Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Written by Kōji Shiraishi and Naoyuki Yokota
Directed by Kōji Shiraishi
By 2005, J-horror popularity in the United States was peaking. There were so many poorly made and poorly received adaptations that producers began looking elsewhere for something to exploit. That’s a shame because Noroi became a film criminally overlooked by audiences in the States. This is one of the best found-footage horror films I’ve ever seen, and I’m someone who typically hates this subgenre. Noroi works because it doesn’t just stick with the framing of seeing the movie through the eyes of someone walking around, holding a camera the whole time. Instead, it engages in mass media as part of its narrative, cleverly telling its story through complex structures that add up to a single disturbing whole.
Noroi introduces itself as the final video in a series of paranormal investigations by researcher Masafumi Kobayashi. Kobayashi has gone missing since a fire at his home that killed his wife. We’re told by the narrator that this video has been cobbled together with the footage made during the researcher’s final investigation. That mystery begins with him looking into Junko Ishii, a strange woman whose neighbor complains of hearing crying babies coming from her house. Junko is incredibly hostile and speaks strangely to Kobayashi when confronted. Days later, she suddenly moves, and the complaining neighbor and her daughter die tragically off-screen. This only encourages Kobayashi to follow the clues to uncover what is really going on.
The film then begins using segments from fictional television programs. A television comedy duo and their guest, actress Marika Matsumoto visit a supposedly haunted shrine in the forests. She has a seizure and begins sleepwalking afterward. Then there’s the story of Kana Yano, a young girl who appeared with a group of children who had shown psychic abilities. She has the most prevalent displays and even manifests water from thin air. Shortly after appearing on the show, Kana disappears. Kobayashi also meets Mitsuo Hori, a paranoid and mentally unwell man who covers himself and his home in tinfoil. He rants about “ectoplasmic worms” that are everywhere and trying to eat people. He claims to have met Kana and knows that she was taken by something. During his investigation, Kobayashi hears the name “Kagutaba,” and this one word brings him to a rural village where a deep sense of evil pervades the air. The choices he makes as these seemingly disparate people come together will lead to the opening of a door and the arrival of a powerful evil into our universe.
Noroi is such a well-crafted horror story, feeling literary yet working perfectly as a film. I was reminded of horror literature that dabbles in the world of film like House of Leaves or Michael Wehunt’s fantastic short story “October Film Haunt: Under the House.” The exact explanation of what is happening is kept at arm’s length. There are enough pieces to come up with some solid conclusions, but the movie itself leaves things open enough to make speculating after the end credits a lot of fun. The film never falls into the rut many found footage movies do of being too mundane. This is helped with the conceit of the edited and produced video framing. We’re not just watching raw footage; this is something turned into a product to sell by a video production company.
The characters in the movie also feel more alive than many dull ones you’ll find in movies like Paranormal Activity. Kobayashi is arrogant and goes headfirst into situations, thinking he is beyond reproach. Marika feels like someone having a breakdown with reality, unsure of what has happened to her. Mitsuo Hori is a fantastically wild character who is genuinely scary. He is shown to have the ability to see things that ordinary people simply cannot, and for most of the film, we don’t get to see them. There’s a jarring moment at the end of the second act where the camera gets to see through Hori’s eyes briefly, and it is nightmarish, unlike anything I’ve seen in another movie. Because these characters feel like they have lives off-screen, it adds to the fictional reality of Noroi and absorbs the audience deeper.
The funny thing about Noroi is that the film is devoid of any conventional scares. There are no moments designed to jolt the audience or any shocking reveals until close to the end. The horror is about as slow-burning as it gets, creeping dread that’s cultivated by small little pieces falling into place. Kana’s strange appearance as a young psychic on tv raises some questions. Marika finds she’s knotting yarn in her sleep to make a peculiar pattern over and over. Hori rambles about the worms being everywhere. People tell stories about hearing noise from a neighbor. Much like Ringu, none of this is scary on its own, but the director is building up to something. By the time we’re in the middle of nowhere searching for a town buried underwater due to the construction of a dam, it feels like the tension is on the verge of exploding.
Noroi is also a film that might not feel like it was worth it immediately. That slow burn doesn’t necessarily explode in the third act. It is, however, a film that rewards close viewing and rewatching. A second viewing will reveal how seeds of what was to come were so cleverly planted in pieces of dialogue or seemingly innocuous details. You begin to see how unconventional Noroi is in the found footage genre compared to the more famous American counterparts. This isn’t following a formula, and it demands patience from its viewers. Because Noroi plays with the form of found footage, it never fails to surprise at every turn, a truly unique entry in the genre.