Noroi has all the potential to be terrible, yet somehow isn’t.
“I want the truth. No matter how terrifying, I want the truth.”
Let’s talk about the Blair Witch Project for a bit. I know, I know. Wherever you stand on how good/entertaining/real it was, there are a couple of facts that are difficult to dispute. Firstly, its immense success was largely due to the novelty behind its central premise. The idea of using handheld footage and using it to expertly hide or reveal information was novel and pretty risk, but man did it pay off. The microbudget movie made about ten thousand times its budget back and led the way for other filmmakers to try to do something with the format, most notably Paranormal Activity.
But then we have to consider the terrible attempts to rebottle that lightning. As soon as Blair Witch came out, a wave of copycat films hit the shelves and while the found footage craze might have died down, it’s still fairly prominent, with at least one (mostly) crappy horror film in the style coming out per year. This is where Noroi comes in. Marketed as the Japanese Blair Witch, Noroi could have easily been a terrible cash-in with no internal logic and few scares. Boy am I ever glad I was wrong.
Noroi is framed in typical found footage style: the introduction of our main character Kobayashi Masafumi (Jin Muruaki), a paranormal expert who went missing while making his most recent documentary, The Curse. The film then plays the edited footage from that documentary, which features Kobayashi investigating a woman called Ishii Junko (Tomono Kuga), and her son, who recently moved into a neighbourhood. Ishii’s neighbour, who tipped Kobayashi off, dies shortly after. Meanwhile, a young girl named Kana (Kanno Rio) goes on TV to showcase her supposed psychic powers. She too goes missing.
Believing all of this to be related, Kobayashi turns to Matsumoto Marika (playing herself), who claims to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Together, their investigations bring them to the house of psychic Hori (Jitsunashi Satoru), who describes he can sense “ectoplasmic worms” and asks Kobayashi what a kagubata is. As the mystery unravels, so do our heroes, whose inquiries bring them closer to the devastating truth about Ishii, a lot of spooky revelations about the kagubata, and the whereabouts of Kana.
It was difficult to tell right off the bat what kind of film Noroi was going to be. The typical “he was never seen again” opener was not entirely promising, but director Shiraishi Koji is in complete control from start to finish. He cleverly uses the found footage format to weave together clips from the news, as well as a couple of variety shows as well as the typical handheld camera stuff. This happens almost from the get-go and adds a whole heap of verisimilitude to the proceedings. Most notably are the variety show clips, which pitch-perfectly match the real deal, from the on-screen text to the picture-in-picture and the over-the-top reactions. Using a variety of sources helps sell the story, and further makes the audience interested in what’s happening.
The actors are all highly convincing as well, which is definitely a boon. Jitsunashi’s portrayal of the mentally-fragile psychic was spot on, and the idea of casting Matsumoto as herself was inspired. Making all of the main characters likeable keeps the viewer invested, as does the choice to spread the story around. In the two examples I listed above – Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity – the entirety of the story takes place in one location, which can be difficult to keep interesting. Switching the action from place to place gives us a sense of a wider world, which is another trick used to keep the reality of the world believable.
But enough of that. You came to a horror film to be scared, right? Well, Noroi definitely isn’t lacking in good horror moments. The film is totally void of jump scares, and instead relies on slowly building tension and a tonne of creepiness. It’s not terrifying in any sense of the word, and that might put some horror fans off, but it is fittingly nail-biting and drenched in dread. It lets the story tell itself, focusing more on the creepy goings-on rather than by having spooky stuff happen directly at the viewer. There are a couple of scenes, especially near the end, that lean a bit too far in the generic horror side of things (one of the final scenes, with the sent footage, is fantastic but somewhat unnecessary), and while they’re not bad they definitely don’t have the same impact.
Noroi is strongest when it lets the story unfold at its own pace, with the unsettling moments making their way in organically. Nothing really feels forced, and the documentary/variety TV format gives the camera crew a reason to keep the shot focused on the weird stuff, even when they should be logically running away. All in all Noroi is a pretty good horror, crammed with slow-burning tension and plenty of spookiness, aided by some excellent acting. The somewhat sluggish nature of the film might not be to everyone’s tastes, but overall it leaves you satisfied, and thoroughly chilled.
Verdict: Not nearly as bad as you’d fear, Noroi is a feather in the found footage genre’s cap.
The Asian Cinema Critic Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Violence: Mostly in the form of dead pigeons
CGI: Thankfully only one instance. It’s not very good.
Ectoplasmic Worms: Hori did not pay attention in school
Unanswered questions: Just enough to leave you wanting more
Also known as: ノロイ, The Curse
Director: Shiraishi Koji
Writer: Shiraishi Koji, Yokota Naoyuki
Jin Muraki – Masafumi Kobayashi
Marika Matsumoto – herself
Satoru Jitsunashi – Mitsuo Hori
Rio Kanno – Kana Yano
Tomono Kuga – Junko Ishii
Maria Takagi – herself
Ai Iijima – TV program guest