The Death of J-Horror?
- 22 December 2005
Japan, 1998: Hideo Nakata's The Ring (Ringu) and Joji Iida's Spiral (Rasen) horror double feature crawled into the cinemas and proceeded to kill the competition. Japanese junior high and high school girls might have been the target audience, but the effect of these films exploded around the world. Little did anyone suspect when this double-bill was created that this was to be ground zero of what is now, seven years later, a highly successful cottage industry.
Ah, yes, "J-Horror;" everyone knows its tropes by now: vengeful ghosts, long stringy black hair, impossible physical gymnastics, meowing little ghost boys, cursed videos (or cell phones or computers), old rotted buildings and corpses, moldy books and newspapers, elliptical storylines (or a total abandonment of logic), creepy sound design, and creepy cinematography. Then there're the bizarrely happy endings and, lest we forget, the saccharine pop songs.
"J-Horror," as it is called, is a clever appellation for what is in reality only a very thin sliver of the Japanese horror genre that has been produced since the mid-90s. No different than the equally patronizing and vaguely pejoratively titled "K-Horror," it needs to be noted that this is a title that neither the Japanese nor the Koreans coined themselves. That whiff of 'orientalism' you smell might not be totally off; "J-Horror" was a cult fan term that was meant as a clarifying short-hand for previously hard to categorize films (in the West) like The Grudge (Juon), The Ring (Ringu), Audition, and Dark Water (Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara). It should be obvious but I'm going to state this for the record, the history of horror in Japan is long as I will show - as it is throughout Asia and should be in any place with some sort of extended and well-defined cultural history.
Furthermore, I'm going to be upfront about why I've written this feature article: I am totally tired of the 'J-Horror' releases that have come out recently. Last April, after sitting through another onslaught of these new releases I decided that I had had enough and needed to get it off of my chest. It's taken me a while to formulate my thoughts and get them down, but in a sense this piece is me drawing a line in the sand and demanding that the producers allow - or FORCE - their filmmakers to work in a creative manner and put an end to the obsessive sequel-making and regurgitation of the shinrei-mono eiga ('ghost film') that is dragging down Japanese film (and Hollywood horror for that matter). I think you'll see by the time I am done, that there needs to be a change made - and if anyone can do it, it's Takashige Ichise.
If one were to jam a finger into the center of the J-Horror pie they would hit the man without whom there would be no Ring, Grudge, or Dark Water: Takashige Ichise, the genius producer, and occasional writer, of these and many other films (including The Grudge's U.S. remake). A quick look at his slate of future releases shows that Ichise is banking his future on J-Horror: for the 2006 season we see him producing Juon 3 in Japan and The Grudge 2 in the US. Idle hands are the devil's playthings, as they say, and Ichise is trying to keep the momentum going in the short term by cannibalizing the contemporary J-Horror genre he helped to create by assembling a new series of films under the banner J-Horror Theater. And, if all goes as planned, Takashige Ichise will be steeped in J-Horror through the foreseeable future... and that might not be such a good thing. But before I get into this, we need a little history.
History: Japanese Horror in Literature, Art and Manga
Horror has had a long history in Japan as seen in its literature, print, sculpture and other arts. Some would point to Akinari Ueda's Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) as a starting point for the written collection of Japanese horror. This is the same collection of stories from which Kenji Mizoguchi wove his masterpiece Ugetsu Monogatari that on the one hand blazed a trail for the current J-Horror wave, but on the other hand has rarely been referenced again by the modern horror filmmaker.
Akinari Ueda (1734-1809) was orphaned as a child and raised by a foster family from a lineage of ronin, Ueda lived mainly in the Kansai region and was by turns a merchant, an author, and a doctor. An extremely fascinating character, he wrote in many styles tapping his own history of tragedy and compelling incidents before settling down to write his two seminal texts: the aforementioned Ugetsu and the Harusame Monogatari (Tales of Spring Rain, which was published posthumously).
