On his way back from a family outing with his wife Ayaka, and their young daughter Nana, Hideki - an intelligent and well respected high school professor - stops off on a lonesome stretch of road to use the payphone. Whilst waiting in the phone booth for a connection, he finds a strange scrap of newspaper foretelling of his daughter's imminent death. As he contemplates the page in absolute horror, Nana struggles to unbuckle her seatbelt. Seeking assistance, Ayaka crosses the street and taps on the glass. Hideki looks up, startled, when suddenly... a runaway truck ploughs into the couple's stationary car with their daughter still inside. Ayaka and Hideki run to the car, only to watch impotently as a fire ignites and the car bursts into flames. This startling opening sequence sets the wheels in motion for an enthralling supernatural thriller that deals specifically with the notions of guilt, fear and the broader implications of fate; as Hideki and Ayaka are left to join forces to further understand the mysteries of this seemingly spectral newspaper in light of a series of new and perhaps even more damaging premonitions.
The thing I like best about Japanese horror films of this particular type is the sense of atmosphere. The use of lingering, slow burning tension when a character approaches a closed door, and we know they shouldn't open it, but we still want them too, regardless! For me, it's everything that horror should be. No gratuitous gore, no shock MTV style montages, just a slow, lingering feeling of dread that grows with intensity from one scene to the next. It also helps that the majority of these films are directed with flair and imagination, while for the most part, offering us intelligent characters and interesting scenarios.
For me, Premonition (2004) is up there with some of the best supernatural/psychological horror films of the last ten years; with its combination of eerie plotting, gloomy images and emphasis on character as opposed to cheap thrills. You could always argue that the plot isn't entirely original, seeming like a veritable patchwork of ideas previously developed in films as disparate as The Dead Zone (1983), Final Destination (2000) and The Butterfly Effect (2004); with the usual themes and motifs recognisable from other, more iconic "J-Horror" films, such as The Ring (1998), Dark Water (2000), The Grudge (2000) and Reincarnation (2005), as well as other non-Japanese productions such as The Eye (2002), The Quiet Family (2000) and A Tale of Two Sisters (2003); all of which add to the overall sense of drama and suspense. Regardless, despite the familiarity of the plot and some of its ideas, Premonition still rewards the viewer with an air of creeping mystery, dread, fear and paranoia; as well as some skilfully executed moments of subtle horror and white-knuckle terror.
As with many Japanese films of this type, the central concept seems very much rooted in the traditions of old Japanese/Buddhist folktales; the kind of stories and fables that acted as the starting point for classic Japanese shock-cinema such as Kwaidan (1964), Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968), though with a modern-twist that recasts the idea of a newspaper that can predict future tragedies as more of a serious, unstoppable force; one that perhaps points to deeper, socio-political interpretations pertaining to the current state of Japan in the twenty-first century. Whether or not you choose to approach the film on any deeper, sub-textual level, will be entirely down to the individual, though there's still much to enjoy and take away from the film, even when approached as a straight, by the numbers horror.
Like all the great Asian horror films - or any great horror film at all for that matter - it is the story that pulls us in, but the great use of atmosphere that keeps us enthralled until the very end. Although some critical opinion has been mixed; no doubt due to the over-exposure of Japanese/Asian horror cinema over the last five or six years - and in particular from tepid American re-makes - I feel that Premonition is a genuinely good supernatural shocker that should appeal to anyone with an interest in "good horror" that doesn't involve buckets of blood and severed limbs. Alongside Premonition, you can also find two other films from the same producer, Taka Ichise, both of which cover similar stories and ideas as the film in question. These films, Infection (2003) directed by Masayuki Ochiai and Reincarnation (2005) directed by Takashi Shimizu, were meant to be part of the larger "J-horror" collection (involving different supernatural-themed films directed by some of Japan's most creative genre filmmakers), which, at the time of writing, has subsequently been aborted.
Regardless, if you like Premonition and appreciate the slow-burning sense of psychological and supernatural dread, then Infection and Reincarnation are both worth checking out, with both of those particular films capturing a similar, sinister mood that unfolds at a slow, lingering pace and works great, especially when experienced at around two o'clock in the morning; of course, just like the film in question.