by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed and co-written by Takeshi Furusawa, "Ghost Train" ("Otoshimono") is the latest in a seemingly endless series of J-horror films to make it to the United States, with an English-language remake, as always, a distinct possibility. Mixing elements from traditional Japanese ghost stories with American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's stories centered banished gods and demons, inter-dimensional portals, and madness, with, as the title suggests, a haunted train, "Ghost Train" may be short on originality, but it manages to deliver a fair number of shocks and scares. The shocks and scares are bloodless, though, and with the exception few inventive ideas that make it into the effects-heavy finale, J-Horror fans should probably let "Ghost Train" leave the station without them.Nana (Erika Sawajiri), an academically successful high-school student eying college, taking care of her younger sister, Koriko (Aya Sugimoto), while her mother recuperates in a hospital from a heart ailment, encounters a young boy, Takashi (Itsuji Itao), at the local train station. Holding up a train pass, Takashi tells Nana that another woman has informed him that he’s doomed to die. Dismissing Takashi’s tale, Nana and Koriko get on the train. Takashi, however, vanishes mysteriously, adding to the growing number of disappeared commuters. Nana only begins to worry when she discovers the train pass in Koriko’s backpack. Koriko promises to drop off the pass with the lost and found department at the train station. Like Takashi, Koriko disappears.
"You'll be better off letting this train leave without you."
Worried about her sister, Nana seeks help from the police and train station employees. They do nothing, with the exception of an ex-train conductor, Shunida Kuna (Shun Oguri), who met Koriko on the day she disappeared and spotted her in surveillance footage wandering around the station late at night. The police assume Koriko is “safe,” but Nana thinks otherwise when she thinks she’s spotted a black-clad figure following Koriko on the surveillance footage. Meanwhile, one of Nana’s high school classmates, Kanae (Chinatsu Wakatsuki), gains a “cursed” bracelet and loses a boyfriend to the ghosts or demons haunting the subway station. Nana, Shunida, and Kanae rush to unlock the mystery behind disappearances and save Koriko from Takashi’s fate.
Furusawa and his co-writer Erika Tanaka stock Ghost Train with the usual J-horror tropes that became familiar to American audiences through Hideo Nakata’s Ringu or Gore Verbinski’s English-language remake, The Ring, pale-faced, black-haired ghosts, preternatural children, “cursed” objects, a murder mystery connected to a supernatural or man-made deadline, ancient evil, recalcitrant, rationality-based officials, and a denouement that usually subverts what we know or think we know, often with a cruel, nihilistic twist. Ghost Train has all those elements, except the last, meaning it ends far more happily for the characters than most J-horror entries.
Outside of the usual J-horror tropes we’ve seen too many times before, Ghost Train lacks the sense of urgency that made Ringu compelling viewing. Ringu had a built-in, seven-day deadline that helped propel the story to its inevitable denouement. Ghost Train doesn’t have that, instead relying on Noriko’s disappearance as the “hook” that pushes the characters forward. That would be fine if Furusawa and Tanaka had kept Noriko’s disappearance front and center, rather than the background, with Nana barely showing any interest in finding her sister. While cultural differences might help explain Nana’s reaction, it doesn’t explain why the police react so passively or why it takes Nana so long to look for and find help. Kanae’s mostly superfluous subplot is poorly integrated into the main storyline and seems tacked on to help Ghost Train reach the 90-minute mark.Before moving on to writing and directing, Furusawa worked under another J-horror filmmaker, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s preference for oblique, elliptical storytelling has made him a cult filmmaker with a small, dedicated following, but, not surprisingly, a filmmaker with little commercial appeal. Furusawa’s approach to his feature-length debut couldn’t have been more different. With his emphasis on repeated, redundant flashbacks/callbacks, Furusawa either kowtowed to commercial considerations or doubted his storytelling abilities. With the exception of the finale set under the train station and its oblique references to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, "Ghost Train" sadly doesn’t have much to offer to either J-horror enthusiasts or casual horror fans.
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originally posted: 05/03/07 00:39:45