‘One Missed Call’ (2003) Review

“You have one missed call.”

Do you have a comfort genre? Or even just a comfort film? Something that you tend to watch when you’re down or stressed or just looking for some soothing story to pass the time? I think Sailor Monsoon and I talked about this briefly earlier this year and discovered we both love kaiju films for that, amongst other things (I have a fondness for Italian horror and 50’s sci-fi as well – I think he mentioned slashers). A good (or bad) Godzilla flick or something in black and white with giant bugs does the trick for me, like a glass of warm milk or a prescription sedative or a couple of shots of Jack. Don’t do drugs, kids, try a Fulci film.

Anyway, somehow in the last few years J-Horror has joined that group of films for me. There’s something about them, the late 90’s/early 00’s films in particular, that I really enjoy. They’ve become a go-to when I’ve had a stressful week or I’m just in a pissy mood.

I’ve been watching a few of them lately. Make of that what you will.

In addition to watching classics like Ringu and The Grudge I’ve decided to finally check out a few of the lesser known films that I’ve either avoided or just never gotten around to (or, in the case of Dark Water, that I’ve only seen once). This brought me to finally seeing the first One Missed Call film. I only recently found it that it was directed by Takashi Miike, someone who’s made some of the most stylish and distinct (and violent) films in recent Japanese cinema, like Audition, Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins. Of course he’s directed more than a hundred films/TV shows so it’s inevitable that there are things of his I haven’t seen (still need to see Blade of the Immortal), but I had no idea he’d done a J-Horror film. And one that I’d heard nothing but bad things about.

Just as a complete aside, he also directed a film called Zebra Man 2: Attack on Zebra City and now I really kinda want to see that.

The only things I had heard about the One Missed Call series – and there are three original Japanese releases and one American remake – were that they were straightforward ripoffs of The Ring and pretty boring ones at that. I also had an idea in my head that they were somehow alternate timeline films – like “here’s what would happen if you missed the most important call of your life” sort of thing. Lord knows where I got that idea. Whatever else they are, the films aren’t THAT – and if they have a lot of elements from The Ring, well what J-Horror film from the early 00’s didn’t? You couldn’t swing a dead cat in any given J-Horror from 1998-2007 without hitting a dead, wet girl with long black hair and a penchant for scaring the life out of people.

I happened to see a copy of the Arrow One Missed Call Trilogy box set at my local Bullmoose, used. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it unseen, so I decided to see if it was available streaming, which it is. I figured if it was bad then I’d saved myself some money and if it was good, I could always go back and get that set.

I watched One Missed Call on Shudder – yeah, it’s that time of year again, where I re-up my Shudder subscription for a few months. It’s also available for subs on Fandor and Arrow Player. It’s also free (with ads) on Tubi and AsianCrush as well as for rental or purchase on most platforms. Oddly, the second and third films are NOT on Shudder, but are on Tubi, AsianCrush, Fandor and Arrow.

There is, as I mentioned, a 2020 Blu-ray box set from Arrow Films with all three One Missed Call movies. As always, Arrow has put together a decent package of extras and this is probably the way to go if you want the physical media.

The Movie
One Missed Call will feel familiar to anyone that’s seen a J-Horror film from the early 00’s. There are the scary phone calls, the faded (and green-tinged) color palette, the investigation angle as the protagonists attempt to discover the how and why of their predicament (and how to avoid being killed), and, of course, an angry ghost with long, dark hair. It’s these elements that seem to have caused many critics to dismiss the film as a simple cash-in, one of a seemingly endless series of Ring-inspired films.

And yeah, fair enough – would this adaptation of Yasushi Akimoto’s novel have been green-lit if it hadn’t featured a ghost and a curse? Probably not in Japan in 2003. Still, if we can give other films a pass – and a good 80-90% of Japanese horror films in that time period boil down to “angry ghost starts wrecking people’s shit” – then why not One Missed Call? Maybe because there had just been so many of them by 2003. Maybe because it hits those Ring inspired notes so closely and so well. Maybe because it’s so restrained for Miike film.

