In Tsuyoshi's apartment, Kaoru finds a letter... fragments of straw fall out when she goes to open it. Though it's a desperate love letter, the characters are written in the sort of shaky penmanship you might expect of someone terribly old and infirm. The letter is signed Miyamori Izumi, a name that comes as a shock to Kaoru: "Why would she be writing now?" she wonders.
The letter has been posted from a town called Kozukata, so Kaoru makes up her mind to go there and see if her brother is visiting Izumi. As it happens, Kozukata is a small town in the middle of nowhere, and the phone service has no record of any subscribers named "Moriyama" anywhere in the vicinity. On the winding rural road that leads to Kozukata, Kaoru sees a poster warning of a missing person, a visiting Chinese girl named Sally Chen. Kaoru is disconcerted by the coincidence of another person gone missing in the area.
The the only way into Kozukata turns out to be through a long, dark tunnel through the side of a mountain. When Kaoru attempts to drive through, her car suddenly breaks down midway. Entering Kozukata on foot, Kaoru is startled by the sudden appearance of a surly truck driver, who is piling kakashi -- scarecrows -- into the back of his vehicle. The scarecrows are apparently part of a loacl festival that will be taking place in a few days. The driver grudgingly provides Kaoru with directions for finding the Miyamori house (directions which turn out to be none too accurate). As she attempts to find the place, she comes to an unexpected fork in the road. She tentatively chooses one path, and comes across a woman in a broad-brimmed sun hat fussing over a baby carriage. Kaoru stops to ask the woman for better directions, but the woman only looks up to scowl at her... Kaoru then sees to her dismay that the baby in the carriage is made out of straw.
Unnerved, Kaoru presses on. She comes across the site of the kakashi celebration, a field where the villagers are propping up life-size straw figures. In the center of the figures stands an enormous windmill. Nearby, Kaoru sees a little girl talking to a young woman at the side of the road. The young woman is telling the girl how to say the names of flowers in Chinese. Kaoru sees with a start that the woman is the missing Sally Chen. All at once, the truck driver pulls up. The little girl is evidently his daughter, and he drags her violently away from Sally, warning her to never, ever talk to outsiders. Driving off, he nearly runs Kaoru down. When Kaoru looks around, Sally has disappeared.
Eventually, Kaoru finds the Miyamori house. At first it seems as though there is no one at home, but eventually Kaoru finds Mrs. Miyamori in an outbuilding. Mrs. Miyamori is none too pleased to see her, and is still less pleased to find out who Kaoru is. Here we find out that Kaoru and Izumi had been roommates in school, but the connection does little to endear Kaoru to Izumi's mother. Mrs. Miyamori refuses to let Kaoru into her workroom, though Kaoru has a brief glimpse of what looks like a girl's body slumped on the floor. Brushing straw from her dress, Mrs. Miyamori strides back to the house, advising Kaoru to leave at once as she locks her out.
Izumi's father, Dr. Miyamori, arrives shortly afterwards. He, too, greets Kaori coldly, informing her that Kaoru is a patient at his nearby clinic, and that she is much too sick to permit a visit. When he hears that her car is broken down and that she has no place to stay, Miyamori starts to offer for her to stay at the house. His wife, listening outside the door, cuts him off at this point and calls him off for a few choice words. However, Miyamori returns with his wife, and they lead Kaoru off to her room.
In the night, Kaoru hears the Miyamoris arguing about her. Mrs. Miymoto is furious that Kaoru is in her house, since (she says) what happened to Izumi is all her fault. Miyamoto attempts to calm her down. Kaoru gets up and peers out her door as she listens to the fight; behind her, in the shadows, the figure of a girl can barely be made out, wtaching her as she listens. When Kaoru seems to get the feeling someone else is near, she turns... but the shaowy figure is gone.
Kaoru, unable to shake the feeling that someone else is in the house, starts looking around. As she peers up a staircase, the girl from the shadows passes the doorway. Kaoru follows her out to the workroom where she met Mrs. Miyamori. There she sees the girl, or what seems to be the girl, with her long dark hair and her red dress... but it's not a girl at all. It's another kakashi, propped up with its face to the wall. The girl sits on the stairs behind Kaoru, her hair hiding her face. "You were always in the way," she says, as Kaoru awakens from the dream and sits bolt upright in her bed.
The following morning, Dr. Miyamori drives Kaoru into the village center, where he gets someone to go rescue her car. While she waits, under the unfriendly scrutiny of the locals, Kaoru walks through the town hall... where she catches sight of Sally. Sally, whose Japanese is rudimentary, wants nothing to do with Kaoru, who chases her into an office. In the office sits a grey-haired old man, slumped at his desk with his back to the door. Sally seems to be very protective of the man, but before Kaoru can get any explanations, the village constable has interrupted and summoned Kaoru away.
