Some ghost stories are based on an relentless revenge from beyond the grave. Some are symbolic psychological character studies. Then others are meant to be a cautionary tale and a warning about mistakes done in life, and the idea that you may escape the past, but the past will not escape you. This kind of film is a well-beaten path for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and he's proven he knows how to make a thought-provoking horror film that doesn't just follow the traditional tropes.
In the opening, we see a man forcefully drowning a woman dressed in red, face down in a shallow puddle in the midst of an empty lot. Police detective Yoshioka (played by Kiyoshi Kurosawa director pet Kôji Yakusho) and his girlfriend Harue wake up to a quick earthquake. Yoshioka is sent to a crime scene in an empty lot with a woman in red drowned face first in a puddle of salt water, also in an empty lot. when Yoshioka finds a button from a coat that may or may not personally belong to him at the crime scene, he begins to suspect himself. Even still, he turns the button in as evidence, and later the forensic team finds his fingerprints all over the woman's body.
The next scene has teenager begging his father doctor Sakuma, for syringes, so he can get some money. The dad takes his son to a deserted industrial area, drugs him, and drowns the boy face first in a bucket of water. When the forensics team find evidence of the first victim having been bound in yellow cord, Yoshioka returns to the original crime scene. There he runs into Dr. Sakuma standing by smoking. Yoshioka chases him down and accuses Sakuma of somehow framing him. Yoshioka's partner, however, becomes increasingly aware that there are too many ties binding him to the murder of the unknown woman. Yoshioka interrogates Sakuma, but finds the doctor has become mentally unstable, as he clearly has outbursts of seeing the ghost of his son and running from him.Yoshioka begins to realize he is the prime suspect in the unidentified woman's murder. It's after this, that he has an encounter with the ghost of the woman in red, interestingly enough during another short earthquake. The woman has a nightmarish scream and coerces Yoshioka to continue looking for her killer.
The next scene brings us to yet another person, where an executive confides in his office mistress that he has divorced his wife and plans to marry her. She soon withdraws herself and goes to the river to draw buckets of water. Later at home, she fills the bathtub full of the salt water, and bludgeons her boyfriend, of course, drowning him in the water. The police find him and for Yoshioka, the murder becomes something of a burden to both he and his partner who practically accuses him straight out as being the suspect. That is until, they find that the parents of the unknown woman has identified her. They head out to meet the mother of the woman, where they discover she has been dealing with an bully of an old boyfriend of their daughter's. When they chase him down, they eventually get a confession out of him, and the murder of the woman in red is solved. The problem is, detective Yoshioka's truth has just begun, as he links all the suspects, including himself to a certain abandoned insane asylum on the route of a ferry. The ghost also has not left, as they have unfinished business.
"Sakebi" is a twisty horror film to say the least. Kurosawa's style is effective throughout with his insightful use of visual and audible motifs in the film's overall theme. Let me just say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is probably one of my favorite Japanese directors. His style feels somewhat reminiscent of what I fell in love with in John Carpenter. Though I haven't seen all of his films, this one is one of his best. This film feels like what Carpenter may have made had he were trying to do a Hitchcockian noir. However, this ghost story has its roots in Japanese horror cinema as well. For anyone interested in its predecessors seek out "Kwaidan" (1964) which features a similar segment called "The Black Hair" and "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1953) which I already reviewed on this site. Apparently, this film is supposed to be considered the fourth part in the J horror theater series, but it is not official. If it is, I consider it the best entry of the series yet. Regardless, this film is highly evocative thriller, and shouldn't even be lumped into the category of J-horror. Do yourself a favor and check it out.