[Our thanks to Lauren Baggett for the following review.]
There are about fifteen minutes of sublime imagery, atmosphere, and ideas in OROCHI. Pity that those fifteen minutes have to come attached to the rest of the film. I was lured in by the trailer, which promised a film full of lush visuals, psychologically tormented women, and something very nasty hiding in the attic. It presented itself as a sort of b-movie version of TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which would have been fine by me if OROCHI had fulfilled these promises. Held up by a shaky skeleton of a story, its visuals aren't fantastic enough to make up for an anemic plot.
Based on a classic manga by Kazuo Umezu, OROCHI is named after its mysterious lead character, a girl in a red cloak and combat boots who seemingly doesn't age. She wanders aimlessly through Japan's history, depicted by a slideshow-like montage during the opening credits. Through her slightly pompous and entirely unnecessary narration, Orochi explains that she always observes the suffering of humans around her, but never acts. This is a pity, as what's the point of having an immortal character with vague supernatural powers if she doesn't use them for more than neat little parlor tricks like turning coat buttons into spiders? When our story begins, it is 1950, and Orochi is taking shelter from a storm in a remote, beautiful mansion, complete with creepy paintings of dead relatives. This mansion is home to Aoi Monzen, a classical film starlet, and her two daughters, cute little moppets who run around in matching dresses. Aoi has big plans for her brood. She's going to push them into the spotlight whether they like it or not, and if she has to smack their little hands black and blue in order to instill discipline, then she'll smack their little hands black and blue. There's desperation behind her cruel behavior; there's a curse on the Monzen women, one that strikes when they turn 29. And Aoi doesn't have much time left...
The plot eventually skips forward in time, when Orochi returns to the Monzen home in the body of a maid. Now Aoi has been sequestered in the attic, and the two girls, now grown, act out a drama of resentment and co-dependance. Kazusa, the spitting image of her mother (and played by the same actress) has followed in her mother's footsteps, becoming a famous actress. The plainer sister, Risa, seems to tend to Kazusa's every whim, though not without keeping a lover on the sly. Orochi soon becomes a pawn in the sisters' tug of war for dominance in the household. What, exactly, is the Monzen family curse? Is there a way for the women to break the curse? (Monzen men are never even mentioned. It's as if these girls have sprung from their mother's head fully formed.) It turns out that Risa and Kazusa are willing to go to some extreme lengths in order to keep their beauty, though that may not be enough in the face of their mutual scheming and resentment.
It isn't all awful. As Orochi, Mitsuki Tanimura acts sufficiently otherworldly, and Yoshino Kimura as Monzen mother and daughter gives a steely performance reminiscent of Jung-ah Yum's wicked stepmother in TALE OF TWO SISTERS. The Monzen mansion is sufficiently creepy, and the last act hosts a couple of scenes that are delightfully macabre. These touches aren't enough to save OROCHI, but they at least kept the viewing experience from being a complete bore. There just isn't enough there. The sisters' catfights never reach a fever pitch, and the end never turns into the bloodbath that the audience hopes for.
I'm a Kazuo Umezu fan and respect his work, but there's something lost in this adaptation. Orochi, as she says in the beginning, is an observer, and that's where the problem lies. Her supernatural abilities add almost nothing to the story, causing extra bloat to a film already filled with mysterious doings. Her ambivalence throughout the film grows so frustrating that by the time she experiences emotions at the end, I was hoping that there would be a CARRIE-esque climax of psychic revenge. But no, Orochi displays a few more parlor tricks and then leaves the Monzens to destroy themselves, which isn't nearly as satisfying as it should be.
As I watched the last half of OROCHI, I concocted a different version of this film, one that focuses more on the twisted Monzens than boring Orochi and her doings. A streamlined version of this story may have set the purists into a tizzy, but may have saved this movie from becoming such a mess. It's sometimes a beautiful mess, to be sure, but ultimately OROCHI is a cinematic mystery best left uninvestigated.
Review by Lauren Baggett.