Occult (Okaruto) (2009)

Surprisingly, I've yet to ever write anything about any J-Horror films – either on this blog or anywhere else. Maybe that's because J-Horror and Japanese cinema in general is something that is very special to me, and it's intimidating to write on something you care a lot about because you want to do it justice, but it'll never feel like you have. I've wanted for the longest time to write something on Denpa and the Japanese cybergothic, specifically analyzing Pulse (Kairo), one of my favorite films of all time, and on the entire "Pinky Violence" subgenre of pinku films, but until such a time comes I decided on a whim to watch the film Occult by Kōji Shiraishi.

I think Shiraishi is best known for directing Noroi: The Curse, which is another J-Horror film that I really like. But he seems to be a director whose work hasn't made much impact outside of Japan, so much so that this is the first time I've watched anything else by him even though I first watched Noroi in 2015. Hell, even Pulse got an American remake during that very regrettable period where American directors were mining J-Horror for content to turn into inferior remakes, but as far as I know there's never been a remake of any of Shiraishi's films or even much distribution outside of Japan. Which is surprising and a shame, because a lot of his films have an interesting preoccupation with found footage where his works fit into this absolutely perfect overlap between some interests the horror genre in the West had in the 2000s (J-Horror and found footage). In fact, thinking about it now, it's actually kind of shocking how he was right on the pulse of trends in horror during the 2000s while not getting much recognition for it in the West (to my knowledge at least (not that I would say that appealing to the West is desirable at all, it's just weird)).

I haven't watched Noroi in awhile, although I've seen it a few times, and comparing it to Occult it's interesting how both are so extremely similar (both are essentially paranormal mockumentaries), yet on the surface have a completely different feel. Noroi for lack of a better word feels a lot more serious: The entire film has an oppressive ominous atmosphere where the viewer is lead down a rabbit hole through the mockumentary format of the characters becoming more involved in the subject matter and putting themselves at risk, the supernatural elements becoming more of a very present threat. Through the literal tinfoil hat-wearing character Mitsuo Hori, it all begins to feel steeped in paranoia, and while by the end we have some idea of what has happened to all the characters, as I recall there's a lot that's left disturbingly ambiguous. It's hard to explain exactly what's being shown on screen, which makes it feel all the more believable as a mockumentary, where even the movie itself doesn't know all the details of just what exactly is happening.

Occult is kind of similar to this, but it's much less serious, much less oppressive, but still manages to have an overwhelming sense of dread. Perhaps it's because so much of it is so laid back, where many of the scenes involve the "documentary" crew in the movie just casually interviewing characters. It almost feels tongue-in-cheek seeing the documentary crew interviewing the subject of their documentary, Shohei Eno – a man who survived a seemingly senseless mass stabbing and was marked with a strange symbol – at a McDonald's, at a Korean barbecue, seeing him going about his day going to work. The casualness of it all only starts to feel even more like it's almost winking at the audience as we find out what Eno has been planning on doing after being a victim of the stabbing and realizing he has been given a mission by "God".

Weirdly enough, it reminds me of an essay I once wrote in undergrad for a class on horror films about the August Underground series (I got to choose what to write on for the final essay and decided to go with the edgiest most worthless trash films I could think of). My analysis of those films in the essay from what I remember was essentially that the films are an interesting experiment in creating horror by showing serial killer characters in their everyday lives, characters who are not movie serial killers but complete trash humans. The films are all utterly filthy and ugly and have extremely graphic simulated violence, to an extent that I would almost describe as being totally unrealistic insofar as serial killers rarely ever get to commit the kinds of atrocities these characters commit. But because the August Underground films are also found footage, the horror comes from being there with the characters, almost in a simulated cinéma vérité style where, ironically, the truth that is exposed by the filmmaking style is that all the movie violence onscreen has absolutely no truth to it whatsoever; the viewer is rather forced to sit through an hour and a half or so of pure worthless filth and then question why they did that to themselves. I wouldn't even call them movies that are meant to shock, though they have that effect on many people and often rank in lists for "most extreme" movies ever filmed. To me they're just meant to make the viewer feel gross and bad and are an exercise in nihilism.