Ugetsu Monogatari, itself, is largely a collection of old Japanese, Chinese, and various Confucian folk tales that Ueda reinterpreted in a particularly dramatic and poetic manner. The original Japanese text is purportedly a masterwork of penmanship, phraseology, poetry, and description, which was not only highly praised in Japan up on its release but is still regarded with national pride. The stories are indeed rather amazing-and while there is a large amount of flowery and over-wrought word use (by our modern standards), the brutality and total unpredictability of the fables is surprising. Comparisons to Edgar Allan Poe are inevitable (and perhaps Poe's own birth in 1809, the same year as Ueda's death, belies a greater cosmic coincidence?) and might serve as an appropriate analogy to Ueda's work.
Additionally, in 1825 Nanboku Tsuruya's (1755-1829) Kabuki play Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost Story of Yotsuya), was first staged in Tokyo. Telling of Iemon's spurning of his lover Oiwa for more transient sexual and material reasons and detailing his receiving the full blast of wraith from the woman he scorned, the play was hugely popular upon its release as an episode in the sprawling Chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin). Even now, it is still regarded as a seminal ghost story and echoes of its lessons reverberate through modern storytelling. Though having been staged as a film and TV drama numerous times, as will be addressed, master Japanese horror director Nobuo Nakagawa is largely regarded as having created the definitive version with his 1959 film of the same name.
Closer to the turn of the century several other authors emerged who consolidated local folklore and reinterpreted it, repackaged it and presented it in a manner fit for public consumption: Lafcadio Hearn (a.k.a. Yakumo Koizumi: 1850-1904), Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), and Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965). Each of these authors has had a number of their works adapted to the big screen, with Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan, adapted from several stories in Hearn's collection of the same name, being an unequivocal masterpiece and arguably the best of the lot.
Before shifting our focus to the visual aspect of Japanese horror, other important literary influences that need mention include Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern) by rakugo master Sanyutei Encho (1839-1900) and the Kabuki play Bancho Sarayashiki (The Ghost Story of Okiku), which has been represented in numerous wood block prints such as those by famed print maker (and obsessive ghost fanatic) Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1839-1892).
Concurrent with a rise in popularity in Japanese literature towards the fantastic story, there developed a series of ukiyo-e prints - most notably, selections from Katsushika Hokusai's Hyaku Monogatari (The 100 Stories) - that feature striking graphic portrayals of goblins, ghosts, demon hags, and various other nasty creatures and their exploits. Formally removed from western puritanical views surrounding depictions of violence and sexuality, to see these ukiyo-e prints is to understand the primary base from which the violent visual palette of Japanese horror cinema has been derived. In particular, Hokusai's striking image from the Hyaku Monogatari: Warai Haniya (Laughing Female Demon), which shows an onibaba (demon hag) snacking on a baby's decapitated head like a ripe apple, is a perfect example of this and is particularly demented.
Furthermore, these prints, typically done in vibrant full color are especially fascinating because while they only show one scene, they're so well executed that each image is pregnant with a larger story. Indeed, prints by Tsukioka, Hokusai, Kunisada Utagawa, Hokuei Shunkosai and many others are adapted from famous traditional fables and have been very precisely executed to show one of the most famous scenes from the stories. Since they typically depict only one part of larger story they require more on a textual and metatextual level in order to connect with the viewer. Oftentimes employing multiple painting and print techniques to achieve their desired emotional response, these works can best be described as the ground floor of modern Japanese manga.
It is, therefore, not an accident that a printmaker, in this case Hokusai, is largely regarded as first exploring what is now called the manga in the early 19th century. Hokusai did this with his series of manga notebooks, which, while not being executed in the contemporary manga panelized manner (the notebooks are filled with black ink drawings that are more like a sketch book rather then some sort of progressive story), they do provide the first example of many prints on multiple pages, bound together in volumes.
As a footnote, what is today regarded as manga came into being in the post-WWII period and now occupies a significant position in the history of J-Horror because so much of the current J-Horror crop has been gleaned from it - or in a new J-Horror twist, has been carefully designed to be synergistically released simultaneously as a film, drama, novel, and a manga. Getting a bit ahead of ourselves, but feeling that it should be mentioned here, J-Horror as sourced from manga has proved in the best situations to be a good thing and in the worst situations to be a liability. This shouldn't come as a surprise as the method of storytelling on the comic page and on the screen are totally different.
