Like Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s Forbidden Siren (2006) and Kenta Fukusaku’s X-Cross (2007), Shrill Cries of Summer takes the viewer into rural Japan, but whereas the earlier films thrust you into the weirdness and madness of its inhabitants from the start, this one begins by showing the outstanding beauty of the natural surroundings. The film is set in Hinamizawa, an idyllic small town with few modern buildings and some distance from the nearest population centre. Buses pass through now and again, but there aren’t many cars around and not much in the way of proper roads. It’s a picturesque place, surrounded by rice fields on one side and by forests and a lake on the other. Set in the summer of 1983, Hinamizawa seems like the perfect antidote to the grasping, materialistic 1980s – a friendly village where everybody knows everyone else and they’re always glad to help one another if they can.
It’s an ideal place to settle, particularly for those who want to take their families away from the urban sprawl of Tokyo, which is exactly what the parents of Keiichi Maebara (Goki Maeda) are looking for when the move to the area. Although initially sullen and unimpressed, troubled teen Keiichi is warmly welcomed by the townspeople, and particularly by two of his female classmates, Rena (Ari Matsuyama) and Mion (Rin Asaka). The school itself is tiny; there are barely enough pupils to make up one class, so all the age-groups are taught together in one room, by a single teacher, Chie-sensei (Hitomi Miwa). Keiichi was clearly unhappy at his old school, most probably because of bullying and heavy peer pressure. Now he is enthusiastic about going to school again and spends most his free time hanging out with his new friends.
Naturally all that seems a little too good to be true, and it is. Several years ago the town came under threat from plans to build a large dam in the area, flooding the entire valley. Although the townspeople were split over the issue, opposition to the dam was fierce, and after the construction foreman was brutally murdered the plan was allowed to fade away quietly. However, since then, at the same time of year one individual has been murdered while another has mysteriously disappeared. Rumour in the town suggests that these new victims, most of whom were connected to the dam supporters, are sacrifices to appease the town’s guardian deity Oyashiro-sama, who is said to be responsible for ‘arranging’ the dam’s cancellation. When he begins to see the dark side of idyllic Hinamizawa, and realises that his new friends have done their best to conceal all this from him, Keiichi starts to feel increasingly uncomfortable in his new home. Rena and Mion are also acting strange, and following a ‘prank’ that could easily have killed him, Keiichi realises his life is in danger and resolves to make sure he’s not Hinamizawa’s next sacrifice.
Shrill Cries of Summer is part of a lucrative franchise based upon a series of bestselling visual novels (text-based computer games with images and illustrations). So far, the franchise has produced a long-running manga series, two anime series, drama CDs and two live-action films, both written and directed by Ataru Oikawa. Although Oikawa’s work – a handful of Tomie entries and horror films such as Tokyo Psycho (2005) and Apartment 1303 (2007) – is generally of a poor standard, Shrill Cries of Summer is a surprisingly decent, well-constructed movie and easily the director’s finest film. Aided by a Kenji Kawai score and Kazuhiro Shirao’s excellent cinematography, Oikawa conjures up the beauty of rural Japan perfectly, with green rice paddies, red spider lilies, old-fashioned traditional houses and lonely forest walks bathed in yellow sunlight, with the sound of Japanese cicadas never far away. It’s hard to think of a nicer, quieter place to live. When the horror elements do start to appear, they’re so incongruous against this pleasant backdrop that they almost leap off the screen. Although the film trades heavily on atmosphere, Oikawa is not afraid to make use of violence and blood when the story demands it.
Like its source material, Shrill Cries of Summer is only the first part of the story, presenting the core of the mystery with the resolution presented later. Obviously intending carry the series on, Oikawa preserves the structure of the source, meaning that the film provides few answers. Although a prior knowledge of the franchise helps to understand the film, Shrill Cries of Summer functions well as a standalone movie. It was followed by a sequel, Shrill Cries of Summer: Reshuffle (2009), with Oikawa writing and directing again, and almost entirely the same cast (Tetta Sugimoto’s cop is now played by Ren Osugi, however). This time, the story focuses on Rena, as she tries to protect her father from the unscrupulous con artist he’s fallen in love with, but finds herself pushed into increasingly violent solutions. Like Keiichi, Rena’s life has been overtaken by a paranoid nightmare from which there appears to be no escape.
Despite the popularity of the franchise, only two live-action movies were made; in contrast, new anime stories are still being released as OVAs (‘original video animation’, the anime equivalent of direct-to-video) even though the second anime series finished in 2009. Neither film has been released much outside Asia. Innoform Media managed to secure a Singapore release for Shrill Cries of Summer (with English subtitles) but ignored the rest of Asia, much as they had with Forbidden Siren. Shrill Cries of Summer: Reshuffle didn’t even get that. The franchise has certainly been influential, though, as it has inspired a number of anime shows while also providing Koji Shiraishi’s The Curse (2006) with several of its core plot elements.