Kakurenbo (2005) is a short Japanese animated film, based on the children’s game Otokoyo (Demon Tag/Hide and Seek). It is a short psychological thriller, full of juicy tension that will be stuck in your head long after the credits have rolled.

The story revolves around a rumour that if seven children wearing fox masks manage to find their way to Otokoyo Square during twilight, then they will play a game Otokoyo. Being told to stay away must mean that there is some hidden secret worth discovering. After all, it can’t possibly Hide and Seek with real Demons.

In Kakurenbo, not seven but eight children are playing Otokoyo. They have each come in small groups, all for their own reasons. Hikora and Yaimao are searching for Hikora’s sister, who played the game the night before. Three other boys (Noshiga, Tachiji and Suku) are there to expose the secret behind the Demons and prove that the whole thing is fake. There are two silent twins whose goal is never mentioned, as well as a mostly silent female who seems overly calm.

While only 25 minutes long, the film has a constant tension. The choice to have the characters wear fox masks eliminates facial expression and emotion so there is a much larger concentration on the eyes and voice. The masks themselves have separate designs which gives a sense of character, combining with their bodily appearance (a large set boy with a bald head clearly creates a different impression to the skinny boy with a blue mohawk) which allows you to perfectly picture what they look like despite the lack of a face.

The art style has a darkness to it despite having a large colour pallet, and when character’s talk it is normally in hushed tones or with a silent background to add to the awkward tension. This is built upon by the music which is a constant looming presence, almost feeling like the Demons themselves, with the use of moaning male voices and the use of changing tempo of rhythm sticks, which is chilling.

Kakurenbo demon

Director, and lead writer, Shuhei Morita purposefully allows the audience to guess the first plot twist within the story. He builts the focus upon the plot point imploring the audience to work out what will happen. This in turn keeps the audience’s attention from guessing the much darker, true nature of the Otokoyo game.

On the first watch, the story can feel confusing and the ending is dark, albeit powerful. The Demons and derelict buildings that surround the game in the film represent the forced never-ending cycle of industry that, like it or not, children must stop their games and join. They have no choice but to be ensnared by industry and follow society’s rules, as they are its necessary bright future. This, rather depressing message looms over the film and presents, prehaps, a scarier outlook upon children’s future than the fate in store for them within the story.

I would recommend watching the subtitled (original) version of Kakurenbo as it captures the suspense much more than the Americanised voice-over. The English translation is still successful and it’s impressive that a short film was given a dub in the same year of release, with such a famous cast. While the original voice acting is subtle and involves a lot of hushed tones, the English Dub often felt melodramatic in the way that tense silent moments were covered with overly heavy breathing or loud, pathetic cries.

It is well worth the 25 minutes to watch Kakurenbo, the suspense is constant and subtle without having to rely on jump-scares or bloody-violence to rack up tension. It trusts the dark and slightly uncomfortable visuals to make the audience squirm ever so slightly from the edge of their seats. I would have happily enjoyed a much longer extension to this film, really wanting to know if the game would ever be stopped or the children saved. Unfortunatly the point of the film is that the cycle will never stop, they are doomed to the call of the Demons, and will have to work for them for the rest of their lives.

Directed By: Shuhei Morita
Screenplay By: Shiro Kuro and Shuhei Morita
Starring (original voice actors): Junko Takeuchi, Masami Suzuki, Makoto Ueki, Rei Naito, Mika Ishibashi and Akiko Kobayashi.
Starring (English voice-actors): Michael Sinterniklaas, Veronica Taylor, Dan Green, Sean Schemmel and Tom Wayland.