During the late 70’s in Japan a peculiar thing happened. All across the Nagasaki Prefecture people started reporting sightings of a woman, a ghostly spirit, chasing after children. Entire towns were driven into a panic, causing some schools to insist students walk home in groups. The gneiss of this temporary cultural panic saw the reemergence of 口裂け女- Kuchisake-onna, the ancient mythological tale of the split mouthed woman. As legend states, she was once a beautiful samurai’s wife during the Edo period who committed infidelity. In her husbands revenge he took away what he perceived to be her most precious attribute, her beauty. In her sadness she committed suicide and ever since has roamed the land as a vengeful spirit asking her victims to judge her beauty before murdering or mutilating them depending on their answer.
With her mouth sliced open by the sword of her lovers samurai blade, Kuchisake-onna walks cursed with ghastly wounds that she hides from the world with a scarf. A parable that very bluntly materializes societies treatment of women if there ever was one. Was she a bitter vengeful spirit, as the legend states, because her beauty was taken from her? Or was it in that act of violence it was cemented in her that her beauty was her only perceived value? And it is here where director Takeshi Sone latest film does something truly spectacular, taking an ancient tale and using it as a mirror to critique and compare modern cultures.
On the face of it, unfortunately, GHOST MASK: SCAR may not come across as spectacular to a lot of horror fans going in for the guts and gory. They may walk out more confused than enthralled. This film plays out more as a melodrama with faint hints of darker tones dripped here and there. It is not giving anything away to say that we only see the films gory side at its climax. Further the gore is stylistically very much horror, and not the more conservative, grounded type you would find in a traditional drama. At the core of GHOST MASK: SCAR is not the typical horror dynamic, but horror it certainly is. The story follows a worried Japanese woman who moves to Korea on a journey to find a lost sister, and in the end discovers far more than she ever dared imagine. Playing backdrop to a story about two sisters is a story about two countries conflicting views on beauty and what are legitimate lengths to go to achieve that beauty. As a Japanese director, it is not surprising how Sone answers this, but his use of Japanese mythology to do it certainly is.
The story is populated by all female characters, who seem to all be reacting to unseen male figures. Husbands, lovers, fathers, boyfriends- their mostly negative impact is impossible not to see, even if their physical appearance in the film is only in passing if at all. Its startling and worth noting as it seems to drive home the focus of this story- the complicated relationships between women and the societies they are forced to navigate through.
Ultimately this film is extremely well made storytelling, and maybe the best kind of horror. GHOST MASK: SCAR cuts more than skin deep by using horror as a medium to ask questions of a culture that are perceived as unquestionable. The true moments of dread are created off the carefully built contrast in perspective and response to various life experiences. Its true horror moments are not found at the tip of a razor blade, but in the slow dawning realization of how a society can turn a human into a monster. In a way this film is the modern origin story for the slit faced women herself. Kuchisake-onna is not a tale of a monster, but a tale of a woman made monstrous by an act of a monstrous society.