Séance (2004)

Séance (Korei) deviates from both traditional Japanese ghost stories and contemporary U.S. horror films. Truth be told, the tensions in marriage, and not supernatural phenomena, form the film’s focus. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa achieved international acclaim with the 1997 release of his deeply disturbing film, Cure (Kyua). He does not rely on startling special effects, graphic imagery or disturbing violence to horrify. Instead, his films expose disturbing social and psychological conditions. Such is the case of Séance, which exemplifies the Bergmanian themes and structures that characterize his work.

Originally released on Japanese TV in 2000, Séance is loosely based on Mark MacShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, previously adapted to the screen by British director Bryan Forbes in 1964. (The only extra on the DVD is a 10-minute interview with Kurosawa, in which he talks about his decision to adapt this not very popular book and the general theme of dopplegangers). As Séance begins, a psychology professor and his graduate student are interviewing Junco Sato (Jun Fubuki), who claims to be able to communicate with the dead. Even though Junco argues that the spirit of the student’s grandmother is nearby, she is unable to talk to the ghost.

With her credibility in doubt, a disappointed Junco leaves the University and goes home to prepare dinner for her loving husband Koji (Koji Yakusho). A sound effects engineer for a television company, Koji’s acute sense of hearing allows him to capture outstanding recordings of natural sounds. Both Junco and Koji have highly developed sensory faculties. However, only he finds an outlet; she is a woman, after all. Dismayed that nobody believes her paranormal abilities, Junco considers herself useless when compared to him.

As Koji and Junco drift apart, not only is their dialogue minimal, but they also appear repeatedly framed by windows, doorways, or furniture. Even when they are in the same room, they appear far apart, indicating the existential horrors of day-to-day life. Such complexities are amplified by a series of implausible situations that start when a pedophile kidnaps a young girl. She manages to escape her captor and hides in an equipment box belonging to Koji, who inadvertently takes her home. Equally coincidental is the appearance of a detective who asks Junco to help find the missing girl. These events culminate when Junco discovers that the girl is alive and well, and comes up with a not-so-clever hoax to restore her reputation as a medium.

Before they are able to enact this plan, Junco and Koji accidentally kill the girl, whose ghost returns to haunt them. The film’s second half adheres to most conventions of the kaidan (a traditional Japanese ghost story) and relies on the motif of the onryou (avenging spirit). In most of the post-WWII kaidan movies, the violent aggressions performed by the onryou against the living hint at generational conflicts and anxieties accompanying the Westernization of Japanese society. The ghost in Séance, however, never harms her killers.

One could argue that Junco is using the hoax to cross gender boundaries, and her subversion of traditional norms causes the girl’s death. Even so, she and Koji are also victims — of cultural changes and judgment by others. An equally viable conjecture is that the ghost doesn’t seek retaliation because their more effective punishment is to continue their miserable existences. Typical of Kurosawa’s work, daily routine is more terrible than any supernatural hell.