The live-action Japanese adaptation of Fatal Frame has been eagerly awaited by J-Horror fans and followers of this classic survival horror franchise alike. This is not Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil (2002), however. Even in the more successful attempts, western adaptations try and capture (to a greater or lesser extent) the story and gameplay of the source material, whereas Japanese versions – like Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s excellent Forbidden Siren (2006), based on the Siren franchise – prefer to tell similar but unrelated stories, evoking the atmosphere of the game. Whether Fatal Frame will receive a Western release remains to be seen; despite favourable reviews, nearly a decade after its release Forbidden Siren is still unavailable outside Japan and Singapore. The recently announced US live-action adaptation of the Fatal Frame game may make a difference, if it eventually appears (Ghost House Pictures’ announced Siren film never materialised).
From the start, we are in an otherworldly, unreal setting: an isolated Catholic girls’ school in the mountains. The nuns, the severe and shapeless black uniforms, the western-style but wooden buildings, the antique fittings, the absence of modern technology – all these things make it hard to get an immediate fix on the film’s time period. Even when we know it’s contemporary, the school and its occupants still seem to exist in a timeless bubble, an impression enhanced by the many references to Ophelia and John Everett Millais’ famous Pre-Raphaelite painting, which plays a key role in the unfolding events.
Traumatized by recurring visions in which she apparently descends to a watery demise, schoolgirl Aya (Ayami Nakajo) locks herself in her room and refuses to leave. Her classmates and admirers are perturbed by her absence; as it draws on they suspect she may have disappeared or fallen prey to the school’s curse, which (it is said) can only affect girls. One of her admirers, Kasumi (Kasumi Yamaya), mysteriously disappears while walking in the woods near the school, and the rumours continue to proliferate. Then Michi (Aoi Morikawa), a pixie-faced girl with wide, soulful eyes, begins to see visions of the ghostly, drifting Aya, who always says the same thing: “Release me from this curse.” Two of her friends, Itsuki (Karen Miyama) and Risa (Fujiko Kojima), have been having the same experience. Itsuki believes her obsession with Aya is to blame, while Risa (who does not share her friend’s affection for the girl) thinks Aya has cursed them all. Like Kasumi, Risa and Itsuki soon disappear. Risa is found floating in the river in a white shift, like Ophelia. Risa, Kasumi and two other girls are simply dumped in a shallow pool. Aya emerges from her room and tells Michi she has been plagued by the same visions. Although the police suspect a mass suicide pact (in the past, girls at the school would drown themselves in the lake rather than separate), Aya and Michi believe that the spectral doppelganger has something to do with the deaths, and together they resolve to uncover the school’s secret.
Many reviewers have pointed out that Fatal Frame has a distinctly European feel to it, and this is largely because of the Catholic girls’ school setting, a common feature of European horror films in the 1960s and 1970s. Some Japanese films, like Tetsuo Shinohara’s School Day of the Dead (2000), use Christian trappings to add an exotic flavour, but in Fatal Frame the setting is used in the same way it is in classic Euro-horror films, as a closed-off world dominated by archaic ritual and tradition, with an element of sexual repression too. The impression is enhanced by the fact that there is nothing Japanese about the school at all; everything within is European (not to mention old-fashioned). The only lessons we see are either discussing British literature, from Hamlet (via Meiji Period writer Mori Ogai’s translation of one of Ophelia’s key speeches) to Oscar Wilde, or teaching English as a language.
With its naturalistic hues and organic setting (the only bright, artificial colours are seen outside the school), Fatal Frame is strongly reminiscent of Peter Weir’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), conjuring up the same lyrical, uneasy atmosphere. It also shares many of the same touchstones as Lucky McKee’s The Woods (2006), including director Mari Asato’s obvious affection for her teenage heroines. Director Mari Asato – who also scripted from Eiji Otsuka’s novel – takes their hopes and their fears seriously, treating them not as children whose emotions are somehow less significant or real, but as well-rounded characters whose understanding of their situation is every bit as complex and uncertain as any adult’s.
Despite utilising no jump scares and little in the way of loud noises, Asato has no difficulty building up a tangible atmosphere of fear and unease, not least because of the ghostly Aya’s carefully handled manifestations. Watching her spectral figure drift slowly through the chapel as the assembled students fall to the ground is enough to induce chills, and it’s not the only scene to do so. Although at its core Fatal Frame relies upon archetypal Japanese horror concepts (the film’s only real weakness), Asato is sensible enough to avoid the genre’s established visual motifs- there are no shambling, crawling ghosts in white robes, and the general lack of modern technology precludes any Ring (1998) or One Missed Call (2003) inspired technophobic horrors. The result is one of the finest Japanese horror releases of recent years, and essential viewing for any fans of the genre.
After working under Kiyoshi Kurosawa on Barren Illusion (1999) and Hiroshi Takahashi on Sodom the Killer (2004), Asato laboured in the world of low-budget horror for several years, directing the blackly humorous Hideshi Hino adaptation Boy From Hell (2004), the video game franchise spin-off Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (2008) and the V-Cinema Ju-on anniversary release Ju-on: Black Ghost (2009), amongst others. She made her breakthrough in 2011 with Gomen Nasai (aka Ring of Curse), a technophobic teen horror film that coaxed surprisingly capable performances from a trio of pop idols. Asato’s reputation was increased further by Bilocation (2013), an unusual and occasionally terrifying spin on the doppelgänger legends. With Fatal Frame, Asato has established herself as a major talent in the Japanese horror scene.