With Such Words
if you aren't a hypocrite, your moral standards aren't high enough
analyzing "One Missed Call" 
8th-Nov-2014 08:33 pm
talibusorabat: A young cartoon woman gets ready to fight with fire (Avatar: Korra feel the fire)
One Missed Call. There is way more going on in this movie than I feel qualified to talk about. I've watched it twice now, I've read about it around the web, and yet the more I think about it, the more questions I have. I'm not sure if the film is intentially ambiguous, or if there are cultural references and translation problems that impede my understanding, but would make sense to a fluent speaker.

Regardless, it is a fascinating story.


The story follows Nakamura Yumi, a young woman who we later discover had been horribly abused by her mother. When her friend Yoko dies after receiving a voicemail from herself, dated two days in the future, Yumi suspects that something strange is going on. There's a rumor going around young women their age about a "cursed voicemail" from a girl who had been horribly wronged in life. Yumi tries to convince Yoko's boyfriend Kenji that it wasn't a suicide, but he doesn't believe her. He says that he received a similar strange voicemail from himself just minutes after Yoko's time of death. He then dies horribly, confirming for Yumi the link between the voicemails and these deaths.

Detective Yamashita Hiroshi has also made that connection. His sister Ritsuko, a social worker, died 6 months ago after receiving a voicemail. He and Yumi join forces after yet another one of Yumi's friends, Natsumi, is struck by the curse. While Natsumi is roped into a tv exorcism, Yamashita and Yumi try to find the origin of the curse. They find the phone number of a local hospital in Yoko's cellphone, but the hospital has no record of Yoko being a patient there. As they leave, Yumi hears a familiar noise — the same noise made before Kenji's death. It's the sound of an inhaler.

It's a slim lead, but they take it and run with it, going to the hospital records to find patients who died of illnesses that required an inhaler. There they find the curse's connection to Yamashita's sister. Seven months ago, a young girl named Mizunuma Mimiko died of an asthma attack. Ritsuko had been investigating her mother, Marie, for child abuse, as Mimiko's little sister Nanako was so frequently a patient there. She and the hospital suspected that Marie suffered from Munchausen by Proxy, a mental illness where the sufferer harms a dependent in their care in order to receive sympathy and attention. After Mimiko's death, Marie disappeared, leaving her daughter Nanako in an orphanage.

Yumi tries to find out whether Natsumi has a connection to Mimiko or the Mizunuma family by calling Natsumi, but the other girl is busy getting ready for her exorcism, which is to be televised. Yumi doesn't trust the exorcist, and so she & Yamashita go to the tv station to try & stop her. But they are as helpless as the exorcist to save Natsumi, who dies by having her body violently contorted as a voice says I’ll take you to the hospital. After Natsumi dies, Yumi receives a message on her cellphone.

Yamashita takes Yumi home, promises that he'll look out for her. That's when he notices the scars on Yumi's arms. She tells him how her mother abused her; her father was never home, so the only person who tried to protect her was her grandmother. While telling him this, she flashes back to how she found her grandmother hanging dead — apparently a suicide, but from the way her mother forces her to look at the dead body and then burns her with a cigarette and beats her, there's a clear implication that her mother murdered the older woman.

The next day, they go to investigate the Mizunuma apartment. They discover that Marie's cellphone contract was terminated due to non-payment, leaving them wondering how it's still able to make calls. Yumi sees a ghost moving in one of the cabinets and screams, but Yamashita sees nothing when he looks there — only an empty nanny cam. He sends her home, telling her to rest while he goes to talk to Nanako, the abused daughter who survived. The child has been rendered mute by years of abuse, but she has a bear which plays the theme song from a popular children's show. Yamashita recognizes that song as the ringtone that precedes the cursed voicemails.

Meanwhile, Yumi refuses to just sit still. She decides to go investigate the hospital where Marie was last seen, which had burned down months ago. Yamashita says that he'll meet her there. While there, she is plagued by spirits (or maybe just a single spirit?), who offer her a human fetus in a glass jar. Yamashita finally arrives and tries to get her out, but they both become trapped, and Yumi's cellphone lets out that eerie ring while a message types out: "Your death will come in 55...54...53...52..." Yamashita tries to end the call, and that's when he sees another phone, in the hand of a corpse, peeking out from a box. It's the phone making the outgoing call; it's Marie's phone. He ends the call; the countdown stops.

But Yumi isn't safe. The corpse rises up and advances on Yumi, undeterred by the ax Yamashita attacks it with. When he tries to drag Yumi out, some kind of spirital force field is erected, separating the two of them, trapping Yumi with the corpse. While Marie's body wraps its hands around Yumi's neck, it flashes in her vision — sometimes looking like a decaying body, sometimes looking like her own mother. She sobs, saying "I'll be a good girl, mother. I'll stay with you forever. I'll do anything you say" and hugs the body, which then goes still. (While all this is happening, Yamashita has his own ghostly encounter: a vision of his sister, who tells him: "There are various skies to every one.")