Returning back to Occult though, I got the same impression throughout a lot of this film where the casual mockumentary style of the film takes the viewer through discovering the truth of what Eno's mission from "God" is, which (spoilers) is to do a suicide bombing during rush hour in Tokyo to take himself and everyone caught in the blast to the "next world", or "heaven". But the character never comes off as being insane – he seems extremely normal, even extremely sane, so much so that the film pokes fun at this when a random person on the street attacks him and tries to take his bomb supplies. He remarks something about how there's so many fucking loonies in the world after this happens. But the film does also show enough to convince the viewer (or me at least) that he's very much not insane for wanting to do this; the film shows enough to make it pretty clear that he is in fact receiving "miracles" from some kind of paranormal entity, and that there is a logical interpretation for the symbol that was carved into him. Which makes it all the more absurd and disturbing, kind of difficult to watch really, hearing him begin to talk very matter-of-factly about having to do a suicide bombing for "God".

I wish I could find more backstory on this film (it's probably in some interview somewhere in Japanese) because while the film itself executes its subject matter in a really odd way, it also has quite a lot of thematic elements that make me think that Shiraishi must have been reading some ufology books when he made this. The whole concept of Eno experiencing these "miracles" that are portrayed in the film as kind of abstract entities floating around, at one point the mockumentary film even capturing what looks like Whitley Streiber's illustration of a gray alien, to me resonates extremely strongly with Jacques Vallée's work in ufology. He's written a lot on folklore throughout human history, all of which seems to have recurring themes that only change by the appearance of the supernatural entities that we talk about encountering in our lore as either faeries or angels or aliens, and about how the extraterrestrial hypothesis (that UFOs are objects from some other planet) is rather implausible while arguing that a hypothesis that UFOs are actually from a parallel dimension has a lot more plausibility to it despite sounding far weirder. He also cautions that we really don't know what these entities are or what they want, but whatever they are, they're dangerous. So I kind of saw the ending coming personally when after Eno does his bombing and promises to send a tape of the other world back to the director of the documentary, the tape he sends ends up being footage not of God or heaven but rather some kind of hellish alien parallel dimension. "God" it turns out tricked him into doing the bombing, and much like in real life we can only guess why these interdimensional entities decided to meddle in human affairs like this.

The movie also has to me a very obvious parallel to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks, but I don't know what to make of that.

Something else to compare this to Noroi about is that while in Noroi the documentary filmmaker is a fictional character played by an actor, in Occult, Shiraishi is playing a fictional version of himself. Not only that, but the very same director of Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, shows up to play a fictionalized version of himself who happens to be an amateur archaeologist studying the ancient glyphs that were carved in Eno's body. Noroi has some meta elements to it, but Occult takes it almost to In The Mouth Of Madness levels, where the film isn't just playing with the nature of media and its ability or inability to portray truth on screen through the found footage genre, but in fact seems to be almost an indictment for the complicity of the director in the events onscreen. Shiraishi's fictional version of himself does in fact end up filming Eno preparing for and carrying out the bombing, being himself "chosen" by the entities who are telling Eno to do it, and in the movie he gets sentenced to 21 years in prison for being an accomplice in the bombing.

It's an extremely bold and unusual decision to take where the director is so blatantly putting himself into the text of the film, and with the connection to real-life events like Aum Shinrikyo, I feel like it's possible to analyze this like In The Mouth Of Madness as being a film that is ultimately about hyperstition in some way. But unlike Madness, Occult isn't explicitly suggesting that Shiraishi is making the events in the film happen and making them real through fiction, although that to me is strongly implied by the fact that the director is putting himself in the role of filming a documentary which itself exists within the narrative of the horror film that he's making. In the presence of these paranormal entities that are influencing the events of the film, and his role in the film as a mostly passive participant-observer, it reminds me quite a bit of this k-punk post in which he describes the creative process as channeling an entity rather than being the author who crafts something entirely as a free individual with subjecthood. It's almost as if Shiraishi is both creating a hyperstitional connection between real-world events and the fiction of the film, but also still denying that he even is the one who has made the decision to do this – rather, he is at the mercy of an entity just as much as Eno, quite explicitly so in the film's narrative at least. But despite pulling this trick, he still doesn't claim that the carrier of a hyperstition is blameless, and he receives his due punishment in the form of the prison sentence.

This post too doesn't feel like it really does justice to such a weird and complex film, but these movie blog posts aren't meant to be too polished and I've run out of stuff to say because this is a difficult film to figure out. I can't tell if it's a more mature version of Noroi since it came out after it, where Shiraishi was able to explore some of the more interesting meta elements of Noroi that are a little buried in Noroi to create a more conventionally effective horror film, or if maybe it's a little less of a polished and put together movie. I'm sure it goes without saying though that I recommend giving this a watch if you can find it anywhere.

Created: 2023-03-18 Sat 05:54

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:57