I’ve had a passion for horror ever since I first snuck out of bed to watch my family’s battered old VHS of Frankenstein. I could indulge in my deepest fears, even discover fears I never thought I’d had, piqued by some macabre premise that promised a sleepless night or two. But while previous forays into horror had remained in a comfortable realm of fiction, The Blair Witch Project was the first film I’d seen that dared to blur the boundary between its fantastic subjects and my own mundane reality. The film wasn’t just the terrifying experience of its doomed aspiring filmmakers, but my own. Horror had become a first-person experience. With later films like [REC] and Paranormal Activity, found-footage helped me tap into an ancient, forbidden curiosity, each work its own Pandora’s Box containing some horrifying buried truth; each one reminding me that I shouldn’t look — but daring me to anyway. Nothing was scarier, I learned, than reality itself.
It wasn’t long before Blair Witch’s shaky-cam realism was thoroughly aped by countless imitators until such attempts at documenting “reality” became more aesthetic than accidental. A claustrophobic, confined setting became a quick rationalization for a tight budget and limited production value. Characters would choose to document the horror rather than flee from it, as if they knew I would be waiting for their footage to be found. Despite each film’s valiant effort to prove how “real” they were, they unintentionally highlighted their own artifice.
There is one film, however, that managed to endure countless repeat viewings, precisely because each one somehow managed to convince me further of its disturbing “authenticity.” That film would be Noroi: the Curse, the source of many a nightmare since my first viewing nearly ten years ago.
Blair Witch‘s American success is easily comparable to that of the infamous Ring in 1998, which spurred an equal demand in the Japanese V-Cinema industry for found-footage horror films. Jason Julier suggests this popularity was fueled by “a combination of technology, curse and the Japanese passion for ancient ghost stories… ably assisted by low budgets and digital technology.” In 2003, director Koji Shiraishi released Honto ni atta!, a ghost-sighting anthology that recruited pop idols and J-Drama stars to explore spooky staged settings. Shiraishi’s films suggested that hiring well-known actors with a pre-existing fanbase established authenticity just as well as using unknowns whose characters had to be taken at face value. When given the opportunity to work from a larger budget with Ju-on and Ring producer Takashige Ichise, Shiraishi seized the chance to break beyond the limited scope of his earlier work and most found-footage films in general. Noroi would be the fruit of their labors.
Ostensibly a film about a film, Noroi screens the last film made by documentarian Masafumi Kobayashi before the fire that lead to his wife’s death and his own disappearance. Making his living as a paranormal investigator, Kobayashi susses out strange happenings all over Japan for his In Search Of-style documentaries. Kobayashi’s search for new material leads him to cross paths with Kana, a child psychic who materializes water on a reality show; Marika, an actress possessed during a TV ghost hunt; and Hori, a tinfoil-coated shut-in warning humanity of cosmic ectoplasmic worms. When Kana’s abrupt disappearance draws parallels between Hori’s ravings and Marika’s possession, the three dedicate themselves to saving Kana and unmasking the demonic forces behind these seemingly disparate events. Kobayashi is driven to find the truth, “no matter how horrifying,” but he’s soon confronted with answers too terrifying to imagine.
In addition to talking-head interviews, Noroi pulls from a staggering archive of news broadcasts and reality TV starring celebrities and comedians (as themselves!), archaic 16mm footage of Japanese purification ceremonies, even ancient emakimono, handscrolls depicting secret rituals since lost to myth and legend. These sources, according to Aidan Kirkbright, effectively replicate “the loud enthusiasm of Japanese variety TV shows and the kind of true crime investigation shows that exploit eerie music and inter-titles to create clichéd late-night TV trash.” With such a myriad stock to pull from, Kobayashi’s documentary effectively dramatizes how the investigation into a little girl’s disappearance factors into a more complex web of mystery deeply rooted in modern and ancient Japanese culture. Free to blend its own fictional footage with centuries of non-fiction material, Shiraishi’s nightmarish mythos becomes indistinguishable from the nightly news — establishing an unmatched, unquestionable realism.
Jim Harper suggests that the plausibility of Noroi’s archival footage is augmented by its presentation as a completed documentary, a decision which gave director Shiraishi the freedom to “edit, manipulate and process the material as much as he likes, in order to achieve the necessary effect.” It’s true: such trickery in a film like The Last Exorcism causes viewers to cry foul, its inexplicable score and sharp edits belie post-production tampering by unseen hands. Noroi’s editorial freedom, however, allows its director to create a tension once reserved for fiction film, a significant advantage over traditional found-footage entries’ crippling limitations of scope. Each shot now displays a certain degree of control and restraint, which “[distances] yet involves us at the same time, drawing us into the atmosphere of the film quite effectively,” Aidan Kirkbright writes. “The film’s terror comes from careful inclusion and omission… with the camera as our eye dictating what we see.” One stellar example comes in the film’s second half, as Kobayashi and his crew split into groups, each with cameras in tow — Kobayashi and Hori climb a mountain in search of Kana, while Marika and Kobayashi’s cameraman frantically return to the village below. As darkness falls, Kobayashi and Hori grow closer to a terrifying revelation aided by night vision; at the same time, Marika quickly shows signs of demonic possession. Both sequences are chilling in their own right, but the film’s deft crosscutting ratchets the tension to levels beyond the abilities of average found-footage films.
