Kuchisake-Onna or Slit-Mouthed Woman aka Carved is a 2007 film by Koji Shiraishi based on an old Japanese legend. The legend tells of a beautiful maiden who after arousing suspicions in her samurai husband that she was being unfaithful, was disfigured by having her mouth slit from ear to ear by her raging spouse who swore she would never be beautiful again. From this tale an urban myth has been continued by the Japanese people about a woman wearing a surgical mask and carrying a blade of some sort, who wanders the foggy streets asking passer-bys if they think she is pretty. If they say yes, she lets them go on their merry way. If they say no, she will slit their mouth into a similar style as her own.
The film plays pretty much to the same tune as the legend in that a woman with a slit-mouth wearing a mask goes around asking others “watashi kirei” or “am I pretty?”, except it also incorporates a real life panic that stuck Japan in the late seventies when sightings of a woman hunting children were accounted for and spread like wildfire.
Kuchisake-Onna begins in the spirit of its J-horror predecessors in that it introduces us to the urban legend the film is based on through rumours. The first ten minutes of the film jumps from a set of schoolgirls gossiping about the ghost to a trio of boys walking home from school to a father and his daughters, recounting of how the woman’s origins were in their very town. Suddenly an earthquake hits this small town startling the townsfolk as we cut from one group of people to another with the words “am I pretty?” echoing throughout, and then finally to the slit-mouthed woman who seems to have awakened from her tomb in the forest. I think that one of the best things the Japanese have going for them in the horror/suspense department is their ability to create a depth and mystery to a character through back-story. By relating to the viewer that there is something frightening on the horizon, it entices you into their world and creates a feeling of an evil that is ancient and haunting. It is like sitting around a campfire in the dead of night whilst someone attempts to put the heebie-jeebies in you by telling you there is a serial killer that is known to roam the very forest you are camped in.
The fear definitely seems to come from the fact that, like a disease, it is transmitted through the rumours the people spread amongst themselves building mass hysteria and pushing it to such a point that it would seem the earthquake they experienced was just as much an eruption of their collective unconcious as it is of the slit-mouthed woman’s awakening. The Yurei’s get their power from a tradition of storytelling that has become irresistible to the people and it is easy to see why, as a ghost story is a great way of making a town seem more exciting than it is.
Though it is a populated town, for the most part the streets are bereft of people, the roads are without traffic and the houses are quiet creating the sensation that this is an actual ghost town. It seems that the residents expect the slit mouthed woman to appear at a certain time, and so like a curfew has been enforced, the children are told to walk home in groups and nobody leaves their house after five. The time is certainly nigh for her appearance as she comes wielding a pair of extra long shears to abduct her first child.
The appearance of the slit-mouthed woman lends to her the profile of a serial killer more than a ghost, as she wears a long buttoned up grey trench-coat and wields a pair of shears like they were a butcher’s knife. That she stalks and stabs rather than haunts also suggests that Shiraishi is trying to blend two types of horror (ghost and slasher) into one which I think he does very well. One film Kuchisake-Onna did remind me of quite a lot was Wes Craven’s Scream. Both films use a small town made eerie where rumours are spread amongst school kids that some killer is stalking and killing their peers and both films create scenarios that are shaped and affected by events that happened in the past of that town concerning the death of a woman. Oddly enough it is Scream in which a real serial killer adopts the visage of a ghost and Kuchisake-Onna which has a real ghost possessing the form of a serial killer.
The main theme running through this story is that of abusive mother-daughter relationships. Parallels are created between Mayumi Sasaki a parent of one of the pupils, Kyoko Yamashita the schoolteacher and the Kuchisake-onna ghost all of whom were abusive or neglectful of their daughters. Many J-horror films deal with child abuse, suggesting it is a sort of epidemic in Japan (hence the coughing and surgical masks in the film?). The often vengeful female ghosts who are trapped in this world usually are so because of some spousal or filial abuse that occurred in their previous life. It is the schoolteacher Yamashita who the film follows and her remorse at the failure of her family plays a motivating part in her involvement in searching for the missing children.
The score is dark and sombre as you’d expect. For the first ¾ or so of the film a spooky, minimal piano phrase is repeated at moments of tension as well as what I can only describe as what sounds like two hollowed out bells ringing inside a morgue. For the last part of the film the score becomes much darker as it still uses bells and such but now much more metallic and sepulchral in tone with trembling symbols. This section of the film reminded me of scenes from the Silent Hill game; dark, dank basements, creeping movements and ghouls trying to kill you with sharp objects. The sound FX are just right and enhance the violence which isn’t to bad (except for a couple of scenes), conveying the disgusting, slushy, squelching sounds of a blade penetrating flesh.
The film doesn’t have any shocking plot twists and doesn’t constantly keep you in suspense but it is a really good rendition of an old legend and deserves extra points for combing the ghost and slasher genres so well. The slit-mouthed woman herself possesses all the disturbing factors needed from makeup to clothing to movement that make a frightening monster in a horror film and her method of attack is one that will make you think twice about how sweet you think Edward Scissorhands really is. The locations are great and utilise space effectively to create feelings of being trapped in desolation (the town seems quite large yet everything seems closely connected) and the spearing use of hand held cameras that sort of dive into the action during confrontations give a realism to the film akin to something you might see on Most Haunted or in a snuff film.
If you do want to see this and you get a copy off the Internet, be warned that the subtitles that come with it are not all that accurate so you’d be better off buying it from Amazon (it’s only £6 odd and worth it).