The director Sabu, who goes by one name, first caught the attention of critics abroad for his stylish action films, starting with the 1996 “Dangan Runner,” which specialized in desperate heroes and headlong foot chases. He’d go on to broaden his thematic horizons but, at some point, his actors would somehow find a reason to run.

That is also the case with “Dancing Mary,” a spooky fantasy based on an original script by Sabu, which premiered at the 2019 Sitges Film Festival in Spain. It is only now appearing in Japanese theaters due to pandemic-related delays. The film features pop star Naoto Kataoka (who also goes by one name) of Exile in his first leading role. He plays Kenji Fujimoto, a lowly City Hall employee who is drafted to supervise the demolition of an old dance hall.

He’s under pressure to get the job done quickly since a shopping mall is scheduled to be built on the site, but faces a problem that has baffled his superiors: The hall is haunted by the ghost of Mary (Nozomi Bando), a former dancer whose powers defeat a succession of would-be exorcists.

Dancing Mary (Dancing Mary)
Run Time 105 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 5

This hints at comedy of the supernatural sort, and in the opening scenes, Kenji’s colleagues are comically cowardly types who hire local yakuza to help them tear down the venue — and cringe when the gangsters brusquely ramp up their demands. But the story turns serious once Kenji encounters Yukiko (Aina Yamada), a teenager with the ability to see dead people, collapsed on the floor of her apartment.

After Yukiko recovers in the hospital, she and Kenji meet Mary, who is waiting for the return of her long-lost lover, a rocker named Johnny (Kaito Yoshimura). Discovering that Kenji can see ghosts when he holds Yukiko’s hand, the pair question dozens of spirits until they finally find a departed gangster, known only as “aniki” (“older brother,” played by Ryo Ishibashi), who says Johnny is in Taiwan — and flies there with them, having scores of his own to settle.

Although she is the source of so much psychic and personal turbulence, the character of Mary is only sketched out, while her affair with Johnny goes straight from the locking of eyes in a crowded dance hall to their pledging of eternal love, quickly followed by Johnny’s demise. And the attraction between the pair feels odd, with Mary being a doe-eyed, pure-hearted chorus girl and Johnny, a swaggering punk who seems to be from a different musical era. Yes, opposites attract, but this particular clash of cultures is unconvincing.

The film’s mix of genre elements also never really gel, with the scary scenes not being all that scary and the comic parts not being all that funny. Aniki is framed as a stoic pillar of old-school yakuza virtue, but then we see him on a plane, sword hilts sticking out of his back, looking as though he’s about to reach for the sick bag. The joke, if that’s what it is, falls flat. Also, his big one-against-all fight scene with rival dead gangsters is staged atmospherically, with flickering shadows and flashing swords. But without any real build-up, the fight has the emotional weight of a YouTube clip. … And why are Japanese ghosts shedding blood and falling dead — again — in Taiwan?

Finally, this genre pastiche strains for significance with pseudo-philosophizing (“There’s no such thing as a purposeless life,” etc.), and in the end “Dancing Mary” is a frantic race to nowhere.

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