Kakurenbo (Japan 2004)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/25/09

Dazzling! This stunning state of the art computer animated film is a ghost story with a sparse and unconventional narrative. Legend has it if you play hide-and-seek at night, demons will come to take you away. In a dark part of Tokyo, children play a dangerous game called "o-to-ko-yo" and never return. A boy named Hikora decides to play the game in order to find his missing sister, and joins seven other kids who want to play. What happens next is a living nightmare as the children desperately fight to survive while being chased by demons. Naturally, the moment of truth comes way too late to make any difference. Or does it? Is any of it real, or just the projection of a child's wild imagination? The film definitely raises questions, but is ultimately rather shallow.

Based on the narrative alone, I wouldn't give the film a second thought. It's essentially one long chase sequence built on the single act of a brother looking for his missing sister. The other characters are treated as simple thrill seekers and demon fodder, although the twin girls are fascinating because of their intensity, complete absence of dialog, and their willingness and ability to fight back. The pacing is slow and deliberate, and the scare tactics that are used fail to create any real sense of danger and doom. However, what really makes the film work is the visual presentation, which is astonishing. The film creates a very real and atmospheric world, and the slow panning shots of highly detailed environments, rich textures, and dynamic lighting are what computer animation excels at. The playing field is eerie and moody, and perhaps the most important player in the cast. The demons are appropriately creepy and draw from classical Japanese folklore, but what's even creepier are the fox masks that all of the children are wearing. This adds a very surreal aspect to the show, and requires all of the characters to emote through body language alone. It's fascinating and disturbing at the same time.

"Kakurenbo" attempts to be a high concept horror tale, but the concept fails to pack any emotional punch. Perhaps that was intended, and maybe the film was aimed at younger and more sensitive audiences. Apart from the visual feast of eye candy, I was disappointed by what felt like an underdeveloped story. Then again, maybe its unconventional simplicity was intentional. It definitely has a lyrical art film feel to it and the execution lacks mainstream appeal. It's also only 25 minutes long. Definitely worth checking out if you like computer animation, Japanese ghost stories, and visual storytelling.