Anthology films are an interesting experiment. On the one hand, short (perhaps too short) snippets of great stories that feel like a collection of entrees, tasty but not filling. On the other hand, they can be a smorgasbord of palette cleansers, making them a fun ride with a unifying factor. This anthology’s unifying factor or theme can be found right in the film’s title. A film adaptation of a long-running Japanese series, Tales of the Unusual is a short story collection of just that: strange, bizarre, unusual little tales. It is a bunch of varied genre stories sprinkled with the right bit of tension, told to the audience as tales. For stories to be told, we naturally need a storyteller; that is where the film begins.
On a rainy night, an eclectic group of strangers are caught huddled together under an old train station waiting room. Among them is a black-clad stranger with just the right air of mystery. He is our Storyteller, portrayed by Kazuyoshi Morita, AKA Tamori, reprising his role from the original series. The storyteller is at first witness to an unnerved young man recounting a real-life horror tale to the other disinterested strangers and chooses to interject for the better.
He spices up this horror tale of a wintery mountain trek gone wrong and uses it to pivot to the first short film of this feature, this tale sharing echoes with the young man’s story. This is a device the film returns to on occasion, interluding between the anthology segments, with each piece pivoting off the Storytellers’ unique interest in the rest of the strangers. With each segment, the Storyteller hooks the strangers one by one, much like he does the audience in his oratory spell.
He begins with a bang, as most anthologies should, with a commercial flight crashing into the snowy mountains. This is where Masayuki Ochiai and Katsuhide Suzuki’s “One Snowy Night” opens. The crash is violent, leaving a disparate group of survivors all desperate and in pain. Their conflicting morality forms the basis of a horror story of survival and humanity. In typical J-Horror fashion, human characters confront their worst nightmares in the form of the supernatural.
The narrative opens after the crash, with a reporter taking photos of the crash site in the snowstorm. He is one of the remaining survivors, disinterested in helping, and instead, his instincts are to simply do his job despite the dangers and trauma involved. In many ways, this becomes a microcosm for the film’s themes of human selfishness and guilt.
Led by an uncaring, assertive businessman who claims a cabin is far off, the survivors decide to trek to safety. Besides him and the reporter, there is a doctor, a young woman, and her terribly injured friend. The tycoon insists they abandon the injured party, but the others move on despite his mad ramblings. As the snowstorm envelopes them and they grow exhausted, each one falters, and their instincts for survival kick in until even the young woman gives up. They abandon the injured friend, screaming in pain and horror; in return, the cabin they seek arrives as a cruel divine reward.
Soon enough, the film establishes an essential set of beats for their survival. They need warmth, so a fire pops up. They need blankets to survive; thankfully, four blankets are available. Finally, they need food, so a stash of food is discovered. The camera slowly panning across the cabin enhances each discovery, as it almost magically grows in size to fit their needs. It’s a neat trick the filmmaking pulls to relay to the audience that this is an illusion despite the narrative predictability.
The manifestation of their shared psychosis twists into horrifying guilt as the characters descend into madness over their actions. The editing is purposefully jarring, cutting in flashes of shots to really sell the horror along with the swelling ominous score. There are stylistic flourishes added, such as using a video camera, giving us scenes hewing closer to found footage horror.
All this signposting using the craft makes the final twist easy to predict, but it remains somewhat effective even then. It’s a solid way to begin the anthology, especially as this is the only outright horror film to hook the viewer in. It leaves enough room for the rest of the shorts to improve upon it and keep the audience engaged. That is, both fortunately and unfortunately, where the anthology goes next. The second tale the Storyteller tells is where the film peaks. The best thing about Ryoichi Kimizuka’s “Samurai Cellular” is how it deviates in tone and style from everything else.
It is an absurd period comedy, a fictionalized version of the 47 Ronin sagas. It portrays the heroic real-life figure and ronin, Oishi Kuranosuke, played by Kiichi Nakai, as a bumbling, cowardly man unwilling to get into any conflict with his enemies. One fine day, he comes across a cell phone on the road, with a caller claiming to be a historian from the future well aware of his heroic exploits. It’s a bizarre bit of comedy that Nakai really channels through his acting over this mysterious technological device and the man on the other side of the call.
Through sly dialogue, the caller attempts to nudge Kuranosuke towards his destiny, constantly questioning the validity of claims that he is a wimp or not. It’s a sitcom-like plot with consistent gags that predict future events as those surrounding him push him to take action.
The humor is elevated tenfold, with comedic beats punctuated by smash cuts zooming in to repetitive visuals and slow pans calling attention to the viewer. Narratively, this short film has a fully realized arc that works perfectly. The same craft elements build an epic tone from the climax when Kuranosuke finally accepts his fate and legendary status. Sadly, following on from this story is a tall order to live up to. That is where an anthology series is so fascinatingly complex. Each story could be enriching on its own, but there’s an ebb and flow of somewhat disruptive moods as a collective.
In that regard, Motoki Nakamura’s “Chess” is unfortunate as it is an intriguing premise but a sum of its parts. It’s a surreal journey into the broken mind of its protagonist, Akira Kato (Shinji Takeda), a Chess champion haunted by a chess match loss to a Robot. Though based on chess, the narrative operates like a maze with a labyrinthine journey to regain his self-confidence. The production elements are an exciting touch, with the black and white checkers of chess employed to crowds of humans, car parking lots, and a grand finale of human chess pieces in a stadium. Even the sound design evokes wild comparisons between Chess and actual war.
There’s also a deeper subtext regarding obsession and sacrifice at the core of the story. Yet none of this truly lands, partly due to an overtly emotional and manipulative score. The performances are the final nail in the coffin, a tad too melodramatic and unconvincing, especially with Takeda’s constantly confused visage.
These surrealistic touches are surface level, in service of a clichéd arc and final twist to the tale. It’s unusual as a whole but woefully undone by an outdated aesthetic reminiscent of the VHS quality look of most Japanese films from the 2000s. In that sense, it allows the final story to close the series on a greater high. Tomoko Aizawa’s “Marriage Simulator” takes the tense but gentle vibes of the interludes and adds its own Black Mirror-like twist to the proceedings. Chiharo (Izumi Inamori) and Yuichi (Takashi Kashiwabara) are getting married. Before they do, though, they partake in a new virtual experiment that lets them simulate how their marriage will end up.
At first, these visuals deal with stereotypical conflicts and then grow even more profound and gloomier. The film layers twist upon twist to tightly pack a romantic journey full of ups and downs. In many ways, this one feels like just a sample tasting that could have been a complete feature. It’s a sweet and straightforward rom-com tale of soul mates. The very same vibe that the previous short echoes, especially stylistically in the color grading, works wonderfully here. The production gives it a nostalgic and retro tinge regarding the technology and effects used to bring the story to life.
What truly helps the saccharine plot is the earnest performance of the two leads. The story thus leaves us with a warm fuzzy feeling once we return to the epilogue at the station. The rain stops the final story, ending the night perfectly for the strangers who all part ways. The Storyteller now ruminates to the audience on the effect of telling stories and how people will constantly want to hear more and more stories. A Hobo begs the storyteller to recount one more tale, the rain blocking his path from leaving again and continuing his act, highlighting this humorous observation he has.
In many ways, it encapsulates the precise idea of why anthologies are extremely appealing and tasty. They provide a buffet of variety, sometimes good and sometimes not, but fulfilling all the same, yet leaving the viewer wanting just a little bit more.