The power has just gone out and scratching noises can be heard coming from just beyond the closed door to the bedroom. Only the glow of the computer screen lights the room as Daisuke reaches toward the door to open it. “Don’t do it!” I shout at the screen. Daisuke turns toward the camera and asks me what else I think he should do. I have no response; he has to find out where she went. He slides the door open and steps into the darkness. Introducing Japanese Ghost Paintings
Introducing Japanese Ghost Paintings with Occult Nerds is the first online horror experience in English offered by the Japanese company Obaken. Obaken is an escape room company with multiple locations in Japan that only recently started offering remote experiences in Japanese and English. Starting off as a simple seminar on Introducing Japanese Ghost Paintings, this Zoom experience quickly devolves into a horror movie in which guests are more than just observers. Do not expect an escape room as there are no puzzles to solve, instead, participants act as advisors and the only connection to the outside world for Daisuke as he attempts to survive.
Obaken succeeds at getting under your skin using by using quintessential Japanese horror techniques like relying on darkness, peripheral movement that you aren’t sure if you actually saw, and long periods of tension to set a tone that leaves you anxiously awaiting the next scare. It captures the aesthetic of Japanese horror films through beautifully authentic and scary sets that feel straight out of Ju-On (The Grudge).
The show begins with a power point presentation on the backstory of Introducing Japanese Ghost Paintings. With a short history lesson and some examples, the show gives context to the events that follow, and educates audiences to ghost paintings and how they function in Japanese mythology. Further, this gives audiences a chance to truly connect with Daisuke, make jokes with him, ask questions, and build rapport – something quintessential to any immersive experience. While this portion may be a bit slow, it is essential for what follows.
And what follows is a ghost story that finds inspiration from Ju-On and Ringu, as the experience turns darker, and far scarier than the power point presentation itself. We won’t spoil much of this portion, but it plays out more as an immersive horror experience punctuated by cinematic moments. These further make the experience feel like a movie, but offer moments in which the audience can interact with and invest emotionally – adding to the scares.
One of the best parts of the experience is the authentic aesthetic of the location. The experience takes place in a large, empty residential house in a quiet suburb of Tokyo. Paper sliding-doors and minimalist furniture allow very few safe hiding spaces. The location is barren, almost haunting already, with just enough mess and chaos to make audiences feel off-balance. The lighting is minimal, with just a flashlight and the glow of a computer screen to set the stage. This only serves to hide monsters in the shadows and trick the mind into seeing things that aren’t there – or are they? Further, the Japanese aesthetic makes this feel like another world, something transportive, that American audiences rarely get to experience.
The Obaken team does a great job of integrating pre-recorded video with live action. I rarely noticed the switch between the two. But being able to use pre-recorded sections allowed a higher production value and better scares than you can get when just using the live camera. This is reminiscent of Emergency Exit’s The Virtual Excorist that combines live actors with pre-recorded scenes. The actors wear the exact same clothes, the acting matches perfectly, and the cuts are seamless. This team knows their technology.
Beyond the technology, the actors are wonderful at delivering their lines, building rapport, and creating connection. Daisuke is just like us, a normal Japanese man excited about art and the darker side of it. He’s cautious and nervous and natural in his reactions. By the end, he felt like a friend, which is rare in remote horror experiences. Having only our small group during our time slot ensured that it felt organic and natural. I won’t spoil the role of other actors, but let’s just say, they are frightening, effective, and a horror-movie come to life.
Overall, this is the first remote experience I have done where I was actually scared and anxious throughout. Normally, something happening on the other side of the screen just doesn’t get to me as I know there is nothing that can happen, but Obaken managed to break that barrier between me and the screen and pull me into the story so that I was actually invested and terrified. This is the closest you can get to living out a Japanese horror film. I just hope you can come out alive. While I don’t want to give too many spoilers, let me just say that this is a show you do not want to miss. I look forward to purchasing some Japanese ghost paintings myself.
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