Akio Jissoji is somewhat of a cult figure. He started out as a director in the Ultraman franchise (both series and films) and ended his career directing obscure horror films. I've reviewed his segments in Rampo Jigoku and Yume Ju-ya, shorts that should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from Ubume no Natsu [Summer of Ubume], his final standalone feature film. He died not long after, joining a prestigious list of directors who kept going right until their final breath.
Even though Ubume no Natsu was made in 2006, it has little to no ties to the Asian horror wave that was all the rage back then. This is no 'less is more' horror flick trying to mimic the success of Nakata or Shimizu, instead the film harks back to the classic Japanese horror stories of Edogawa Rampo. Dark, twisted and supernatural, but with a strong psychological core. Ubume no Natsu is an adaptation of the first novel in the Kyougokudou series, a novel that is also enjoying its own manga adaptation right now.
The film is set in the early 50s, following a detective who is called in to investigate the events surrounding a mysterious hospital. Patients, mostly children, keep disappearing on the hospital's premises. When members of the staff are also ending up dead, the neighborhood's imagination starts running rampant. Of course the case isn't so easily solved and several other people are brought in to try and explain the mysterious events.
If you care about a great cast, this film has you covered. An insane amount of familiar faces are featured, from the lead roles down to the smaller, secondary parts. Shin'ichi Tsutsumi and Masatoshi Nagase are probably the most prestigious names, with actors like Hiroshi Abe, Susumu Terajima, Suzuki Matsuo, Rena Tanaka and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa also on board you just know you're in for a treat. It's great to see all of these actors brought together in one film and it's pretty clear they had a lot of fun shooting Ubume no Natsu.
The presentation is top notch too. Even though Jissoji was already quite old when he shot this, the cinematography is quirky and playful. There are some great angles, the editing is fun and even though he uses the same visual tricks a few times too often, the film looks great throughout. The soundtrack is a bit more classic in nature, but goes well with the film. The two combined create a mysterious, dark and intriguing atmosphere, the kind you expect from a tale that could've been written by Rampo.
Don't expect any gore, don't expend a typical Japanese suspense flick. Ubume no Natsu is a film that relies more on intrigue and mystery, with some perversion and psychological horror thrown in for good measure. The presentation is great, the cast is impressive and even though the film is quite long, it never drags or becomes boring. There are better films in the genre, but that's hardly a critique on this film.