Ijin-tachi To No Natsu was released in 1988 and the film is an adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s novel called Strangers that was published in 1987, with an English translation of the book eventually published in 2003.
Be warned, this is a ghost story at heart, as opposed to a pure zombie movie, so those seeking blood, action, and shuffling undead, should probably look elsewhere – but those people looking for a slow-burning and thoughtful meditation on life, death, and relationships will find an intriguing and surreal movie here.
Also known as The Discarnates and Summer Among the Zombies (although Summer Among the Dead would be a more apt title), Ijin-tachi To No Natsu was directed by stylish director Nobuhiko Obayashi. Obayashi is best known (at least in the west) for his wildly surrealistic visual style, best exemplified by off the wall comedy horror classic Hausu (House, 1970). Made eighteen years later, The Discarnates has none of House’s stylisation, breakneck pacing or outright insanity, it’s a very different type of film but none the worse for that. Its basic idea is perhaps a surreal one but its execution is not.
Although more recent J-horror films certainly owe a debt to The Discarntes and to Obayashi himself, more than anything The Discarnates is a great reminder that Japanese culture embraces the intrinsic sadness of the ghost story better than any other. The first requirement for a ghost story is for someone to have died, they are stories founded on tragedy and the horror film tendency to make the ghosts uniformly malign does tend to undermine that. Japan has a long history of ghost stories and while they can certainly be scary they are all underscored by a sense of loss and a deep melancholy for those who have died.
Hidemi Harada is a TV writer stuck in a monotonous and solitary existence. He is divorced though he was never a particularly good husband, and has a child though he was never a particularly good father. He himself lost his parents when he was only 12. Two things happen to shake up Harada’s existence, the first being a woman, the only other person living in his building, arriving at his door with a bottle of champagne, desperate for company. The insular Harada however rebuffs her. The second is that while he is out at a comedy show Harada sees a man who looks exactly like his father. Improbably enough the man invites Harada home to meet his wife, who looks exactly like Harada’s mother. More than that, this couple act as if they are Harada’s parents, regardless of the fact that their son is now the same age as them. Are they ghosts? Maybe; they are quite open and unconcerned about the fact that they are dead. Why are they here? Harada does not care, he is in raptures over having his parents back and in this new good mood he strikes up a relationship with the girl upstairs.
But as time passes Harada starts, not just to age but to physically deteriorate. His new girlfriend is sure that it is the time he is spending with his parents but we in the audience are probably wondering if she herself is a succubus, draining life from him during sex. In fact, the answer is more complex than either of those explanations and while there are elements of the conclusion that you will probably guess, there are also things you will most likely not.
Though lacking the visual stylisation of some of Obayashi’s work, the film is beautifully and thoughtfully shot. When Harada is with his parents the world is more colourful, as if he has stepped back into a rose tinted past or a photograph of his childhood. The story is underscored with mythological tradition, western as well as Japanese, particularly referring to Orpheus and Eurydice. There is also a clear comparison to be made to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or even It’s a Wonderful Life, stories in which the dead appear to help a man whose life has gone awry.
The Discarnates is certainly not a scary film in that it has no jump-shocks. Films that deal with the death of parents are always unsettling or even upsetting but this presents an almost wistful view of the dead. Because it includes ghosts and life being drained from its protagonist it would be hard to categorise as anything other than horror, but really this is a poignant and extremely touching drama with an edge of the fantastic. If you’re looking for gore or terror then this isn’t the place to look, but as a film it comes highly recommended.
|The Discarnates at Amazon|
|Check out the novel ‘Strangers’ by Taichi Yamada which the film is based on at Amazon|
|More Nobuhiko Obayashi films at Amazon|