Criterion is a great company -- arguably, the best DVD releasing company in the world. They are known for standards of excellence that aren't traditionally seen in most other companies' releases; not only in their DVD transfers and special features, but for the consistent high quality of the films they release. Most of the films Criterion release are already well-established, traditional, "classic" films. So, it's always nice to see a somewhat more "obscure" film get the Criterion treatment -- this film definitely deserves it.
While not completely "obscure" -- it's quite well-known in Japan, as well as amongst underground horror and experimental film lovers around the world -- it certainly doesn't seem as, dare I say, "important" as many other Criterion releases. But being the underdog works here, since the film only costs $26 brand new (well below most "big" Criterion film's releases) so it will hopefully motivate more people to check out this work of art.
...YES, a work of art. While touted as a "horror" film, this most resembles an art film, one of the more experimental variety, and it is masterfully-shot and -directed. Utilizing all sorts of outrageous effects and downright bizarre editing, this often brings to mind directors like Shuji Terayama (Emperor Tomato Ketchup) and Toshio Matsumoto (Funeral Procession of Roses). While there are some more straightforward "horror" elements -- skeletons, an evil kitty -- most of them are downright silly, and remind me somewhat of American "classic" b-movie cheesefest Spookies than any serious work of horror. It is NEVER scary, and gets by mainly on absurdity and cheese.
So, why is this film getting 5 stars? Why is it "worthy" of a Criterion release? Well, opinions will differ, but I found this movie absolutely brilliant, one of the most entertaining I have EVER seen, with brilliant scene after brilliant scene of surreal absurdity. This film is downright INSANE, but it's charming. It's one of those films that you'll watch and say, "Okay, I HAVE TO show this to every single one of my friends now!" Infinitely rewatchable (I've probably watched my Japanese copy 20 times in the past 5 years), hilariously madcap, and endlessly inspiring. There is violence here, but it's all so silly... this is about as much a "horror" film as Riki-Oh is a "kung-fu" movie; it has all the "cool" elements of a genre film, but it's really just an excuse to cram as many insane scenes into a film as possible.
Oh, did I mention a piano eats a girl? ... The effects are what really make this film a sight to behold. They're actually surprisingly well-done, and even though I already own this film, I'm going to buy the Criterion edition just to see how they pulled off some of this stuff! Yes, as usual, the Criterion DVD is loaded with great special features, the best of which has to be the 1966 short film "Emotion" -- without a doubt one of the greatest short films ever, and definitely my favorite of the "experimental Japanese New Wave" school (along with the aforementioned Matsumoto and Terayama). Honestly, "Emotion" is even better than the main feature -- how insane is that? This is just one unbelievably value packed release, one that everyone needs!
So, yes, it is a very unlikely Criterion release, but kudos to them for taking a chance with this one. It is a film that needs to be seen -- I can't imagine anyone NOT having a good time with it. And I really hope it sells well, because there just flat-out aren't many DVD companies releasing these kinds of crazy Japanese films anymore, since Tartan folded. Maybe, just maybe, if we're lucky, we'll all be able to see a Pastoral: To Die in the Country (aka "the greatest film ever made") release from Criterion sometime in our lifetimes....? Well, I can dream. But until that day comes, I'll be watching this one about once a month. Order it today!