The sheer plausibility of Noroi’s footage and presentation is part of what makes it such an effective horror film: despite featuring an investigation into supernatural events, Noroi consistently feels like a documentary first and a horror film second. Only as the film progresses does it begin to take its supernatural roots far more seriously — as if it were an earnest investigation into the truth that, following the direction of its sources, began an unstoppable descent into Lovecraftian madness.
Of course, no such journey is complete without discussing its guides. Masafumi Kobayashi, expertly played by Jin Muraki, is a damn likable guy. Standing apart from his fellow found-footage protagonists, Kobayashi proves to be a capable ghost hunter from frame one. Possessing nerves of steel, Kobayashi wills himself through each spine-tingling encounter with the paranormal driven by the simple maxim that opens the film: “No matter how terrifying, I want the truth.” Early on, Kobayashi understands that the search for truth may be what creates a thrilling documentary, but as the mystery deepens he understands that getting answers will be the one thing that saves the lives of his subjects. It’s up to him to save the child psychic Kana when she disappears, and after actress Marika threatens to become the curse’s latest victim, Kobayashi not only takes her into his home for safekeeping, but tries to prevent her from joining him in breaking the curse. He’s seen what the powerful forces at work can do, and he’s dedicated himself to doing anything he can to prevent those he cares about from falling prey to it. Kobayashi, then, understands that the truth can have a negative value alongside its positives — but doesn’t let that dissuade him from the absolute worth of making the truth known. This singular quality makes Kobayashi the perfect protagonist for a found-footage film; what drives him to make his films is the same reason we watch them. No matter how terrifying, we both seek the truth, and we are prepared to go to any lengths to find it. But, as Noroi will come to ask, are we prepared for what lies at the end of the path?
Kobayashi’s quest reckons the limitations of human knowledge versus our bottomless urge to satisfy our curiosity. The film begins by telling us that Kobayashi’s quest ends in ruin, but as a result of his film-within-a-film, we completely forget that this is the case. Kobayashi edits his film so that the viewer discovers each tantalizing clue as he does; likewise, as his terror and uncertainty grow in the face of the Curse’s dramatic revelations, so do ours. It’s a unified, unsettling experience that refuses to let up throughout the film’s runtime. Wrapped up in Kobayashi’s quest to reveal the connection between these horrifying events, however, we consequently become blind to the answers staring at us in the face, sharing in an idealistic hubris that bears sharp similarity to Chinatown’s Jake Gittes or The Wicker Man’s Sergeant Howie. It’s only after Kobayashi’s documentary reaches its optimistic conclusion that we reacquaint ourselves with his mysterious fate, and in one of the most terrifying scenes ever put on film do we see our relentless hero stare into the overwhelming abyss of the unknowable in an ending befitting the best Greek tragedy. Like all the other characters in the film, Kobayashi fails to realize the truth he desperately seeks has already sought him out — and, as they have, he must reckon with the consequences of his crippling knowledge.
Noroi’s sense of realism may be unmatched in found footage, and the journey of its idealistic, headstrong protagonist makes for gripping viewing; it’s the inseparable nature of the film’s form and content, however, that makes it a contender for one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. Kobayashi’s film must feel real or else his journey would feel fake. If Noroi possessed the slightest suggestion of falsehood, the audience would have free reign to retreat to a comfortable spectator’s position, ready to let this fiction play out without any personal consequence. By convincing us of its veracity and giving us a protagonist whose drive for earth-shaking answers mirrors our own, Noroi directly interrogates our hunger for truth. In seeking truth, Noroi concludes, we become swallowed up by it. We’ve sought out Pandora’s box and wrested it open, and we deserve whatever comes out.
It has been nearly ten years since Noroi’s release in Japan in August 2005, and it boggles the mind how it’s managed to go undiscovered and unreleased on Western shores. After J-Horror and Found-Footage’s rise in popularity Stateside, such maddening truths are even more so. Xanadeux and Takashige Ichise’s OZ, the companies involved in Noroi’s production, have since fallen into bankruptcy. Kadokawa Pictures USA, who planned an initial American release, suffered a similar fate in 2009, leaving Noroi’s licensing rights in a strange limbo. In earlier years, I created the film’s IMDb and Facebook page in a naïve attempt to rescue it from obscurity, where it has accumulated a small yet enthusiastic following. There are subtitled copies available on third-party DVD sites. Perhaps the same dark spirits behind Kobayashi’s disappearance have similar plans for his last piece of work, determined to bury this film at all costs. However, they face a growing audience who share in Kobayashi’s heroic credo: no matter how terrifying, we want the truth.
A long overdue update: Shudder acquired the U.S. rights to Noroi in 2017. After 12 years in obscurity, Noroi was finally released in America on June 1, 2017. It is available to stream on their platform.