For whatever reason, I think the film has been a bit unfairly maligned. Yes, it’s in the same template as Ringu – even down to the supernatural phone call – but there’s a reason that film did so well, and why so many others also jumped onto the angry ghost train. (Wait, was there a movie about an angry ghost train? I feel like there should be.) Given the bones are so familiar, then it’s the ways in which the film deviates or adds to the formula that should make it stand out, right?

In this, One Missed Call has at least a few elements that let it stand out from the crowd. For instance, it’s true that for a Takashi Miike film it’s relatively sedate, eschewing most of the visual (and visceral) excesses that mark the balance of his work. For me that actually worked in the film’s favor. I kept expecting things to be faster, to be more violent, to be, in other words, a Takashi Miike film. That unmet expectation kept me off-balance, and made me dread the long pauses, wide-eyed stares and moments just after something terrible would happen and everyone would just stand around for a second, aghast. Not to say there are NO Miike touches. There are some interesting camera angles, shocking edits and a couple of brutal deaths. It’s just that you can’t expect them, and doing so will either leave you disappointed when it doesn’t happen or shocked when he finally gets around to breaking all the bones in a woman’s arm or showing us how rotting skin sloughs off a corpse when it gets up and moves around.

The basic story on which the variations are played is this – a group of college aged friends are surprised when one of them, Yoko (Ana Nagata) receives a voice mail from her own phone that seems to come from two days in the future. When she dies on that same day and time, under circumstances predicted by the voice message, her friends – particularly Yumi (Ko Shibasaki) are frightened. When THEY start receiving the same kind of calls – from their own phone at the moment of their death in the near future – they become terrified. Yumi and Hiroshi (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi), the brother of a previous victim, attempt to find out where the calls are coming from and why before they too end up victims of the curse – leading to a (surprise!) dead girl and an angry ghost.

The ghost this time around touches on a relatively taboo subject in Japanese society – child abuse. It’s only recently that it’s become acknowledged as an issue in Japan. Previously it was the accepted ‘truth’ that something in the nature of Japanese society prevented the worst of this scourge. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but certainly Japan’s economic issues and other societal changes made the problem difficult to ignore by the 00’s. One Missed Call’s ghost is that of a child, Mimiko, whose mother may have abused her by Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, in which a parent purposefully injures a child or makes them sick in order to receive praise for their care. It turns out that Yumi was also abused by her mother.

Will that become a plot point? Does the ghost have long dark hair?

One of the elements that I enjoyed in the film was that of a TV show that gets wind of the ‘curse’ and basically hijacks one of Yumi’s friends into appearing on the show at the time of her predicted death. They promise the help of a famous Shinto exorcist, and of course it’s all going to be live. I fully expected the promised time to come and go with nothing happening so that the show would turn the cameras off, but instead we’re treated to full-on ghost attack, with the priest being thrown around and the poor victim having her arm turned on itself before her head twists itself off of her body. All of this goes out live on TV! Sadly, the film does nothing with the event, but I imagine the talk shows and TV news the next day were probably interesting.

Eventually Yumi and Hiroshi will confront the ghost at the heart of the curse and Yumi’s past will prove key (and emotionally effective) in that confrontation. Of course things in a Japanese horror film aren’t always what they seem, and a twist ending (as required) will leave things up in the air – just so we can have a few more films in the series. (Despite critical reviews, One Missed Call was a huge hit in Japan.) It doesn’t all make sense or dovetail, but it all works in a satisfying and entertaining way.

The Bottom Line
One Missed Call gets short-shrift from critics – David Kalat, author of J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, even calls it “bland” – but I actually think it’s got some interesting variations on the theme and is an entertaining example of the early 00’s J-Horror boom. If you haven’t seen it or are just looking for a J-Horror film to satisfy an ineffable need for angry dead girls killing people in complicated ways, then One Missed Call is definitely worth your time. I was pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and I did go back to Bullmoose – but alas, the set was already gone. I’ll keep my eye out.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.