The constable wants to know what Kaoru is doing in Kozukata. Kaoru pulls out a photograph of herself with Tsuyoshi, and asks the policeman if he's seen him. The constable asks if Tsuyoshi is her boyfriend, and seems relieved when she tells him he is her brother. On consideration, though, the constable remarks that they do look like a couple in the picture.
Unfortunately (for everyone), the village mechanic can't fix Kaoru's car in time; so Miyomori takes her back to his house. That night, Kaoru has another upsetting experience -- or possibly just a dream -- in which she once again goes out to the workshop. This time, she sees her missing brother working on the kakashi that resembles Izumi. Kaoru is at first unable to force the door open, but she eventually scrambles in... just as the straw figure, as though alive, spins and falls on top of her... and Kaoru awakens again.
This time, though, she has a handful of dried straw clutched in her fist.
The next morning, Kaoru's car is fixed, and Miyamori urges her to get out as quickly as possible. If she stays, he says enigmatically, she won't want to leave. before she goes, however, Kaoru decides to try to find Sally. Wandering up into the Financial section of the Town Hall, she finds the old man alone, still slumped in his chair, writing an endless succession of notes and figures in his ledger. But his writing is the same kind of scrawl that Kaoru found in Izumi's letter. Sally comes in at this point, ordering her in her awkward Japanese to leave her father alone; Kaoru shows her Izumi's letter, and points out the similar handwriting. And then Kaoru catches sight of the old man's hands: they are nothuman hands at all. Straw pokes out through his thin white gloves. As Kaoru steps away in terror, a figure steps in to grab her from behind: it is a living kakashi...
We are informed at the beginning of the film that kakashi were originally intended as guards to scare away evil spirits. Eventually these scarecrows came to be considered a means for calling divine spirits down to earth. But while these figures, like all hitogata (surrogate people), were considered benign, the gods they summoned weren't necessarily well-disposed toward those who called them.
Kozukata seems to be one of those places in Japan where the boundaries between the world of the living and the land of the dead have worn thin. People who have lost loved ones come to Kozukata, and around the time of the kakashi festival, they build effigies of their dead. The spirits of the departed would then inhabit the straw figures. There are those spirits who do not want to come back; these are drawn back by the the grief of those they left behind. Others want desperately to come back, out of too deep an attachment to this transient world. In any case, the desire to bring back the dead is a recipe for tragedy. Sometimes the transfer doesn't go very well, and the revenant ends up stuck in a half-finished straw body. And even if the loved one is restored in an outwardly human form, it's still a hollow shell. What's more, the implication is that these kakashi can't exist outside of Kozukata... which is why those who come may never leave.
On top of this unpleasant situation, there is the suggestion that this year's festival has gone very badly wrong. It shouldn't come as a surprise (or a spoiler) to anyone that Izumi is really dead. Her family has come back to this village to bring her back to life. It was apparently her gradually-returning kakashi which wrote the letter to Tsuyoshi. She had taken her own life in despair over her love for him; a love which had been thwarted by Kaoru's possessiveness. However, Izumi may be bringing something back with her from the Other Side. Since she died...
... she has become a magnet for malevolent spirits trying to force their way back into the world. Thus the strange thunderous noises that seem to be coming from the mountains; thus the strange sense of impending doom which hangs over the village, adding to an atmosphere which is already poisoned by Kozukata's dreadful secret.
This is the sort of story which Ramsey Campbell does so well: stories of obsession, and desires gone bad; of being an outsider in a hostile world, where the rules seem to have changed all at once; of being menaced by strange, half-formed creatures that are all the more horrible for being almost, but not quite, recognizeable; of old gods, waiting to re-enter this world through the fragile borders of our minds; most of all, of entering a state where dreams have become indistinguishable from reality. "Is this a dream? Or a fantasy?" is the question which Izumi (or something like her) asks all through the film (it's never made clear whether this dream village and its secrets are as strange to the ghostly Izumi as they are to "normal" Kaoru, or whether she is just a puppet of the malevolent spirits, simply repeating a phrase from her lifetime).
Unfortunately, Campbell did not write this story. Actually, it's based on a manga (Japanese graphic novel, or comic book if you prefer) by Junji Itô, one of the most popular and successful horror manga artists... but whatever the merits of its source, the adaptation is not a complete success. For my part, it is my acquaintance with Campbell's writing that makes Kakashi work as well as I think it does. The story's thematic concerns, and even some of its images, are relatively familiar to me, because they have been given a far superior voice through Campbell's fiction.