They make it out of the hospital, and Yamashita takes Marie's cellphone to the police station. It contains the phone numbers of all of the victims who died. At the station, he's called back to the orphanage where Nanako is. They found a nanny cam tape in her belongings. The tape reveals that Marie was not the one hurting Nanako; it was Mimiko. She cuts her sister with a knife and then tells her "I'll take you to the hospital." But then Marie comes home and realizes the truth. Mimiko has an asthma attack while her mother goes "I was right...it was you..." Marie clearly sees that Mimiko can't breathe, but instead of helping her older daughter, she gathers her younger daughter up and rushes her to the hospital. Leaving Mimiko to choke to death. Yamashita realizes that Mimiko is the one who started the curse, not Marie — and therefore Yumi is still in danger.

He rushes to Yumi's apartment, and after letting him in...she stabs him, saying "I'll take you to the hospital." She's been possessed by Mimiko.

While in the hospital, Yamashita has a dream that he rescues the dying Mimiko, giving her an inhaler. When he wakes up, Yumi is there. She has a knife behind her back. She leans down and kisses him, passing him the same red candy that had been in the other victim's mouths, a red candy that Mimiko had always given her little sister and saying "I hope you feel better soon!" And then Yumi smiles.

###


Like I said, there is a lot going on in this movie. The cycle of abuse — the idea that the abused become abusers themselves - is one of the major themes. One of the earliest scenes is Yumi and Yoko in a class on childhood abuse where the teacher talks about how "abuse creates abuse." When the nurse explains what "Muncheausen by Proxy" is, she says that it is often related to the abuser's childhood experience. The movie can very easily be interpreted as an allegory for the cycle of abuse, with Yumi starting as the victim of her mother's abuse and then becoming the perpetrator of Yamashita's abuse. Whether there is any deeper message, or more nuanced understanding of how abuse is perpetuated, I'm not sure. There are certainly a lot of problems with the idea that victims inevitably become abusers, that this is a fate Yumi could not escape.

But regardless of problems with the theme, the structure of the story is extremely compassionate. While Mimiko does abuse her sister, she isn't portrayed as evil. The idea of "Munchausen by Proxy" isn't just a throwaway line; it is very clearly the mental illness that Mimiko suffers from. There's nothing menacing in her manner; she shows no enjoyment at the sight of her sister's pain. She just wants to take her sister to the hospital. Those who knew Mimiko emphasize how kind she was to her little sister, how much she wanted to take care of the younger girl; even Nanako talks about how Mimiko would give her a candy and say "I hope you feel better." Mimiko isn't sadistic; she just wants the positive attention and praise that she gets when she takes care of her little sister.

And perhaps more tellingly, this continues after Mimiko's death. A piece of red candy is in the mouth of all of her victims, just like the candy that she would give her little sister. While killing Natsumi, she says: "Now I'll take you to the hospital." Despite the brutal manner of the deaths, Mimiko doesn't come across as an angry spirit on a revenge quest. She is a child afflicted with a mental illness, who as a spirit has the power to do even greater damage than she could while alive, and who doesn't seem to understand the damage that she's doing. She's just playing out the same patterns that she did while alive.

Her actions are monstrous, but we are never directed to think of her as a monster. Even the reveal that she is her sister's abuser is tempered by a reminder that she is a child as she panics when her mother comes home. The horror we feel seeing her cut Nanako is nothing compared to the horror we feel when Marie deliberately leaves her and Mimiko falls to the ground, crying "Mama...Mama, I can't breathe." And yet we also feel sympathy for Marie, who is terrified for her younger daughter, who is horrified by what her eldest has done. Nobody in the story talks about how horrible she is to leave her daughter like that.

Indeed, nobody in the story talks about how horrible or evil the antagonist is, except for one horrified comment when the nurse first explains Munchausen by Proxy. The characters seek to understand what happened and what's happening, without really casting judgement on it. Nor does the film encourage the viewer to cast judgement. The story doesn't dwell on Mimiko's victims. They aren't forgotten, but they aren't used constantly to remind us how evil she is.

Perhaps both the most remarkable and the easiest to miss demonstrations of compassion in the film are in the portrayal of the victims. I don't know enough about Japanese horror to know if this is a trope there, but American horror is famous for punishing its victims — for being sexually active, for being jerks, for being any number of things. The film Cabin in the Woods is predicated entirely on the idea that horror is about punishment. But except for Marie, who is the first person the curse kills, none of the victims are killed while engaging in "wrong" behavior. Yoko and Natsumi are neither killed nor even cursed while having sex; Kenji isn't shown to be a bully to anyone. Yoko is shown to be a little flighty, canceling a date with one guy in order to go out with another, but those two scenes are far enough removed that her death isn't associated with that choice. They are normal people living normal lives, whose deaths are as tragic as they are senseless. Part of what makes them so horrifying is how random they are; there is no element of cosmic punishment.

At this point I must make the disclaimer that this movie is part of a trilogy, and while I haven't seen the subsequent films, from what I've read about them, they at the very least muddy my interpretations. Everything I've written applies only to the first One Missed Call film, standing on its own. But considered as a single film, I would say it's an excellent example of a compassionate narrative.
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