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Shadow Spirit, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A cozy mystery that takes a turn into pulp grandeur."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Modern genres and their rules have been fairly rigidly codified for a while now, but it wasn't always thus; the original pulps and serials would mix them up with abandon. The novels of Natsuhiko Kyogoku appear to be throwbacks to that kind of audaciousness, if "The Shadow Spirit" is any indication.

It starts out looking like a classic detective story, the sort that might show up on PBS's Mystery! series, albeit with an unusual detective: Reijiro Enokizu (Hiroshi Abe) can see a person's memories. After a brief prologue where we see him demonstrate this ability to Shunko Kubo (Kankuro Kudo) during their WWII service, the film picks up in the early 1950s, where Enokizu's uncle, a movie studio executive, wants the private detective to find the missing daughter of one of his stars, Yoko "Minami" Yuzuki (Hitomi Kuroki), who is potentially the heir to a vast fortune. It is not a good time to be a missing young girl, as across Tokyo, a group of writers - Tatsumi Sekiguchi (Kippei Shiina), Atsuko Chuzenji (Rena Tanaka), and Morihiko Toriguchi (Magi) - and cops Aoki (Keisuke Horibe) and Kiba (Hiroyuki Miyasako) are investigating gruesome murders where only mismatched limbs have been found. To get to the bottom of their cases, both groups will have to consult with Atsuko's brother, Akihiko "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi), a rare book dealer whose encyclopedic knowledge of spirituality and the occult serves him well in his avocation of exorcist. Boxes of one sort or another will play a role in the investigation - Kubo, now a pulp fiction writer, finds them comforting, having the opposite of claustrophobia; a strange Shinto sect called the "Purifiers of the Sacred Box" claims they can remove people's ills; and there's a strange box-like building high on a mountaintop where Dr. Koshiro Mimakasa (Akira Emoto) did research during the war.

The Shadow Spirit is actually the second movie adapted from a novel series, so what comes across to foreign audiences as surprising leaps from one genre to another will likely seem just like how these stories work to the Japanese. It is an interesting marriage of forms, though: The sleuths are a group of charming characters that it's quite easy to grow comfortable with, a fairly perfect fit for the mystery novel feel of the early film - even though set in post-war Tokyo, there is something very Agatha Christie about the movie's first act. They remain that way as the film goes on, even though the crimes have gotten much nastier, and they're now surrounded by the nasty pulp dismemberments and mad scientists out of old serials. The movie takes on the feel of a serial by the end, especially in how they could be quite far afield from how they started by the time they finished.

It's a strange balancing act that they pull to make it work, going from cozy mystery to pulp thriller to sci-fi, with stops at the occult in between. I'm curious how this looked on film in Japan; the festival HD projection wasn't quite the greatest, making it look like television. That initially felt appropriate, as it seemed to match those UK detective series, and looking at Katsumi Yanagishima's credits it doesn't seem out of line; he works with Takeshi Kitano a lot, and his films sometimes have that sort of restrained look. The design work is quite nifty, drawing on several different 1950s influences - Enokizu dresses like Cary Grant, with his world having that sort of stylish look; Yoko's "Lady Samurai" film is a lovely bit of pastiche; and this inside of the "Box Building" does a fine job of walking the line between a grandiose mad scientist's lair and something that might have been considered practical at the time. Writer-director Masato Harada is good at keeping things fun while also making the danger real.

His cast is a big part of that. Hiroshi Abe initially looks like he's going to be the film's lead, and he makes Enokizu charmingly eccentric; he's got the part of gentleman detective down cold. He moves toward the background when Shin'ichi Tsutsumi shows up (these are apparently called the "Kyogokudo" stories), and that seems perfectly natural. Kyogokudo's way of approaching crime and adventure is oddly hypnotic; Tsutsumi has can deliver an assured lecture, both in terms of laying out the mystery's solution and what the various elements mean spiritually. He's also quite playful at times: There's a wonderful scene where he's convincing scam artists that they actually have tapped into something dangerous; he steps about the room precisely, ending on a couple funny steps, explaining that "Chaplin and flamenco are yin and yang", and the audience just might be inclined to buy it too, even though it seems like it has to be a joke.

The rest of the cast is highly enjoyable, too, especially Rena Tanaka as the cute but skilled girl reporter and Akira Emoto as a mad scientist who is a true believer in the rightness of his terrifying work. Hiroyuki Miyasako and Keisuke Horibe play partners who seem as though they've been bickering for years, and Keppei Shiina is good as the shy writer aspiring to more than the pulps. Hitomi Kuroki is also a winner as Yoko; she ties the story together and serves as its heart.

And now, off to find out whether Kyogoku's novels have english-language translations, or whether the first film is available in the U.S. "The Shadow Spirit" is all over the place, but I do find myself wanting to see more of these characters.

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originally posted: 07/16/08 00:50:49
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