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Dark Sky Films presents
Prayer Beads (2006)

"Whose side are you on? Are you one of them too!?"
- Tatsuo (Masaya Kato)

Review By: Ross Johnson   
Published: April 19, 2007

Stars: Masaya Kato, Ken Mitsuishi, Sosuke Takaoka
Other Stars: Masa Endo, Fumina Hara, Hijiri Kojima
Director: Masahiro Okano

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, gore, adult themes, some language)
Run Time: 04h:32m:00s
Release Date: February 27, 2007
UPC: 030306813592
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

I'm not certain whether the J-horror invasion of the last few years is more evidence of a dearth of ideas for American horror, or instead a long-overdue popular acknowledgement of the quality work going on across the Pacific, but it's certainly been welcome for American fright-film fans craving a novel approach. Thanks to the proliferation of remakes The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water and the like, there's been a flood of Japanese horror released on DVD, even if you may have to dig a bit to find the great ones. Prayer Beads, a limited, short-form anthology series from director Mashashiro Okano is a more minor effort in that vein, but it's also a rare (non-animated) bit of Japanese TV available on DVD in the west. All respect to the many, many great fright films, but I often find that horror breaks down at feature-length, with solid ideas getting padded and over-explained as a result of all that extra time. These episodes all run for almost exactly thirty minutes, a time which allows Okano to come in, tell a story, and get out before things get dull. It also short-circuits over-thinking on the part of the viewer, which can positively ruin horror.

In Tales from the Crypt fashion (or Showtime's Masters of Horror, more recently), the episodes vary wildly in tone, from straight-up horror to some more wacky concepts. The eponymous first episode is a convoluted but creepy tale of text messages from beyond the grave and demon babies from hell. It's a good place to start in that it includes several of the J-horror tropes that have already made their way into all of the American remakes. Smeary faces in the mirror? Check. Nasty things coming out of the water? Check. And that hair... you know, the long, wet, black, poorly conditioned hair that seems to be a prime ingredient of Japanese nightmares? Disembodied, it even pops in for a stringy cameo. The episode doesn't ultimately make a whole lot of sense (at least to this western viewer), and throws in some of those J-horror clichés unnecessarily, but the tone is effectively chilling. It is, in fact, one of my favorites of the series, without some of the silliness that undermines later bits. Episode two, Vending Machine Woman is much lighter, at least for a much of its thirty minutes. An ill-conceived country outing by an awkward couple leads them to a mysterious new juice product that gives them a taste for raw flesh (and makes them awfully horny as a side-effect—providing a convenient opportunity for one of the series' rare sex scenes). Mushroom Hunting is a modern-day take on Hansel and Gretel, while Cat's Paw involves the naughty misadventures of Nyanta, one of those babbling, round kiddie anime characters. As far as I'm concerned, it's high time that someone pointed out how creepy those little guys can be. Apartment, the final episode of the series, pulls some of the earlier story threads into a story of domestic abuse and punishment. There are nine episodes all together, and most of them work well enough, with a couple of standouts.

Like any anthology series, the quality varies, but for the most part these are fun and creepy if not always brilliant. Gore is there, but not really extreme. Shot on video, it's obvious that the budget was limited. Some light CGI and rubbery guts don't detract much, though, and it's all used judiciously. Director/supervisor Okano is known in Japan for his special effects work, and he makes very effective use of what I assume were very few yen. Ultimately, this is an opportunity for western J-horror fans to see how a talented Japanese director handles the horror anthology series that has been a staple of American television for decades. In that same vein, like all of those great shows, this series is fun but uneven, with some brilliant ideas and flashes of wit throughout. It's also a J-horror twist on an old format, and worth a look for fans.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: There's considerable ghosting present in many of the darker scenes, though certain episodes definitely look better than others. That inconsistency is rarely distracting, but it's definitely noticeable. Also, the transfer is letterboxed from a 4:3 image rather than truly widescreen, and it's unclear at what aspect ratio the episodes were intended to be shown. Nevertheless, it's likely a far better image than has been available on all-region bootlegs since this show made its international debut in 2004.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Japaneseyes

Audio Transfer Review: Very little use of stereo in the Dolby 2.0 track, but it's clear and clean with no major distortion or unexpected noise.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Keep Case
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Still Gallery
Extras Review: Only a short still gallery and a trailer are included.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

This Japanese fright series from effects expert Masahiro Okano didn't quite blow me away, but I couldn't stop watching to find out what each new episode would hold. Many of the ideas are novel, and veer from chilling to wacky without any real flops. The show puts a J-horror twist on an old horror-anthology format, and that slant alone makes it worth recommending. It may not always be brilliant or terrifying, but it is consistently entertaining.


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