seanceAccording to Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the difference between American and Japanese horror films is this: In American films, the ghost-monster wants to hurt you (he uses Alien as an example). In Japanese films, it just wants to scare you. That’s hard to reconcile with some of the post-Grudge output, where ghosts are killers, but it highlights the strangeness of Kurosawa’s horror films. His monsters (the hypnotist in Cure, the tree in Charisma) are empowered by the people around them.

In Séance, these people are almost painfully ordinary, even the psychic Junko (Jun Fubuki), whose powers are as intermittent and frustrating to her as they are to a psychic researcher. Her spouse, Sato (Koji Yakusho), is a sound editor who accepts his wife’s gifts without question, and with little interest. In as far as they like to maintain their personal space, they are a loving couple that enjoys each other’s company.

Then opportunity comes, buoyed by coincidence and brought down by tragedy. Junko is asked to help find a missing girl, but she has nothing to go on. Her powers give her nothing. In a twist of fate that may be too much for some viewers, the girl escapes her kidnapper by stowing away in one of Sato’s equipment lockers. Unawares, he brings the girl home. However, when she’s found, Junko does not call the police right away. Instead, she uses possession of the girl to demonstrate her psychic powers. She wants to fake her abilities, since they’re real anyway.

Yet Junko and Sato are not criminals. Mistakes are made and the girl dies. Whether she has an accident or Sato kills her accidentally while trying to keep her quiet is uncertain. Still, there’s no question they are responsible. They must live with the knowledge of what they have done. The girl’s restless spirit is a constant reminder of their crime.

The ghost in Séance is not some vengeful revenant. She’s a symbol, demonstrating the guilt this couple feels. She’s something that no amount of forgetting, exorcism or penance can do away with. She’s in their home, but she poses no threat. The ghost is just a presence. No visions are surprising, and no monsters jump out. Instead, we see an arm draped over Junko’s shoulder — or the girl, now buried and covered in mud, standing in the middle of a field and staring at the couple. It cannot hurt them, but it will not leave them alone.

Séance is based on a novel by Michael McShane (Séance On A Wet Afternoon), and was a British film in the Sixties. That film was a basic thriller with some strange stuff near the end that hinted at supernaturalism, but was better explained by psychosis. Séance accepts ghosts and other mysteries as fact, but only as manifestations of the haunted person’s psyche. When Junko is waiting tables, one of her customers is a rude man who sits next to a woman in a red dress with a blurred face. Getting up to leave, the ghost follows him, one step behind. It will never leave, and that’s the horror of Séance: That the past will never leave, and the things we’ve done, we can never forget.

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