre— one with a seriously unnerving ghost.
Adachi tells the story of a curse that starts off with an innocent evening of spooky campfire-like tales and ends with victims’ eyes exploding out of their skulls. A pair of young people come together after their friends die horrifically, attempting to unravel the truth. They eventually meet a journalist looking into the mysterious deaths. What they uncover together leads to endless terror that reaches back to Ancient Japan.
Stare doesn’t necessarily give J-horror fans anything new. Still, the film’s incredibly creepy. Adachi’s screenplay touches on themes about how / why folk tales affect us, and how the past connects with modernity through urban legends. Many typical vengeful ghost story-inspired J-horror titles blend together because, ultimately, they don’t dig deep enough into the folklore concept that drives them. Adachi’s film inadvertently draws comparison to events in recent pop culture memory which testify to the power of modern folklore, such as the 2014 Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, the viral panic over the Momo Challenge hoax.
Because fictional or not, stories have serious, sometimes dangerous power.
“I was cursed when I heard the story”
The film plunges its audience directly into urban legends and folklore. In the opening scene, Mizuki listens to her friend recount a modern legend about a wedding and a cursed photo, ending in the death of a newlywed couple. A typical campfire story. Then the friend sees something neither Mizuki nor the audience can see. She dies under strange circumstances: her eyes pop out in a shower of gore. This leads to the story’s main focus on the urban legend of Shirai-san, “the woman with abnormally large eyes.” What Adachi does with the plot is explore how oral storytelling and its many varied effects can be understood in the same way as a viral infection.
How does one escape a story?
In the end, Mizuki’s amnesia allows her escape from Shirai-san. Those uninjured by a freak fall aren’t so lucky. Once you’ve heard a story, once you’ve passed it on, there’s no turning back. The story infects others, who, in turn, go on to infect more people, too. Urban legends come alive by communal storytelling. Depending on how they’re shared, they can possibly spin out of control.
The inclusion of the journalist in the film is an important one because it raises issues of responsibility when it comes to storytelling. For instance, the Momo hoax was perpetuated by many so-called journalists, stirring up chaos among families and schools— after it was identified as a hoax, over and over, parents remained scared about the effects of the supposed Momo Challenge because the momentum had already taken over. A hoax can take on a life of its own, occasionally with devastating consequences.
What allows so many of these myths traction in society’s collective consciousness is they often have a basis in truth. In Stare, Shirai-san takes the form of a traditional Japanese ghost, otherwise known as yūrei. There are several sub-classifications to these ghosts, depending on how they died / why they’ve stuck around in the living world. Shirai’s deformed face suggests she was wronged violently, potentially making her an onryō, a vengeful spirit. Added to that, Hadachi includes scenes hinting at the Ancient Japanese roots of Shirai, connecting her to a time of shamanic evil curses. It gives a sense of historical weight to the urban legend.
Even Momo— actually a sculpture called Mother Bird by artist Keisuke Aiso— is based on the Japanese child-stealing entity known as Ubume. This gave people leverage to suggest there was something more behind Momo than a hoax. This is where a journalist’s responsibility comes into play. One writer could infect masses of people with an idea, no matter if it’s true, exacerbated further by the 21st century, as well as our postmodern obsession with the internet and social media.
“A hex could spread an illness among the enemies”
Urban legends are the folklore of modernity— a way of bridging folk tales, and their purposes, from the past with updated concerns / fears of the present. Adachi includes bits of the postmodern world in his screenplay, particularly in a scene where Mizuki and Haruo are trying to figure out a way to deal with Shirai-san. Haruo says Shirai-san “craves approval” and “networks like a social media app.” The communal experience of delusion that comes along with an urban legend becoming real in the minds of some is made worse because of social media. Far too many people don’t care to read enough, dying to share a story with others in spite of the truth.
Returning to the idea of urban legends / folklore as a viral infection, the internet transforms these stories into real, potentially dangerous phenomena by ‘going viral.’ The case of the Slender Man stabbing is a perfect example of a viral urban legend becoming a near case of actual murder. As opposed to the convoluted origins of Momo and the beginnings of many urban legends (like the poison Halloween candy), Slender Man is a total fabrication of the online landscape, originating in 2009 from a Something Awful forum post. The internet brought Slender Man to life, so much so the girls in Wisconsin came close to sacrificing a friend so they could meet the fictional entity. There’s also the old urban tale of kidney theft, in which a victim wakes up in a bathtub full of ice with one of their organs taken by thieves for sale on the black market— it was part of the plot in the 1998 horror film aptly titled Urban Legend. Similar to Slender Man coming to life, it’s very likely the people who stole Mohammad Salim Khan’s kidney in 2008 heard this urban tale and put it to use as part of an illegal transplant operation.
A perfect part of Adachi’s screenplay is that he suggests origins to Shirai-san, showing us a key moment where Mizuki peers into the deformed woman’s eyes, right through to her past, though never goes fully into the backstory with too much overt exposition. This keeps with the ambiguous nature of so many urban legends. Regardless, the supernatural terror of Stare is genuine. What Mizuki experiences, along with the others, is a horror metaphor about the havoc these stories can wreak in the real world.Above all, Stare is a solid effort in the annals of J-horror. It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to successfully creep the viewer out. If you’re looking for something different than a large majority of the genre, this probably won’t satisfy the urge. If you want a fairly standard, dependable horror with Japanese ghosts, Adachi’s film nails so many of the essentials. Father Gore is an avid consumer of horror who enjoys a scare, and several times Shirai-san provided legitimate frights.
The whole thing is better than a lot of J-horror that tries too hard to replicate the wildly successful elements of Ring and Ju-On. All due to the fact Adachi peppers his screenplay with intelligent thoughts about folklore and urban legends, plus the disturbing social aspect of how they create genuine fear in people. This essay goes much deeper than the story likely intended. Not to say these themes don’t exist. Horror is routinely disregarded by the mainstream, except when a Hereditary or Get Out pops up for blowhard critics to call a thriller / ‘elevated horror’ or anything other than simply a horror film. For this reason, Stare is worth reading into beyond the surface level because on top of making horror entertaining it also helps keep the genre relevant.