There is something incredibly endearing about anthology films, especially those among the horror genre. In fact, I would wager to say that this format of filmmaking works best with horror, seeing as how there are so many different sub genres to include and a diverse audience to satisfy. You can’t please everyone, as the saying goes, but the possibility of doing so is much higher when you have a number of shorts to choose from. Compare this to an ice cream shop that makes their own original flavors; you might settle for one flavor or you can get a sample of each one to satiate your curiosity.
Insert Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch, a 2018 Japanese anthology horror film directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, where the ice cream flavors come in the form of nine modern day yokai and the shop is owned by a beguiling witch. Nine yokai may seem like a lot to handle, but Yamaguchi is no stranger to the world of J-horror. He is perhaps most known outside of Japan for helming 2005’s Meatball Machine, a sci-fi splatter fest that was made in collaboration with special effects artist Yoshihiro Nishimura, but he has also tackled two Kazuo Umezu adaptations and co-wrote the zombie action film Versus with Ryuhei Kitamura. Needless to say, Yamaguchi is more than a competent filmmaker.
The interlocking plot that ties everything together (sort of) revolves around Izumi, a hard working young woman who is assisting with the care of her seemingly senile grandfather. He has begun to exhibit increasingly strange behavior, but not to the surprise of Izumi’s mother. Apparently shaking his charm-covered cane at invisible beings is not abnormal behavior anymore, and she continues to ensure him that whatever he thinks he sees is not real. Well, we the audience know better than that, don’t we?
Additionally, Izumi receives a call from a childhood friend named Mika, who wishes to reconnect after ten years of being apart. Their eventual reunion plays out innocently enough at first, but as they make their way inside a hotel restaurant that seems to have materialized out of nowhere for lunch, they are suddenly reminded of an event from their past that ultimately correlates with the macabre events taking places all over town (i.e. attacks from the nine aforementioned yokai) and a long forgotten promise may be the key to ending it all.
A large chunk of the film’s runtime is actually dedicated to introducing the yokai through a series of chapters, most of which having no direct connection to Izumi’s story. Although it is not blatantly stated, it is implied that each creature is actually the titular ‘witch’ in disguise, or at least one of her minions sent out to claim the lives of the people who failed to keep their promise to her. However, because none of these side characters are given a proper back story, it is unclear whether they did in fact have a previous run in with the witch and are in her debt, or were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
My main gripe with the film is that the yokai themselves do not get a proper backstory either. Most of the yokai are gone from the screen almost as quickly as they’re introduced, which is a shame considering how absolutely fantastic their designs are. Even if they are indeed the witch in disguise, I would have loved to learn a bit more about their origins. Some of my favorites include a glowing one legged female karakasa-obake, a feline creature pushing around an old stroller, and a kaiju who has ghost hands as teeth and ghost heads as eyes. Sometimes less is more, and mystery has certainly worked in the favor of other Japanese tales, but at the very least these ghouls deserved longer screen time.
With that said, I believe that the immaculate design of each monster overcompensates for the lack of a proper payoff at the end of each short. Elaborating on nine stories would have been quite difficult to do with a runtime of an hour and a half anyway, and I can imagine how daunting it would be for the creative team to even consider excluding any of them. The format might have worked better as a nine episode mini series, something along the lines of Tales of Terror from Tokyo, but the funding was either not available for that (this was after all a low budget production) or Yamaguchi was dead set on sticking to a feature film.
I imagine that most fans of Japanese horror will find much enjoyment in Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch. Even with its paper thin plot and wonky chapter structure, it succeeds in delivering an exceedingly entertaining haunted funhouse ride with an array of lovable villains to devour with your eyes, even if the feast is rather brief. Some of the segments work better than the others, especially the longer ones, but that’s all entirely subjective and honestly part of the fun! Just remember, don’t go around making promises you can’t keep, especially when there’s a witch involved.
Although the film premiered at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival, it still has yet to receive a proper physical release outside of Japan.