History: Japanese Horror in Film
The history of the horror film in Japan is a big enough topic for an entire book, and it seems inevitable that a proper musing on the topic will be released at some point (very) soon. There have been a number of rather esoteric studies, which have been done on the extreme end of Japanese horror, porno, transgressive, and exploitation cinema in general but there has yet to be a solid history written about Japanese horror in general. (These volumes focus on what is sometimes called 'Asian trash cinema' which, I might add, always sounded vaguely patronizing to me - but would calling it 'sleaze,' 'grind,' or 'exploitation' cinema make it sound any better?) What follows is a quick accounting of Japanese horror, which I will tie into the current J-Horror trend.
In the West, at least, horror stories were some of the earliest short films that were made. An extension of the vaudeville experience, horror delved straight into the heart of the general public's prurient interests and in the realm of purely visual storytelling. It was, quite simply, a great way for the filmmakers to get a response out of the audience in a short time. This, of course, would ultimately translate into more money and that was all the motivation the filmmakers needed. Even now, some 100 years later, horror films perform better in a cost-benefit analysis than almost any other genre. Japan, as it turns out, was not so much different. What is different is how the audience viewed and continues to view horror.
Arguably, the most popular form of 'Western' horror storytelling is based on the cautionary tale wherein the main characters are warned against doing something, yet they ignore it, paying the highest cost for it: death. Of course, there are variations on this theme, too; sometimes the victims are unaware of their transgressions and are punished for it as seen in the Friday the 13th films, or they are the unwitting victims of the sins of the fathers, with retribution being paid unto them, like it or not.
So, yes, while there are exceptions to this, one of the larger issues with horror in the West is that it is unusually logic and morality bound. Concurrent with this, is the necessity of establishing the monster/ghost/spirit's existence as something irrational that exists in a rational world; in short, proving to the skeptic the existence of something fantastic. Think about how much time is spent in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) establishing the notion that demons can actually possess a person, yet alone be exorcised!
In Japan, the burden of proof is not so high and the average Japanese person, conversely, is inclined to believe in ghosts because the culture is permeated with so many tales of them. Additionally, there is a belief that spirits inhabit most everything, from inanimate object to living creature, and if one is willing to believe in this, then one is willing to believe in the possibility of life after death. A perfect example of the Japanese cultural belief in the afterlife would be the butsudan (Buddhist household altar) where the spirits of dead relatives are believed to reside. This basic, fundamental difference between how the east and the west - or the Japanese and the West - view death and the afterlife is what makes Japanese horror so different from its western counterpart.
The horror film in Japan, therefore, existed up through World War II, in large part, as a type of reenactment of famous kabuki plays and other pieces of traditional Japanese period folklore, of which the aforementioned Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan was the most popular. But in the post-war period, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) discouraged the production of films set in the old feudal era under a fear that they would potentially stimulate a rise in a nationalistic spirit. As a result there was a period of absurdly westernized horror movies, more akin to Hammer movies and B and C class throwaways than to anything truly homegrown. Though perhaps not long lived, this style of storytelling never truly went out of style and the Japanese reinterpretation of western horror still exists today, and is (debatably) less schlocky then it was back then, though films like Atsushi Muroga's Junk (2000), might challenge that notion.
Kenji Mizoguchi's incredible Ugetsu, based in part on portions of Akinari Ueda's short story collection, is justifiably one of the finest pieces of Japanese, if not world cinema. A personal favorite, it is totally intoxicating and bewitching in its storytelling. I still have a difficulty getting my head around how Mizoguchi did as much with the equipment in 1953 as he did. I'll leave the praise here and state that if you haven't seen it, then you must. Quite simply, you cannot be interested in Japanese cinema and not have seen it; there's a reason why it is as famous as it is.
A major turning point in Japanese horror cinema was Nobuo Nakagawa. Born in 1905, he made his directorial debut in 1935 with the non-horror silent film Yumiya Hachimanken (Bow and Arrow Yumiya Sword). After returning from military service in Shanghai, Nakagawa started working at Shintoho where he met low-budget producer Mitsugi Okura. It was then that he began making horror films - and make them he did.
