First, the lights start to flicker. Then, you hear a quiet tinkling of bells. You turn to find the source of the noise and find a woman hiding in the shadows. Her face is covered with long, black hair and her hands are pressed together in front of her. As she gets closer, she looks up and reveals her unnaturally large eyes. This is the last thing you see before she claims your eyes. This is Shirai-san, the ghost of Otsuichi’s newest film, Stare, which premiered this year at Fantasia.
Stare centers on Mizuki (Marie Iitoyo) and Haruo (Yu Inaba), who have each lost someone close to them under strange circumstances. Both Mizuki’s friend and Haruo’s brother died, supposedly, from extreme fear which made their eyeballs to explode. The police have labelled it merely an effect of cardiac arrest. However, they come to learn they were cursed by the spirit of Shirai-san, who will follow you until she’s able to claim your life. From there, they work with a jaded journalist to find out how to reverse the curse and save themselves.
Shirai-san’s power is in her name. Simply put, once you hear her name, you are cursed by her spirit. She has a different kind of virality than the spread of memes or animal videos. Instead of through posts on social media or video views, her curse is carried through the power of storytelling. The more people who know her name, the more victims she can claim. She appears with her uncannily massive eyes and blood-smeared mouth, simply staring a person down as they run away in fear. But, like in It Follows, no matter how fast you run, she is not far behind.
Stare’s sound design adds to the terror of its ghost. In moments of silence, the quiet tingling of bells turn a quiet night into a nightmare. The film continues to utilize small, two-toned sounds to tease the audience and build tension, giving the viewer goosebumps with just the sound of creaking floorboards or the sounds of children running. Paired with the sound design is perfectly-matched score which drones in the background with each appearance of the spirit. Stare is a prime example of the importance of sound design and score in horror, particularly in conveying feelings of true terror.
The place where Stare stumbles, though, is its attempts to create the lore around Shirai-san. It starts to tell a fascinating story about a shaman in an ancient village, but then trails off. Frankly, there didn’t need to be much explanation about Shirai-san. All we really need to know is how she kills, how she finds her next victims, and what happens before she attacks. Instead of leaning into the lore or just assuming she is just an angry spirit, the film falls into a frustrating middle ground in an otherwise phenomenal ghost story.
So often, J-horror films focus on vengeful female ghosts known as Onryō and the various ways they seek their revenge in the physical world. While this has led to a slew of redundant franchises, it also been a vehicle for original and terrifying filmmaking. Their rage-filled acts of violence are burned into the viewer’s psyche and has them worried about turning off the lights. Unlike Sadako, which also premiered at this year’s Fantasia, Stare proves the effectiveness and ingenuity of Japanese horror films. Stare has broken through franchise fatigue and brought a breath of fresh air to the J-horror genre, creating a terrifying and seemingly inescapable ghost.