Introduction to Japanese Horror Film

picture: Introduction to Japanese Horror Film
9 March 2009


Japanese horror seems to have joined anime as a particularly voguish topic for scholarly dissection these past few years, but so far we've yet to see an academic study of horror in which the research matches up to the jargon. Leading the charge back in 2005, the Jay McRoy-edited anthology Japanese Horror Cinema was, on the whole, a disappointment, and was characteristic in its favouring of theory over fact. I've yet to see McRoy's solo effort Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema published early in 2008, but Colette Balmain's recent Introduction to Japanese Horror Film really makes one question the purpose of Film Studies as an academic discipline.

Firstly, though the author herself acknowledges the problem of "how one defines horror and so identifies its essential features", I wonder why so many studies so far (and I include Jim Harper's Flowers From Hell in this) have delimited the subject by looking at "the origins, themes and conventions of Japanese horror cinema from 1950 to date" when works based on the kaidan such as Tales of the Peony Lantern and The Ghost of Yotsuya were being made in the 1910s, early German precursors to the genre such as The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Student of Prague (1913) were making it to Japan within years of their domestic releases, and the ero-guro literary genre led by writers like Edogawa Rampo thrived in the 1920s. And why, oh why, do so many insist on looking at Nikkatsu Roman Porno films such as the Angel Guts series as being made for the horror market?

Unfortunately, issues of scope prove to be the least of the book's problems. The first chapter entitled "Laying the Foundations" immediately sets alarm bells ringing. According to Balmain, Nikkatsu Studios "would eventually close its doors for good in 1988" (pg 13; actually it went bankrupt in 1992 though was bought up by Namco the following year, and is still a considerable presence in the industry today); Shochiku was the first major studio to use actresses (pg 13; actually they were beaten to it by Nikkatsu, and even several years earlier by Tenkatsu and Taikatsu) and was "the main financier of the Art Theatre Guild" (pg 14; no, this was Toho); Toei "produced nine out of the ten best-selling films in Japan" in 2005 (pg 14; sorry, it was Toho again, and they distributed nine out of the ten top-grossing films; many of these were produced out of house) and also "is the home of Hayao Miyazaki" (it barely needs mentioning here that Studio Ghibli has nothing to do with Toei, having been established as a subsidiary of the publishing company Tokuma Shoten); and Daiei "went bankrupt in 1971, only to emerge as Kadokawa Pictures in 2002" (pg 14; Daiei was bought up by Tokuma following its bankrupcy, and continued to produce films all the way up until it passed over into Kadokawa's hands; Kadokawa had been involved in film production in its own right since the mid-1970s).

Macrons and Western name orders are used inconsistently and Japanese terms are routinely misspelt ("shakiamono" instead of "shakai-mono"; "tateme" instead of "tatemae"; "mekeke" instead of "mekake") or misapplied: apparently Wild Zero "is continuing within the tradition of youth-orientated films, known as Sun Tribe or taiyozoku films" [pg 118], while Versus "is representative of a trend in Japanese visual art towards what is known as the 'super-flat aesthetic'" [pg 116]. Most of this could have been detected as the complete piffle that it is by a quick Google search. Given that this is a university press publishing an academic book by, I am informed on the back cover, a university Senior Lecturer, surely at some point in the process the services of a fact-checker, proofreader or just someone who knew a little more about Japanese language, cinema and culture could have been solicited.

All of this robs the text of any of the necessary authority the author strives for in servicing the same Orientalist "explanations" of the films that sadly seems to have become standard for books of this type. Anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with the language could see through such ludicrous falsehoods as "the Japanese language does not distinguish between the personal pronouns 'I' and 'you', or 'self' and 'other'; instead the relationship between self and other in Japanese culture is one in which 'the self immerse[s] itself in the other'" [pg 37] and what is implied by it - this bizarre assertion, like so many others within these pages, is presented as hard fact by backing it up with a quote that itself could do with far closer circumspection (in this case from an essay by Chon Noriega published in the 2006 anthology Asian Cinemas: A Reader and Guide).

Ironic then that Balmain's book ends with a passage from Edward Said's Orientalism, his seminal study from 1978 of Western academia's fabrication of a fictitious Eastern other; "Rather than a manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow." [pg 190]. I say ironic, because Balmain's books falls right into the trap of constructing an image of a foreign society through a collage of second-hand, misappropriated or downright irrelevant citations. Opinions such as "In contemporary Japanese cinema, the motifs of alienation, emptiness and isolation contained with an apocalyptic mise-en-scene of techno-horror, articulate urban alienation in a society dominated by the image, commodity fetishisation and economic instability" [pg 168] are all too typical within its pages, and do more to reinforce any "manufactured clash of civilizations" than counter it.

Film critics and scholars alike would do better to stick with the immediate evidence at hand (i.e. the films) rather than perpetuate dubious value judgements about a culture with which they clearly have had no direct contact. The portrait here of Japan as a sheeplike, paranoid and neurotic society cowering against the cumulative threats of changing gender roles, technological advance, economic uncertainty, the erosion of the family unit and alien "Western" concepts of "individualism" forced upon them during the Occupation would probably have given even Ruth Benedict cause for alarm. A couple of months in Japan and one can recognise the same problems as existing in any other post-industrial society. In other words, J-Horror appeals to universal, not Japanese-specific fears, which is why the films have travelled as far as they have and, while we're at it, why producers such as Takashige Ichise have been so successful at specifically targeting his films at overseas audiences, a point that surprisingly few writers seem to have picked up on.


Introduction to Japanese Horror Film

picture: cover of 'Introduction to Japanese Horror Film'
Colette Balmain
Edinburgh University Press