The Meta Madness of ‘Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi!’

September 12th, 2023 | By Christian Valentin

Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi

By its very nature, found footage draws horror from verisimilitude. Such films’ authenticity evokes a vicarious fear of relatable normalcy corrupted, from the intimate terror of The McPherson Tape and The Blair Witch Project to the you-are-here chaos of REC and The Outwaters. And within the subgenre, no approach captures that distinct horror quite like the mockumentary or faux documentary. The notion of docu-real presentation allowing the unnatural to blindside us has been gleefully exploited as far back as Orson Welles’ iconic broadcast of War of the Worlds, and horror has been refining that approach ever since. The childhood-scarring Ghostwatch saw otherworldly terror haunt a BBC live show; modern indie projects such as Savageland, Howard’s Mill, and Horror In The High Desert have embraced the true crime documentary angle for further eeriness.

But if there is a modern master of the form, it could be none other than Japanese horror auteur Koji Shiraishi. Shiraishi has refined faux-doc unease for over twenty years. Noroi: The Curse is his best-known chiller, but you can see his signature style from earlier obscure works like Japan’s Map of Grudges to the more recent Occult or A Record of Sweet Murder. From investigations into the uncanny to mythology interwoven with modernity to multiple modes of handheld storytelling, there’s no mistaking a Koji Shiraishi film nor his influence on modern horror. Shiraishi’s impact is found in the modern Australian classic Lake Mungo and last year’s Taiwanese film Incantation. Yet the films that consist of his found footage magnum opus remain the hardest to find anywhere outside of Japan. The seven-part saga of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! is a sprawling encapsulation of his techniques and style over the decades, growing steadily in scope as only Shiraishi can achieve.

The genius of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! begins with its beguiling episodic structure, immersing us in the X-Files-esque adventures of amateur occult investigators. The formula is succinctly established: footage of a supernatural or cryptid occurrence is reviewed, interviews and research are conducted, experts are consulted, and the team confronts or is menaced by their quarry. The existence of the Slit-Mouthed Woman urban legend is the focus of the first entry, and Shiraishi commits to that sense of verisimilitude from the jump.

Director Kudo Hitoshi (Shigeo Osako), assistant Miho Ichikawa (Chika Kuboyama), and cameraman Masatsugu Tashiro (played by Shiraishi himself) banter with canny naturalism while the sleuthing and experiments – can a person actually run as the charging Woman captured on video? – never betray the indie show facade for cinematic scares. Blurry background frights and hidden-in-plain-view sightings offer familiar yet effective dread. Shiraishi also can’t help but end File 01 with one of his spine-tingling final-shot specialties, the first of many to pepper this series. 

File 02 and 03 follow that same formula via a haunted building and the search for lake-stalking kappa demons, but Shiraishi begins unraveling our familiarity to hint that there’s more to this series than grainy scares. These aren’t merely a collection of occult misadventures but a serialized story with overarching consequences and lore connecting investigations, as well as wider-scope otherworldly happenings affecting the Senritsu Kaiki File team. The first meta inklings emerge via the films’ actual DVD releases existing in-universe as director Kudo’s marketing attempt to achieve fame, revealing a genuinely compelling arc of a recklessly belligerent team leader and his overworked, underpaid crew just trying to survive his careless shenanigans.

Talisman and purification rituals are the first steps toward the series’ escalating supernatural mayhem. By Episode 4, a seemingly simple cursed school opens the door for Shiraishi to begin playing with temporal, dimensional, and ectoplasmic weirdness. Barring his J-horror crossover romp Sadako vs. Kayako, Shiraishi has always been a director who worked with or around low budgets, and the effects of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! will undoubtedly be divisive. If not acclimated to his style, the choppily animated CG spirits can feel jarring yet often evoke an alien unreality far beyond typical haunting imagery. In fact, the series’ trips into other dimensions bring to mind the kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria of Obayashi’s House, perhaps intentionally so, as Shiraishi only further embraces outrageous spectacle with each subsequent film of this series.

Another Senritsu twist on a classic Japanese folktale – this time, the scorned rotting-eyed Ghost of Yotsua – brings the dimensional rifts and spectral menace closer than ever to the investigation team. Finally,  the last two entries amplify Shiraishi’s series from paranormal-hunting missions to delirious city-wide supernatural doomsday. We are treated to World War 2-era occultism, spectral kaiju battles, accursed village wrath unleashed upon urban Japan, and a surprise crossover ties to another Shiraishi film, all packed into a concluding chapter bursting with ambition. 

The sheer scope on display, within these budgetary limits, in the bounds of found footage, transforms Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! into save-the-world apocalyptic action horror. While the earlier films usually oscillated between deliberately-paced sleuthing and frenetic escapes, File 07: The Final Chapter is all cross-dimensional pursuits and battles in the streets of Shinjuku, all heroic rituals versus cultic acolytes leading to a madcap psychedelic finale that – for good measure – manages to squeeze in a nod or two to Tetsuo: The Iron Man and its Body Hammer sequel. 

Even after a three-year, seven-film found footage epic, the director wasn’t done with his tale. In pure Shiraishi fashion, two more entries – Fear Adventure and Snake Woman – followed in 2015, exploring a new sandbox of warped folklore while still building upon the lore and consequences of the first saga. And eight years after Snake Woman, a new entry titled Senritsu Kaiki World Kowasugi! is slated to release in Japan this September, signaling no end in sight for what has become a decade-in-the-making horror opus. Noroi: The Curse may encapsulate Koji Shiraishi’s distinct filmmaking craft at its most unnerving and eldritch, but nothing else in his filmography lets this found footage titan play with subgenre form, indulge in weird and gonzo ideas, and refine his grainy lurking scares like Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi! does. 

Christian Valentin

Christian Valentin is a New York-based writer, with a love for all things horror, Italian food and the occasional hike, but an obsession with Hong Kong action cinema. He’s active on Letterboxd and can be found on Twitter at @GenreFilmAddict.

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