The Spectre of Ophelia: Girlhood, Love & the Supernatural in Fatal Frame (2014)
by: Kate Robertson , February 6, 2024
by: Kate Robertson , February 6, 2024
Directed by Asato Mari, Gekijōban: Zero/Fatal Frame (2014) is a supernatural coming-of-age queer love story based on the Japanese survival horror video game series Fatal Frame (titled Zero in Japan, 2001-2014) and Ōtsuka Eiji’s novelisation, Zero: A Curse Affecting Only Girls (2014). It is the eleventh film by Asato, one of few Japanese women writer-directors working consistently in horror cinema. While she might be familiar to international audiences, including industry and academia, most of her films are not readily available outside of Japan. Fatal Frame is certainly difficult to access. Its initial distribution was limited, with no cinematic release or official DVD release in the US. I could not find it to purchase or stream on any digital platforms outside of Japan. This is despite it being based on a popular franchise, helmed by an experienced director, having a North American premier at genre film festival Fantasia, the trend for J-Horror through the 2000s, and, more broadly, the persistent demand for horror cinema. That Fatal Frame remains underseen in much of the world is part of what led me to explore it in this program, as the film is worthy of further attention and reaching new audiences.
In Fatal Frame, Asato forgoes the games trademark elicitation of terror, creating an atmospheric Gothic-inspired film aligned with Yuri, a genre of Japanese media about intimate relationships between women. At an all-girls Catholic boarding school, a rumour spreads: if you kiss a photo of the one you love at midnight, you will be with them forever. Treated with earnestness, the game—the sort that thrives among adolescents—triggers a curse tied to the school’s past. Fatal Frame’s exploration of love, innocence, grief, and agency in girlhood is embodied by the figure of Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1599–1601). In this film, Ophelia is invoked to represent girls in love, specifically queer relationships, as well as the pursuit of autonomy typical of teen-focussed narratives. In line with Alexander Huang’s (2012) study of East Asian Ophelias, here she is not ‘a document of madness’ (as described by Laertes in Hamlet Act IV, Scene V), but an icon of true love.
My video essay, ‘The Spectre of Ophelia’, draws from my research on girlhood in film, specifically in the coming-of-age horror subgenre, where adolescence is a period of flux that offers a robust framework for frightening experiences. Sequestered in the boarding school, the girls in Fatal Frame are beset by a curse that thrives on their feelings. They are active characters, especially Michi, who investigates the curse, willingly succumbing to it to resolve the mystery. The persistent connection between these girls and Ophelia feeds into the film’s fixation on doubles: photographs stand in for those they represent, girls in the present echo the past, and Aya’s ghostly doppelgänger appears in mirrors, dark corners and, more troublingly, outside in daylight. She is captured by the sepia lens of an antique camera that reveals ghosts – the primary tool in the Fatal Frame games and Asato’s main nod to the source material. When Aya finally faces her twin, her repressed memories literally resurface from the water, reminding how past traumas reverberate in the present, but might be confronted and resolved.
Moreover, the figure of Ophelia guides Fatal Frame visually and aurally. A reproduction of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852) hangs in the headmistress’s office, appearing throughout the film. Inspired by Hamlet Act IV, Scene VII, Ophelia, driven mad by grief, has slipped into the stream and drowned. Envisioning this offstage death, Millais presents a romanticised Ophelia, calmly surrendering to the water, enveloped by the natural world rendered with the Pre-Raphaelite’s commitment to realism. There are echoes of this painting throughout Fatal Frame, most clearly in the extended shots of Kasumi floating down the river with her hands raised. Water dominates the film: there are drownings, both past and present, Aya dreams of sinking into dark waters, her double glides across the surface of the lake, and a young boy films the river. Images of falling also recur, including girls collapsing en masse in the chapel, recalling a long history of fainting epidemics and mass hysteria involving women. Gestures of affection, especially hand holding, recall Ophelia’s passion. Preparing for an end-of-year performance, the choir rehearses ‘Ophelia’s Song’ from Hamlet Act IV, Scene V, based on Ōgai Mori’s Japanese translation in Omokage (1889). The song is an adaptation of the Walsingham ballad, where a man enquires about his love who went on a pilgrimage only to discover she died. Ophelia reverses the genders, taking the protagonist’s role to grieve both her father’s death and Hamlet’s abandonment of her. Fatal Frame echoes this reconfiguration, using ‘Ophelia’s Song’ to convey the love between girls.
The audio in this video essay is an arrangement of diegetic sound from Fatal Frame, featuring three versions of ‘Ophelia’s Song’. In the first instance, accompanied by piano, Aya rehearses her solo in ‘Ophelia’s Song’, a role indicating her popularity as well as establishing a relationship between her and Ophelia. She sings the opening stanza:
How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.
This verse is repeated by Kazumi, a local woman who informs Aya and Michi about the curse’s history. Performed acapella, her version conveys a sense of dread and sadness. The third rendition is the performance of these lines by the choir that includes Aya’s second solo and a new verse:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.
Associated images from past and present are paired to emphasise the repetition of—and diversion from—history. This doubling continues as the chorus transitions to a final song, this time not from Hamlet:
There’s one flame in the candle if we look
Falling in love with the dream of despair
Let us return to the present
Let us look back.
My aim with this video essay was to produce an argument grounded in and propelled by the non-verbal, something more poetic than prescriptive, encouraging a curious and elastic engagement with the form and the film. To achieve this, I decided to forgo a first-person voiceover or text and only included one line of dialogue from the film to guide the viewer. Instead, the three iterations of ‘Ophelia’s Song’ form the foundation of the audio, performed in Japanese and left untranslated. Considering the focus on global cinema in this program, it did not feel necessary to centre English by including subtitles for the lyrics. Further, while ‘Ophelia’s Song’ does shape the mood, it aligns with the visuals on a conceptual level rather than directly reflecting them. It also exclusively uses diegetic sound from the film. This sound design distances this video essay from vidding praxis, which typically involves setting a sequence of images from film or television to music—usually a pop song—to offer a personal reading based on close and invested engagement with the text. To this end, my curation of visuals and sound seeks to elicit an affective response in the viewer, conjuring the eerie atmosphere of the film and the palpable intimacy between the girls.
Ōtsuka, Eiji (2014), Zero: A Curse Affecting Only Girls, Tokyo: Kadokawa.
Gekijōban: Zero/Fatal Frame (2014), dir. Asato Mari.
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