Ouija Japan mixes catty Japanese housewives, Kokkuri-san and a battle royale hosted by a deity that mysteriously controls a phone app together into one zany horror film. Written and directed by Masaya Katô, the independent horror film deserves praise for clearly having a grand ol’ time picking off its cast through gunshots, knife fights and exploding phones. In a film like this, where all that matters is survival, it’s no easy feat to keep kills interesting.
Ouija Japan starts with explaining how Kokkuri-san works. We learn the rules even before we meet the cast of characters who are destined to be slain to appease a fox god. The film centers on Karen (Ariel Sekiya), an American housewife living in Japan with her husband and struggling to fit in and speak Japanese. Karen spends most of the 78-minute runtime complaining about how awkward she is and only has one friend, Satsuki (Miharu Chiba).
When Karen is invited to join her neighbors for a camping trip, she decides to go. However, it doesn’t take long for the drunken group to grow restless and play Kokkuri-san. The game starts off innocently enough, and the ever-sarcastic Satsuki takes every chance she gets to put down the other wives, especially Akiyo (Eigi Kodaka), the group’s Queen Bee. Kodaka clearly relishes being a villainous character and adds delight to the screen when she appears with her girl gang in tow. It’s easier to root for her than it is to care about Karen.
Although the film’s setup works in general, it does take 30 minutes too long to arrive at the surprise bloodshed. Thankfully, once the games begin and a surprise app arrives on the group’s phones, enjoyably mayhem ensues. Karen’s character can be a bit grating, but the film is also aware of this and makes sure to take plenty of shots at how “pitiful” and “naive” Karen is. However, Satsuki’s character is just the right amount of biting and helps keep the film’s pace moving when Karen is determined to slow it down by begging for everyone to stop killing.
However, there’s one confusing element to the plot. Although we only see a handful of women discussing the camping trip — and never more than say eight or so in one frame hanging out on the trip — the film wants us to believe that there are 16 women present total. While that high number makes sense for the battle royale element — more people to kill to keep the pace swinging — it’s nevertheless jarring when someone gets stabbed that you didn’t even know existed in the first place. That choice unfortunately weakens the impact of early kills.
That being said, there’s something intriguing about how the horror game unfolds on everyone’s phones, which can make the strangely odd cast count easier to overlook. With each new kill, app features appear that can range from owning a gun to rigging a live grenade setup. It’s not entirely clear how this god can work an app, but it’s a fun idea that works better when audiences roll with the omniscient deity being a master of technology.
Ouija Japan lands as more of a wily action thriller than a horror movie. It doesn’t bring the tension that The Descent did — another women-led survival tale on an ill-fated camping trip — as it spends more time tearing apart its characters than building them up. But if what you’re looking for is something lighter and fun, then you’ll come away satisfied.
Ouija Japan arrives on Digital and VOD on Oct. 19.