There are two kinds of movies. There are movies that have been thoroughly sketched out. They begin with a concept- a base idea. The structure comes later, with the writer figuring out how the idea can be presented successfully from beginning to denouement. Then, there is the other kind of film: the kind of film made entirely for a single moment.
Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek is a perfect example of that second breed of scriptwriting. Screenwriter Shiro Kuro had a single scene he wanted to present: a single twist, to be precise. He then slapped together a twenty-two minute script that would allow him to bring that twist to life.
The problem is that these movies almost never work. The writer doesn't seem to ever realize that in addition to an ending, a movie needs to have a beginning and a middle. Otherwise, it becomes a dull slog that just isn't worth the viewer's time, twist or no twist. No movie underlines this more than Kakurenbo. It's a short film that needed to be about twenty minutes shorter.
Kakurenbo actually boasts an incredibly solid premise. The story revolves around a game called "Otokoyo", a twisted game of hide-and-seek that takes place in a small town. In theory, the game's simple. The town itself becomes a maze, and to win one must reach the end, being guided by the town's streetlights. Yet, those who play never come back. This has led to rumors that the city is infested with monsters and demons, which prey on those foolish enough to even try and win Otokoyo.
One of the game's victims is a girl named Sorincha. Her brother Hikora joins six (or is it seven?) other participants, determined to bring his sister home. However, not only are the rumors true, but the purpose of the game- and the game itself- turn out to be much more sinister than any of those playing ever expected.
This could have made a great film if any thought had been put into it, but it appears that the writer was too busy to worry about things like making their movie interesting. No, he needed to spend his time doing other things- like making sure that the film was as dry and generic as possible.
If you've seen a horror movie, you've seen Kakurenbo. The only thing that isn't predictable about the film is that a movie with such an interesting premise could be so predictable. Kids that are not the protagonist enter the game, said kids are then chased by the town's monsters, and then eliminated offscreen. Rince, lather, repeat. The rest of the film's screentime is taken up by our main character stumbling upon various plot points, but neither Hikora or the viewer are given any time to actually contemplate their significance, making those scenes just as vapid as the rest of the film.
Part of the problem is that the premise isn't fleshed out at all. Why does this game exist? Who or what started it? Why did they start it? Why did people begin playing it, and why did they continue to play after people began disappearing? Where did these demons come from? Why did they decide to stay in this town? Is there anything preventing them from leaving? All good questions, but the film doesn't try to answer almost any of them. The fact that these elements are unexplored make the game (and thus the backbone of the story itself) appear to be a mere excuse to lure the characters into the metaphorical meat grinder.
Now, the twist. I'll admit, it stuck with me. It was creepy, disturbing, and foreshadowed enough to make some sense. However, it was truly almost the only part of the movie that even tried to generate tension, and created far more questions than it truly answered.
I'll give the film's animators this- they did try to create an atmosphere. From the nighttime sky to the town itself, everything is either consumed by pure darkness, or ominously shadowed. The design of the demonic antagonists was quite well done; their unnatural body structures and glowing eyes allow them to exude as much menace as possible. The animation is adequately fluid, and the design of the fox masks worn by our cast (one of the conditions one must meet in order to play the game) are quite aesthetically pleasing.
However, the character design is where it all falls apart. The characters simply look too colorful and vivid- they create a juxtaposition that completely destroys the ominous backdrop that the animators were trying to create. The designs themselves are also far too homogenous. Certain characters look so similar that differentiating between them is almost impossible.
There is no music in Kakurenbo. As with the dark backgrounds, it's clear that this was an attempt to make things as tense and ominous as possible. Yet, at times, the lack of auditorial stimulation and orchestral stings just makes the events even more dull than they already were. The sound effects aren't good or bad- they're just there. They sound realistic enough and certainly could have been worse; but at the same time they could have been so much better.
Due to the lack of music, the responsibility of setting a dark and eerie tone rests on the shoulders of the voice actors. And dear God do they fail miserably. Dan Green is clearly phoning his performances in, and Sean Schemmel seems to be channeling his early voice work; you know, the voice acting he did before he learned how to voice act. Green plays multiple characters, yet doesn't even bother trying to make them sound distinct. Essentially, this film has the kind of dub that seems to justify the anime community's hatred of English dubbing.
The sole bright spot is Veronica Taylor's performance as Sorincha. She is the only one actually interested in having fun with her role, and it really shows. Her energic delivery and disturbingly cheery tone generate the little eerieness and tension that the movie posses.
If I were a pretentious film wag, I would simply say "Characters? What characters?" and skip straight to the conclusion. But I respect my readership enough to actually explain how the film fails to create a sympathetic cast in every single way imaginable. You're welcome.
Almost the entire cast is composed of cardboard cutouts. You don't learn a single thing about them: what are they like? What is their backstory? Why exactly have they chosen to play this game? The fact that we learn none of this does answer the most important question- why should I care about their fates? It's a trick question: you shouldn't. Honestly, I'm not sure I can name any of the characters besides Hikora and Sorincha.
The fact that none of the cast is fleshed out at all makes their relationships extremely confusing. The game's players are divided into three groups- two females, three males, and Hikora with one other guy.
I don't believe the two females have a single line. We see them for approximately one scene before they disappear from the film. The second group of three males appear to be composed of friends, yet pretty much all their dialogue makes me wonder how they possibly became friends in the first place: the overweight kid is contantly bossing the others around, and they have absolutely no chemistry whatsoever.
Hikora does, at least, have a motivation for participating in the game. But that's essentially it. Aside from completing his goal, his only role in the film is to act as a proxy for the audience, and provide somebody to root for. You learn pretty much nothing about him the entire film, and the only personality trait Hikora seems to have is his love for his sister.
With Hikora is a larger, fatter male around his age. From the incredibly stilted dialogue I could discern that they are friends, but that's basically all I can tell you about him. It's that single fact that makes him distinct from the rest of the body count... I mean cast.
For most of the film, Sorincha acts as an ominous figure, existing only to give the film an aura of mystery. Once you discover her intent and motivation, she actually becomes slightly interesting. But it comes far too late in the movie for me to really care at all.
Some may argue that I am being too harsh on Kakurenbo. After all, it's only about as long as a single anime episode. However, its length is one of Kakurenbo: Hide & Seek's greatest flaws. So many of the problems I've listed could have been solved by simply making the movie another thirty, twenty, or even fifteen minutes longer. Being short is no excuse for the movie not possessing any sort of tension, and having a particularly dull story. Nor does it excuse the film's characters being paper-thin. In fact, it just exascerbates these problems. I could list other short films possessing similar storylines that succeeded exactly where Kakurenbo failed, but this review is long enough as it is.
Essentially, if you have twenty minutes to kill and are a sucker for twist endings, you might as well check this one out. There is a chance you could do worse, even if there are so many ways you could do better.
Otherwise? I have five words of advice to potential viewers regarding Kakurenbo: Hide. Don't seek.
Have a good day.