Dancing Mary (Japan, 2019) [NYAFF 2020]

Since signing a production deal with the talent agency LDH JAPAN, SABU has made the films Jam (2018) and Mr. Long (2017) with some of their models and singers in prominent roles. He introduces relative newbies Naoto Kataoka (of J Soul Brothers) and Nozomi Bando (of recently disbanded group E-Girls) in Dancing Mary, a genre mash-up featuring horror aesthetics and yakuza action wherein a slacker and a psychic go on a road trip to investigate a supernatural love story. It may sound unwieldy but it all melds together to tell an emotionally affecting tale of people learning how purpose can make their lives full.

We follow laid back civil servant Kenji Fujimoto (Naoto Kataoka) who breezes through listless days avoiding work and picking up his paycheck. His routine comes to an end when he is given a nightmare assignment nobody else in the office wants: overseeing the demolition of a cursed Showa-era dance hall. In a funny opening act, he is shown to not have a ghost of a chance in exorcising anything as the lank-haired, Sadako-like spirit of former dancer Mary (Nozomi Bando) repels all who set foot in the place. It seems like an impossible situation but fate moves in mysterious ways as a desperate Kenji overhears coworkers talking about a high school girl named Yukiko (Aina Yamada) who is being bullied due to her psychic powers. She is the class “Carrie” and her ostracisation results in a suicide attempt from which Kenji saves her. Fateful timing creates an odd partnership as Kenji now has a way to interact with the dead and make Mary move on while Yukiko uses her skill to help lost souls go to paradise.

Backgrounds and personalities established, the rather subdued middle section of the film slips from tones of light comedy to more heartfelt drama. Chuckles come from Kenji’s wishy-washy personality and a variety of spirited ghosts, such as samurai and suicides. The interactions are reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996), only less cartoonish and more interested in culture clash as the spirits struggle to comprehend how time has moved on. The drama comes from Yukiko’s more considerate and empathetic influence as she provides a sympathetic ear to melancholy stories. This allows the film to shift itself into more philosophical territory as, with each ghost encountered, a conversation ensues that gets the protagonists to reflect on the meaning of a person’s time on Earth and how, even after dying, a purpose can motivate someone such as Mary who refuses to leave this plane of existence. This is a perfect way to tie Mary’s story into some light but efficient character development as, through searching for the purpose of Mary’s haunting, the central pair begin to explore the value of their own lives with Yukiko shaking off her depression and Kenji learning to commit himself to things.

Getting audiences to this point are uniformly solid performances with Kataoka proving to be an adept screen presence. Bando isn’t given as much to do outside of being scary but proves sympathetic in a big reveal. However, it is the experienced supporting cast who amply provide more emotional texture to lift the story, particularly Kaito Yoshimura as a rapscallion rocker named Billy and Ryo Ishibashi, the unfortunate suitor in Takashi Miike’s seminal horror film Audition (1999), who gets a memorable turn as the ghost of a yakuza in the Ken Takakura mould. He looks like a human pin-cushion with a forest of swords stuck in him. Also, these blades, while looking funny, also play a neat part in fight scenes harking back to old school yakuza films while also carrying symbolic weight in the film as he fulfils his own responsibilities. His honorable behavior reminds Kenji and Mary that, no matter how hard it may be, they must fulfill their duty to others.

Also effective is the look and feel of the film which is top-notch and almost reminiscent of early Kiyoshi Kurosawa work or something like Seance (2001) but the scale is much larger and with a few more gags. Eschewing jump-scares and gore, the texture is damp and cold. Shrill strings, wailing winds and melancholy music are heard while cobwebbed corridors, abandoned abodes, decrepit danchis and the mouldy dance hall provide the settings. This atmosphere is bolstered by superlative camerawork, with ghostly pans and creeping zooms, while the screen goes monochrome whenever Yukiko’s ghost vision is used. It all effectively blends together the world of the living and dead to bring supernatural chills in realistic settings. However, the sweetness of Mary’s story and her connection with Billy is what will stay with viewers.

As with Mr. Long, SABU ties everything together in the final act with an extended flashback to fill in backstories. When the mystery of Mary and Billy is revealed it is an emotional punch that binds themes together as a tale of unwavering love remembered over the decades, albeit one with lots of horror involved.

Dancing Mary is streaming as part of the New York Asian Film Festival which runs from August 28 to September 12.