Summer was once the peak season for horror in Japan, part of the local custom of beating the heat with chills from scary stories.
But since the decline of J-horror a decade or so ago, local horror films have become harder to find in theaters, even in August.
Bucking this downward trend is “The Exorcist Nurse,” Masafumi Yamada’s medical shocker based on a story by Aruji Kuroki. The film features familiar J-horror elements, including its hospital setting, female-centered story and theme of vengeance from beyond the grave, but “exorcist nurse” is a job description that’s new to me. It is to the internet as well, though the movie’s website claims it derives from “ancient folk beliefs.”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||94 mins.|
“The Exorcist Nurse” also doesn’t deliver the Western take on an exorcist, who in Roman Catholic tradition is a priest. As co-scripted by Yamada and Masaki Tsujino, it is instead an ode — one of many in Japanese films — to self-sacrificing women, portraying its nurses as professionals who, whatever their personal failings, are ultimately dedicated to their patients, the possessed ones included. That alone makes it something of a standout.
The creepiness begins with a young female patient, Yukiko Norita (Kaori Saeki), complaining of odd rashes on her body that have no apparent physical cause. A middle-aged male patient then tries to hang himself on the hospital rooftop for no apparent reason. Fortunately, a young nurse named Rie Asama (Nanami Yamada) discovers him in time, but his prognosis for a full recovery is bleak.
This reminds Asama of a similar tragedy in her own family — and her present-day dealings with a restless ghost — but the strict head nurse (Masumi Hirose) scolds her for hesitating to leap to the patient’s rescue. This veteran also senses a paranormal force at work beyond the hospital’s ability to cope, and turns to an unusual source for help.
Soon after, Asama notices a strange woman dressed in black standing eerily outside the nurses’ dormitory. Ignoring Asama’s greeting, she slips into the adjacent apartment. This is our introduction to Misaki Matsutomo (Haruka Momokawa), a nurse who can exorcise the malign influences, both physical and mental, of unquiet ghosts. But her efforts leave marks on her own body and spirit.
A mysterious type, Matsutomo soon gets to work, but her supernatural opponent, whose true nature is only gradually revealed, is unrelenting. She initially repels Asama’s friendly advances, though as she weakens from her struggles, she begins to open up to her co-worker and next-door neighbor.
Meanwhile, as Yukiko’s marriage to a chubby philanderer falls apart, her illness worsens. To save her and other patients like her a showdown is necessary — and the nurse exorcist may not be up to it.
Yamada, a member of AKB48 sister group Team 8, acquits herself well enough in her first screen role but she’s no Atsuko Maeda, an AKB48 star who quickly established herself as a bona fide actress after graduating from the idol-pop group. Though game (as idols have to be to survive in the business), she is also stiff — and not just from fright.
More effective is Momokawa as Matsutomo, with her dark aura and spooky gift — or curse. Better her at the bedside than the one presence even an exorcist nurse can’t defeat: the angel of death.