I am very willing to accept Kakashi's aim to disconcert me, rather than go for all-out horror. I'm also willing to accept its slow pace, since that's my preferred speed anyway. But there are problems with the film that make it very frustrating. I do admire the way in which Kaoru's true character is revealed to us very gradually: we realize that she's largely responsible for things being as bad as they are, and the realization forces us to question the sympathy we've felt for her all the way along. However, her character is not revealed enough. I am deeply disappointed that her unnaturally close relationship with her brother is not buit up further. When the two of them are finally reunited, there doesn't seem to be any real connection between them. We should have been given a better first-hand view of the obsession (bordering on incest) that the events of the film have implied. As it happens, the implications seem ridiculous when you see the lack of chemistry between Kaoru and Tsuyoshi. It's this disconnect that makes the film's conclusion so very unsatisfying.
It's also annoying that the emotions at the heart of the film are so shallow. I found myself thinking of the much better film Shikoku, partly because the mechanics of the film were similar (a woman goes to an isolated village where communication with the outside world is impossible; she re-ignites a passionate conflict with another girl [who happens to be dead] over a forbidden love; and said dead girl comes back with an urge to kill...), but mostly because the terrible, overwhelming passions that drove Shikoku were so much more intense and so believeable. Shikoku concerned the shattered lives of both children and adults, and approached each with sympathetic realism. When the living couple attempted to enter into an adult relationship, in their halting, uncertain way, the reawakening of the angry child-ghost destroyed them. As a study in the negative effects of desire at almost every level, Shikoku was far more than a "horror movie".
But Kakashi is much simpler. In Kakashi, the horrible events get started basically because Kaoru either forgot or refused to deliver Izumi's love letter to Tsuyoshi. We know this because Kaoru at one point stumbles across Izumi's diary. Izumi seems to go from being Kaoru's friend and roommate to being a psychopath in a matter of days, or at least a few journal entries. It's that quick: one day, she meets Tsuyoshi; the next, she's making swoony entries about how cute he is; then Kaoru's being a little reticent about him; then she hasn't delivered her letter... and then Izumi's gone off the deep end. "I hate Kaoru," is all that it written on one page. Then, shockingly, as though she knows the diary is being read, Izumi writes across a single page: "I hate you." Then: "I curse you." Followed by page after page after page after page of Kaoru's name in small print: kaorukaorukaorukaorukaorukaorukaorukaorukaoru... growing shakier and shakier until it loses all control (Now, was this the kakashi writing? And how is it that Izumi appears as an actual ghost, rather than an animated scarecrow? If she's a ghost, who wrote the letter to Tsuyoshi?).
So Izumi killed herself over a silly schoolgirl crush. This, too, would be acceptable, if the rest of the world around our characters wasn't also functioning on a high school level. The characters have no depth, and change their apparent motivation without any real logic. The director, Tsuruta Norio, also changes his tone in a very immature manner, just at the end of the scene where Kaoru finds the diary. That scene, in spite of its basic silliness, does have some power to it, but the mood is undone when Izumi's ghost walks in. The film is certainly about people being replaced by hollow replacements, but that's insufficient excuse for Tsuruta to insert a reference to Philip Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That's an extremely self-indulgent gesture, and it spoils the tone of an otherwise effective scene.
There are plenty of other moments in the film that leave the viewer feeling a little let down: for example, the bit about the car going dead in the tunnel comes as no surprise to us; also, relying on the old "it was only a dream" ploy may work once, especially in a film about dream logic slowly creeping into reality... but to use it twice in fairly short succession seems like a miscalculation. We're never entirely sure what the rules are for these returning spirits, why some are seen as ghosts, others become walking scarecrows, and still others become flesh and blood. The inconsitency with regard to the ghosts and scarecrows causes problems in other areas, too: a dead child comes back as a killer kakashi, even though she hasn't been dead long enough for anyone to make her effigy (actually, the face strongly resembles the Izumi doll, so perhaps she's just a vessel for the spirit which is returning to claim Izumi's kakashi). Then there's the sudden appearance of a certain dead character at the end, when we know that character again hasn't been dead long enough for anyone to build a scarecrow. Actually, it's possible this character may have been a scarecrow all along, since one of the kakashi Kaoru meets up with might charitably be said to resemble him... but it's still not explained how he comes back so quickly. I understand that the whole thing isn't really about kakashi at all: it's another parable about desire, and the agony that comes from trying to hold on to what wasn't ours in the first place. But there are still simple plot mechanics to be considered. If you choose these terms to tell your story, you have to stick with them.
Worst of all is the hackneyed ending, which might almost have succeeded if the characters had been fleshed out just a little bit more. If the main characters had been less like strawmen themselves, we would have been better able to tell them from the kakashi.
But enough bad things have been written about Kakashi. I don't want anyone to think the film isn't worth seeing. It's beautifully photographed, elegantly scored, tolerably well acted, and paced slowly and deliberately. Its story, while suffering from some lapses, is still very compelling if you allow yourself to be immersed in it; and once or twice, it actually manages to reach that level of unease it aspires to.