Japanese Horror Cinema
by Jasper Sharp
If there's been a mammoth surge of interest in Asian cinema since the turn of the millennium, then it has undoubtedly found its most visible manifestation in the field of horror. Though industries as far flung as Hong Kong, Thailand and Korea have all profited from this new international attention, the phenomenon pretty much entirely began with a handful of films produced in Japan whose sombre supernatural thrills can be said to have forged the template for much of what was to follow. Such titles as Ring, Audition and Juon from this newly-labelled J-Horror wave have gone on to capture imaginations and new audiences across much of the globe, and a number have already been remade in Hollywood. Well, of course, by now this should be a familiar enough story to most Midnight Eye readers...
The crucial thing is, though, - and more highbrow cinephiles might not care to admit it - Japanese cinema hasn't had this much international interest since the days of Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa. And this is not just on the distributors' side. Judging by the emails we get to this site, Takashi Miike now seems to have overtaken Yasujiro Ozu as the man in Japan who has launched the most Masters student dissertations. If we're honest, the motivation and the approach between the two directors' scholars is probably not that different. These are filmmakers whose appeal - though for entirely different reasons - easily crosses geographical boundaries, but whose work throws up enough surface anomalies to capture the Western eye, inspiring much conjecture and debate as to their cultural groundings.
We can make much the same claims for the films of Hideo Nakata, whose work is more representative of the J-horror genre: After all, it was his 1997 version of Ring that proved to Japanese producers just how popular horror could be, and whose detached ambiguous style typified so many of the films that followed. (Miike's Audition is such a memorable example of genre filmmaking that it is easy to forget it is one of the director's few entries in the field, and for all its rug-pulling narrative tricks and over-zealous approach to the blood, vomit and other assorted bodily fluids, arguably not really horror at all.)
With horror over the past 5 years taking up such a large proportion of Japanese releases overseas, it was about time for someone out there to deliver "a much-needed critical introduction" to these films, to quote the back cover blurb of this compendium of essays edited by Jay McRoy and released as part of Edinburgh University Press's Traditions in World Cinema series. After all, not only is horror a genre that reflects the subconscious fears of the society in which it is made, but historically it has proven one of the most successful at crossing international borders.
As Christopher Sharrett states in his preface "few genres have been as blunt in questioning notions of the monstrous Other, the nature of the family and other elements of received social wisdom", all aspects universal in their appeal. He goes on to mention that the golden days when Western horror had some higher purpose to it than forming mere shock vehicles sadly now seems to be a thing of the distant past, with many classics of the genre "subjected to indulgent, insulting remakes that strip away the original work's radical or contentious ideas".
These reasons are of course the key to the popularity of many of J-Horror's key titles. At a time when Hollywood was churning out throwaway titles like I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), Urban Legend (Jamie Blanks, 1998) and the needless remake of Robert Wise's The Haunting (Jan de Bont, 1999), Nakata's Ring, as Eric White pinpoints in his essay on the film, articulated "a troubled yet oddly expectant vision of a future in which the great collective psychotronic apparatus of contemporary information technology ceaselessly reconstitutes individual identity". Such fears are hardly unique to audience in the film's country of origin. As we shiver with the lights dimmed down, we know that the original Japanese viewers most probably felt the same way watching the film as we are feeling now.
The book Japanese Horror Cinema thus provides a timely and welcome attempt at creating a wider discourse around this vital aspect of modern global film culture. Unfortunately, taken as a whole, it is not an entirely successful one. Not only is the prevalence of academic jargon sure to alienate many of the films's original fans, but there are far deeper problems endemic to the field of international film studies in evidence here. The 13 essays presented within the book are quite a mixed bag.
There are two types of academic film criticism; one based on fact and one based on theory. When theses are presented based on such a flimsy factual basis as some of those on offer here, theory becomes relegated to essentially little more than conjecture. Several of the writers in this volume come unstuck when it comes to positing the films within any sort of Japanese context. Though the back-jacket assures us that each chapter "is written by an expert in the field", the vigilant reader will pick up on the distinct lack of citations from Japanese (or indeed any non-English language) sources in the bibliography.
The most successful pieces (to be fair, the majority of them) are when the writers stick most closely to the film texts themselves, as well as the more tangible aspects surrounding them and the acknowledgement of their appeal to Western audiences: Eric White's aforementioned analysis of Ring; Steffan Hantke on how Western audiences reacted to the narrative complexities and surprise shock developments of Miike's Audition; or Ian Conrich on the shock-of-the-new reception of Tsukamoto's Tetsuo films.
In his fascinating analysis of the way in which Toru Takemitsu's score complements the oppressive atmosphere of Kiju Yoshida's Japanese gothic Onimaru (Arashigaoka, 1988), Philip Brophy also comes off as someone who knows clearly what he is writing about, and comes up with some beautifully written passages to support his ideas. Christopher Bolton's re-evaluation of the ability of the anime medium to open up a self-critical "third eye" in its viewers and Matt Hills' look at the snobbery and one-upmanship of cult movie fans in relation to internet discussions on Nakata's Ring and Gore Verbinsky's Hollywood remake also provide ample food for thought in the reader. These essays are enough to redeem some of the more flimsy arguments found in the other chapters.
