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Akanbo shjo
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by Jay Seaver

"Some may giggle at the movie's monster, but I really wanted the thing dead."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: For all I know, Kazuo Umezu, the creator of the manga series on which "Akanbo Shojo" is based, may be one of the sweetest folks a person could ever meet, as was Vincent Price by all reports. You wouldn't be able to tell that from his body of work, though, which is full of exceptionally bloody horror comics, often featuring children as villains and victims. Not my thing, generally, but I found myself loving Yudai Yamaguchi's adaptation of this particular series.

It starts as many horror movies might, with a young girl coming to a scary house. Taxis from the train station would rather not take Yoko (Nako Mizusawa) and her chaperon Yoshimura to Nanjo mansion, and the elderly housekeeper immediately tries to send them away, saying Mr. Nanjo isn't seeing any visitors. While Yoshimura goes to talk with Mr. Nanjo, Yoko warms herself by a fire, until she hears a baby crying. This leads her to a creepy room filled with dolls and a door that suddenly locks her in, but when she awakes after escaping she's told it's just a dream. Something's not right, though - while Mr. Nanjo seems to be nothing but elated to be reunited with his long-lost daughter, Mrs. Nanjo carries around a stuffed animal that she calls "Tamami", after her other lost daughter, refusing to acknowledge Yoko. And it soon becomes very clear that the Nanjos and their servant are not alone in the house.

Akanbo Shojo is directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, and initially seems quite the change of pace for him: Yamaguchi comes from the group that burst onto the scene with Versus nearly a decade ago, and his previous work has been outrageous, full of (sometimes gory) slapstick and comedy; even his segment of Ten Nights of Dream was a wild ride. He does a surprisingly good job of slowing things down in this movie's first act, letting the audience be antsy about what might happen rather than laughing at the latest bit of mayhem on-screen. It sets quite a mood for when the crazy stuff starts happening.

And things do get deliriously crazy. Tamami is revealed to be Yoko's horribly mutated sister, unnaturally strong and vicious though still the size of a baby, with no apparent love for anything but her mother. There will be a great deal of blood spilled by the time Tamami's rampage at having a new sibling in the house is done, gushing red buckets of it, with horribly mutilated bodies left in her wake. Though the tension from the opening act lingers, by the end the restraint will be completely gone, and what started as a moody chiller has become a lurid slam-bang action horror flick, with shots that get nearly as many laughs as shrieks.

Part of the reason for the laughs is the way Tamami is realized. Though there are some shots that must be CGI, for the most part Yamaguchi uses a puppet, and not something of the amazingly lifelike Stan Winston variety. Taken on its own, it's more than a little silly, but the damn thing worked on me. It doesn't look real in the slightest, but there is something so perfectly unreal and wrong about it that it still has the capacity to horrify. I might have laughed at it a little, but I also worked up a visceral hate for the toothy, asymmetrical little monster. Some people will look at it and all they'll see is a rubber doll, and they won't be wrong in snickering or viewing the movie as kitsch because of that.

I do hope those people can see the movie as more than just camp, though. Nako Mizusawa is quite good as Yoko, as is the rest of the cast. I love the way Yamaguchi and screenwriter Hirotoshi Kobayashi approach the setting. I wonder when Umezu wrote this one, and if it was always set in 1960 (with then-infant Yoko separated from her father during a WWII air raid); there's something beautifully portentous about how overwhelmingly European the mansion is - Nanjo is apparently a professor of European history with an extensive collection - until you run into Yuko Nanjo and her areas of the house. The professor's wife is always dressed in traditional Japanese garments, with tatamis rather than wall-to-wall carpeting on her room's floor, along with traditional shrines and sliding doors. The cinematography is also fantastic, with every scene having the perfect color palate. And for all Yamaguchi has gone over the top to get there, there's something brilliantly tragic and terribly sad about the last set of scenes.

Not everybody is going to love this in the same way or even at all; there are things that just flat-out won't work for some people and others that will be scary or funny depending on general mood. I love it whole-heartedly, and hope I'm not the only one.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17575&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/14/08 17:17:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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