November 19, 2007

THE GREAT HORROR FAMILY (2004) Takashi Shimizu's TV sitcom

(Japan, 2004)

Ghostly comedy series, inspired by The Grudge

Region 1 US NTSC DVD series boxset - 13 x 25 minute episodes (Bandai Entertainment)

The cartoon cover art for this DVD set is very misleading, because this is actually a live-action series, a comedy horror show from the creator of The Grudge movies, Takashi Shimizu. He thought up the series and directed the three closing episodes.

This is also one of the few Japanese live-action tv series, (besides the tokusatsu Ultraman and Power Rangers) to be released on DVD in the west. It’s a typical example of Japanese TV shows – low budget, and shot on video. It’s also a curious choice, compared to many other more impressive TV shows.

Besides wanting to be known for something other than chillers, Shimizu started getting ideas about what could be funny about haunted houses, while he was making his horror films. This is most obvious in the early episodes, which contain many references to The Grudge, particularly the long black-haired ghost and her creaking joints. Toshio, the little ghost boy makes a fleeting appearance too.

Kiyoshi and his living dead girlfriend

But the story is of a family moving into an extremely haunted house. Grandpa can sense the spirits immediately, but unfortunately joins them when he too passes away. He awakens the power of psychic awareness in his grandson Kiyoshi, whose job it becomes to protect the family from the many spirits living and arriving at the house. One running joke is that the traditionally wise head of the family, grandpa, is forgetful and keeps losing his train of thought.

Kiyoshi’s dad wants to believe in spirits and UFOs but has no psychic ability at all. His mother, grandmother and sister are all slightly psychic but are so preoccupied that they keep missing the various hauntings. The dog is just there to look cute.

The comedy is broad, the horror is fairly limited, but there are plenty of ghosts and (cheap) yokai monsters. Obviously I missed out on many of the in-jokes, but I enjoyed Kiyoshi’s bumbling character and his kitchen-obsessed mother.

Issei Takahashi as the hapless Kiyoshi

The special fx are pretty basic, occasionally impressive, but usually plain silly.

I was more impressed with the less comedic episodes. The scenario had dramatic possibilities that I thought worked better than the comedic ones. Episodes 5, 6 and 7 had some grim touches as well as touching moments, of the living interacting with the dead. Grandad meets the ghost of a lost love, a gothic schoolgirl is desperate for friendship, and the best story, a zombie bar where the living can have fun with the dead, was an original and nightmarish concept.

The final episodes of the series bring the storyline to a climax, with an over-ambitious time-travel ending where the regular cast members play impressive dual roles.

The series is more interesting than enthralling, and sometimes even funny. But I wished that it had been lighter on the broad comedy.

The generous DVD extras are overlong, but the interviews with Shimizu, and the other three directors, remind us that we don’t often get to hear from him, despite his huge recent horror output. If his English was better, we’d be sick of him pushing his movies on talk shows.

The programme was made 4:3, and is subtitled in English. The boxset contains all 13 episodes from the series.

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