But aside from a general lack of first person research (none of the writers, it appears, have conducted their own interviews with the filmmakers they write about), what also comes across in these pages is an unfortunate lack of familiarity with Japanese language, culture, history and cinema. Too often facts and opinions from secondary or tertiary sources - webzines, internet message boards and DVD liner notes - are reeled off uncritically as if they were gospel truths, and much of the writers' attempts at negotiating their way through the films in question through a particular framework more often than not come across as attempts at hammering square pegs into round holes.
If you are trying to provide some background on the competitiveness of the Japanese education system to frame a discussion on Battle Royale, for example, it might be more helpful to cull your facts from a source a little less emotive than a book on The Rape of Nanking. And why make unsustainable assertions such as "it is most likely that Battle Royale is Fukasaku's violent reworking of the film version of Horace McCoy's 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" without providing any factual evidence that Fukasaku had even read this work, or acknowledging that the real source of Fukasaku's film is the Koushun Takami novel of the same name? Likewise, if you are attempting to negotiate the trickier areas of sexual politics in Takashii Ishii's Freeze Me, then don't make comments such as "It would be misleading to label Ishii a feminist film-maker without any further examination, as his first films depict nothing but sexual stereotypes" unless you have something stronger than a reference to the liner notes of the Tartan release of the film to back you up - who knows, maybe the writer of these notes hasn't seen any of Ishii's early films either. What I do know however, is that debating the pros and cons of Ishii's films is enough of a minefield even for those that have seen them.
Opinions are one thing, but factual errors are pretty unforgivable in a book of this nature, especially with resources such as the Internet Movie Database or (for Japanese readers) the Japanese Movie Database, as well as the series of catalogues put out annually by Unijapan so readily available to researchers. Things get off to a less than auspicious start in the very first paragraph of the introduction, where director Kaneto Shindo's name is misspelt as Keneto, and Tokuzo Tanaka is incorrectly credited as the director of the 1964 ghostly omnibus movie Kwaidan, instead of Masaki Kobayashi (the mistake crops up on several occasions: Tanaka actually directed a film called The Snow Woman / Kaidan Yuki Onna in 1968, based on the same story as a fifth part originally cut from Kobayashi's film to bring it down in length). Later typos such as 'dokufo', referring to 'dokufu' ('poison wife') narratives, or 'Dojijo' for the Kabuki play 'Dojoji' similarly display a conspicuous absence of editorial intervention.
Aspiring academic writers should be aware that their research is bound to fall under the harsh scrutiny of others working in the field at some point or other. Even the layman reader is bound to follow up the citations in the text at some point and begin to start scratching their heads and doubting the expertise of their authors. Opinions such as that Hisayasu Sato's "films reveal a myriad of social and political anxieties over the 'appearance' of the Japanese physical and social body" are all well and good, but would be far more convincing if their writer had actually managed to mention some of these other titles in the director's oeuvre.
With much of the writers' relationship to their subject matter built on these purely textual foundations, it is disheartening to note how cursory and unbalanced some of the background research actually is. While Carol J. Clover's Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is checklisted at numerous points to provide a theoretical framework, and Marilyn Ivy's Discourse of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm and Japan informs much of the cultural readings, many of the writers fall back on Thomas Weisser's Japanese Cinema: Essential Handbook to provide details and opinions on the films themselves, a work in itself well recognised as being riddled with errors and inaccuracies. Typically florid quotes from Jack Hunter's Eros in Hell are occasionally brought in to spice up the text, but given that there are so few books published on recent Japanese cinema in English (there's of course a wealth of information available in Japanese), it seems almost perverse that the names of bona fide experts such as Mark Schilling or Aaron Gerow don't crop up anywhere in the bibliography - nor indeed does Pete Tombs, author of the excellent Mondo Macabro. (I did, however, spot a curious reference here to someone called Tom Mesure...)
As for the overall scope of the book, well, a collection such as this will always leave certain stones unturned, but surprising lacunae in the selection of texts include Kiyoshi Kurosawa's formal experimentations in horror filmmaking, and any reference at all to the literary influence of Edogawa Rampo, who pretty much single-handedly kicked off the entire tradition of modern horror and fantasy fiction in Japan.
There's certainly a lot to be said about the recent surge in Japanese horror, but there are many questions that the reader might come away with from this book feeling left unanswered. Aside from such issues as how these films were consumed within Japan, the most pertinent of these is if, as Jay McRoy asserts on the very first page, "Horror cinema has long been a vital component of the Japanese film industry", why is it only now that the rest of the world has sat up and taken notice?
Despite certain misgivings, there's still plenty in Japanese Horror Cinema to encourage new insights and readings in the films discussed, and even the more contentious ideas in it should serve to fuel further debate. But potential readers are however advised to take a lot of what is written with a large pinch of salt, because despite the book's academic credentials, you're more likely to find concrete and reliable information on the films under discussion surfing around on the internet. In the meantime, the field is at least still wide open for further work on the subject. For anyone thinking of taking up the challenge, I'd advise a lot less hypothesis and a lot more history. Oh, and some pictures might not have gone amiss either...