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Friday, April 1, 2022

‘Tales of the Unusual’: Charming Japanese Anthology Offers Multiple Genres [Horrors Elsewhere]

Japan’s love of telling stories can be traced back to a time when people genuinely believed in the supernatural. The Edo period gave rise to a parlor game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, or in English, The Gathering of 100 Supernatural Tales. Participants sat among one-hundred paper lanterns and swapped kaidan (classic ghost stories) until the last flame went out. This way of communicating folklore lives on today but in a new form; rather than orating uncanny tales around lanterns, the Japanese now tell their weird stories through film and television.

Japan never experienced a surge of horror anthology films between the ‘60s and ‘80s like in parts of the West, but Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan left a permanent mark on Japanese cinema. The TV side is where the format eventually thrived. Tokusatsu pioneer Tsuburaya Productions tried its hand at a “soft” genre anthology series in 1963, Ultraman precursor Ultra Q, before going all the way with 1973’s Horror Theater Unbalance. Down the line came other genre anthologies on the small screen, including Mysterious 1001 Nights Stories (1991), True Scary Stories (1999), Pet Shop of Horrors (1999), 100 Tales of Horror (2002), Prayer Beads (2004), and Ghost Theater (2015). Of all the anthologies mentioned, though, none of them have endured as long as Tales of the Unusual.

Tales of the Unusual (Yonimo Kimyōna Monogatari) first aired on Fuji TV in 1990. This anthology series was the successor to a previous Fuji program, Strange Events (Kimyōna dekigoto), that aired in 1989. Staff members from Strange Events were carried over, and several stories were remade. While the serialized form of Tales of the Unusual ended in 1992, the show lived on in standalone episodes. In fact, this tradition of semi-annual specials continues to this day.

The popular strand of fictional stories was later spun off into a film for the big screen in 2000. Along with the four directors brought over from the TV property is iconic television personality Tamori, who reprised his role of the enigmatic Storyteller. But before the stories commence, director Masayuki Suzuki and writer Kōki Mitani provide the most fundamental component of any proper anthology: the wraparound. At a nearly emptied train station one rainy night, Tamori’s character appears out of nowhere when he hears a man (Kōji Yamamoto) struggling to recount a creepy anecdote. The Storyteller then takes over without missing a beat or losing his growing audience’s attention.

First up: Masayuki Ochiai and Katsuhide Suzuki’s “One Snowy Night” begins with the survivors of a plane crash searching for refuge atop a snow-covered mountain. As they take shelter inside a supposedly empty hut, they then succumb to both natural and supernatural elements. Tales of the Unusual wastes no time delivering its sole horror segment; of the four told stories this one is undeniably macabre. Hideo Nakata’s The Ring had only come out two years prior to this film, but “One Snowy Night” foregoes the trend of crawly and vengeful yurei, and it instead plays more with cabin fever and survivor’s guilt. There is also a surprising found-footage aspect when a video camera reveals the breakdown in reality happening inside the hut. The twist at the end comes across as undermining, yet not everything can be explained away so easily.

Although categorized as a horror film, Tales of the Unusual shifts to other genres for its remaining three segments. Masayuki Suzuki and Ryōichi Kimizuka fulfill the dramedy portion with “Samurai Cellular”, a period entry set in 18th-century Japan. Ōishi (Kiichi Nakai) is the cowardly leader of a samurai clan who comes upon a strange object one day; he discovers a cellphone. On the other end of the line is a man claiming to be from the distant future. Meanwhile, the other clan members are concerned about Ōishi’s strategy, or lack thereof, in regards to their enemy, Kira. Both Japanese history buffs and fans of The 47 Ronin will have a few laughs at this humorous slant on someone as eminent as Kuranosuke Ōishi.

A listener’s T-shirt pattern inspires the Storyteller’s next yarn. Mamoru Hoshi and Motoki Nakamura’s “Chess” shadows a fallen chess champion named Akira Katō (Shinji Takeda) as he is reminded of his greatest loss. Three years ago, Katō was humiliated after losing a match to a computer called Super Blue. Now, a rich man (Renji Ishibashi) seeks Katō out and forces him to overcome his demons. Tales of the Unusual never regains its horror element from earlier, but “Chess” approaches occasional suspense as its protagonist is hurled into an absurd and twisted situation involving an interactive, life-sized game of chess. The film’s best set pieces are found in this chapter.

Last but not least, Hisao Ogura and Tomoko Aizawa cap the film off with “Marriage Simulator”, a romantic drama with a trace of science-fiction. An engaged couple is faced with the opportunity to see their future together; a wedding service uses couples’ DNA to predict how their married lives will turn out. Chiharu (Izumi Inamori) and Yūichi (Takashi Kashiwabara) are shaken by what they see in the simulation, but as everyone knows, fates can change. “Marriage Simulator”, which approaches technology’s effect on life less cynically than something like Black Mirror, walks away with the most depth and emotional reward of all the stories.

Tales of the Unusual runs the risk of misleading its audience. Front-loading with the one and only horror narrative is a bold move other films would reconsider. Sticking around, however, is in the viewers’ best interest. The individual stories may have trouble standing on their own, but together they form a delightful collection perfect for anyone who appreciates a range of genres in their anthologies. Bizarre, funny, suspenseful, romantic, stirring. All these words accurately describe this entertaining film. It is exceedingly rare to encounter an anthology that is so unvaried in quality. One might even say this level of consistency is the most unusual thing about Tales of the Unusual.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

The post ‘Tales of the Unusual’: Charming Japanese Anthology Offers Multiple Genres [Horrors Elsewhere] appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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