Creepy ghosts in everyday settings are a J-horror staple. But what if the same dwelling is populated by two pairs of seemingly living humans, neither of whom is aware of the other? How is that is even possible, unless one pair is actually, if unknowingly, dead, a la Bruce Willis in “The Sixth Sense”?
That is the conundrum posed by Yui Kiyohara’s “Our House,” winner of the Grand Prix at last year’s Pia Film Festival. A recent master’s graduate of Tokyo University of the Arts, where she studied under horror-meister Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kiyohara does not go as far as her celebrated sensei with the otherworldly weirdness. In fact, the film has little to suggest horror beyond its unusual setup and its unsettling atmospherics (a Kurosawa specialty).
To a commercially-minded producer, this ambivalent stance might suggest timidity: Having shaken her audience out of its grass-is-green complacency, Kiyohara is reluctant (or unable) to deliver the scares of a good genre exercise.
But her interests lie elsewhere, in depicting the ways loneliness and alienation can distort the field we call reality until the afflicted start to feel the presence of unseen others and experience what rationally shouldn’t exist. She does this with a quiet assurance, supported by subtly spooky lighting and crisply composed visuals in traditional Japanese spaces, as though she’s been channeling Yasujiro Ozu as well as Kurosawa.
The first pair we meet are a single mom, Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno), and her 13-year-old daughter, Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi), a sensitive, secretive girl who longs for her departed dad while half-resenting Mom’s boyfriend, a friendly sanitation worker. So far, a normal-enough coming-of-age drama.
The next pair, however, is anything but average. A woman of indefinite age awakens on a ferry to find her memory inexplicably wiped clean. She knows her name, Sana (Mariwo Osawa), but not why she came or where she’s going. Luckily another passenger, a young woman called Toko (Mei Fujiwara), comes to Sana’s aid, even putting her up in her apartment — a duplicate of Seri and Kiriko’s, down to the pull-down metal grille above its front door.
The strangeness deepens. Seri tells Mom she saw a ghost. Sana finds a wrapped box — a present for someone — in her things, but is reluctant to open it. Seri pokes a finger through the fusuma (sliding door) and Toko and Sana discover the hole. Toko meets a shifty-looking guy in a darkish hallway and, after a cryptic conversation, gives him a manila envelope. What in the world is going on?
Rather than the plotted (or potted) answers of popular cinema, “Our House” gives us mysteries that threaten to devolve into mere mystification. Also, the dialogue occasionally veers from the naturalistic to the poetically inflated, as when a sketchy guy tries to pick up Sana at a coffee shop and starts discoursing on cosmology. It’s a bit as though Harvey Weinstein were to suddenly morph into Neil deGrasse Tyson. And finally, I couldn’t help wondering why the amnesiac Sana didn’t pull out her smartphone and scroll through her Line messages: end of identity crisis.
But Kiyohara has a conviction in her alternative reality — and a talent for evoking it — that smooths over these quibbles. “Our House” is also your house, if you can dream it.