Kakurenbo [カクレンボ] (2004)
AKA Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek

Starring Junko Takeuchi, Makoto Ueki, Masami Suzuki, Ryo Naito, Mika Ishibashi, Akiko Kobayashi

Directed by Syuhei Morita

I think someone tried to follow the hype over Voices of a Distant Star and throw out another short indie anime. Kakurenbo however doesn’t quite meet that level of quality. It’s a half-hour horror film that draws a parallel between the children’s game of hide and seek and the basic horror concept of victims being chased around by monsters. This is furthered by the Japanese language. In English, the player that searches for the other kids is simply called “it.” Stephen King associations aside, it doesn’t really sound very scary. But the Japanese word for that player is “oni,” which translates to “demon” in English. Suddenly the idea of bloodthirsty demons chasing children around becomes a lot more apparent, and that’s pretty much the plot of this film.

There’s not much to distinguish the plot from any number of other horror films. There’s a bunch of kids that go off to the neighboring town to play hide and seek, only to find that they really are being chased around by demons, and the poor fools get picked off one by one. The main character is looking for his sister who vanished when playing the game before, and his buddy tags along to help out. The plot is fairly predictable, and if I delved any more into it, it would probably spoil everything, assuming I haven’t already. However, I did find the explanation for the ending to be interesting, even if the ending itself was obvious.

What really killed it for me though was the complete lack of gore. A giant monster dives at its victim, and then the scene cuts away to the next kid trying to run away. The lack of bloodshed makes sense for the film’s ending, but still, a few good bloody dismemberments would have made me a lot happier. The movie is basically “baby’s first horror flick.” It might give your ten-year-old nightmares, but any veteran to the genre isn’t going to be impressed.

Without much of interest going on, the film has to rely entirely on the strength of its monster designs, which are thankfully unique and intriguing. Even better, they get a lot of screen time so you can savor them. They are based off of traditional Japanese demons, which for Western audiences are probably unusual on their own, but they are also given a mechanical appearance, clacking around like evil marionettes. That was an excellent design choice considering the animation is entirely CG which is much better at portraying mechanical objects than flexible skin and muscle.

Of course, I have to go on a tirade about how much CG ruins animation and makes it look like crap. I am contractually obligated to despise computer effects. They definitely make the film look more like a video game than a movie, and that did leave a bad taste in my mouth. But I just don’t have the heart to swat it with a rolled up newspaper today. I mean, what else is a low-budget anime going to do? I can’t blame someone for using the only tools available to them, and they still did a better job of it than the stinkfest that was Legend of the Millennium Dragon.

It blows my mind that a small-scale production can do things better than a feature film. Just what are they spending all that money on? At least Kakurenbo gives it a good effort and avoids the biggest pitfalls of CG animation. The characters in the film even wear masks as one of the game’s rules, which sidesteps the always clumsy CG facial expressions. If you wanted to be cruel you could call it a lazy design choice, but at least it’s a kind of lazy that doesn’t look like crap. Honestly, the masks give it an extra layer of creepiness and mystery that improves the film’s tone.

As an indie film it holds up pretty well, and I would be happy to see a new era of indie anime getting a shot overseas. Kakurenbo would make a good show for someone who wants to give their kid a horror movie that is truly in the horror genre rather than some silly Scooby Doo episode that only goes halfway. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have the oomph necessary to make it something great.