Mitsugi Okura was the Takashige Ichise of his generation. A former carnival barker, Okura, it can best be said, specialized in making films that he thought would make him money. Less concerned with notions of art and quality - though not totally immune to their inclusion as long as the film came in on or under budget - Okura's films ranged from cheapo exploitation flicks to two of Nobuo Nakagawa's best works: The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, 1959) and Jigoku (1960).
Given the fairly large number of films that Nakagawa directed, what makes his horror films so unique and defines both The Ghost Story of Yotsuya and Jigoku as masterworks are relatively good conception and execution, notwithstanding their micro-budgets, and a desire to entertain and periodically shock his audience. The atmosphere is typically thick and despite their humble origins there is something interesting that is constantly being revealed throughout his films. To be fair, the major liability in many of Nakagawa's productions is the fairly predictable storytelling - but let's be honest here, these films were not intended to be scrutinized in a critical manner; they were and should still be regarded as quickie chillers designed for 80 minutes of diversion. That said, the reason why The Ghost Story of Yotsuya and Jigoku stand out is because they are particularly creative and fascinating to watch. Both are beautifully lensed in full color scope and while The Ghost Story of Yotsuya works as a very creepy horror film, with moments of surprising humor, Jigoku gives you a bait and switch that'll leave you gasping after its shockingly sadistic freak-out ending! Quite frankly, with the exception of its total funkiness, it's hard to believe that this film was made 45 years ago!
In 1964, Masaki Kobayashi's incredible Kwaidan was released. Having won numerous awards the reputation of this film is high and once you watch it you'll see why; it's really that hard to deny its majesty and superior filmmaking. Briefly mentioned earlier, Kwaidan is based on a selection of four short horror stories by expat author Lafcadio Hearn. Masaki Kobayashi took these stories and very creatively staged and shot them in a wide and vibrant color. Rather than attempt some sort of realism with the shorts, the film, as a result of its staging and almost abstracted use of lighting and color has a slightly storybook-like, enchanted quality about it that is hypnotic to watch. Without question one of my favorite [Japanese] horror films of all times, Kwaidan operates on so many levels that the film offers a smorgasbord of filmmaking and storytelling styles that despite its nearly 3 hour running time, is not fatiguing in the least.
It would be naïve of me to hold Kwaidan (or Ugetsu for that matter) up as the example of how Japanese horror should be now. It is a unique film and could even be considered to be an anomaly. The very fact that Kobayashi made it, considering his penchant towards brooding human dramas that addressed major societal issues, hints that he was trying his hand at something new and different. (Although the argument could be made that Kobayashi was interested in the fairly strict moral system that exists within the four stories. Perhaps he was attracted to the storytelling potential of allegory?) Far more relevant to the modern evolution of Japanese horror and the resultant J-Horror were the films made by madmen Teruo Ishii, Yasuzo Masumura, and Koji Wakamatsu (to name a few), and even the kaiju films and TV shows of the 1950s and 60s.
Something was happening with the films at this time. Many different directors both from the old school and from the new, the so-called Japanese New Wave, were pushing the envelope. Films like Kaneto Shindo's 1964 masterpiece, Onibaba, were starting to jack the system from the inside. It was at once sexy and scary, beautiful and haunting in its black and white cinematography. Truly riding the line between art and exploitation it was representative of the best of both worlds. But Onibaba was only one example of the new type of films that were coming out at this time. While not necessarily horror in the standard sense, another 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara, Woman in the Dunes (Suna no Onna), was occupying some pretty dark head-space and would set the field for films like Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man in the 1980s. But perhaps the system was being manipulated the greatest by those who were working outside of the traditional studio world, making naughty little sex pix that fetishized bondage and torture.
All of this is to say that it's hard to point to one thing that made Japanese horror turn from semi-sanitized and staged productions to more grisly fare, but perhaps it was Akira Kurosawa having an improbable hydrant of blood spray out of a lethal sword wound at the end of Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjuro, 1962) that forever changed the approach to blood and violence in Japanese cinema. Besides offering up little logic for the fountain of gore, the fact that one of the acknowledged masters of cinema had done it somehow legitimized the use of bloodletting in a way that a Nobuo Nakagawa couldn't have.
The 1970s featured a crowded field of dark and twisted films that started moving away from the traditional atmospheric chills. Everything produced during this decade of bad fashion and political unrest seemed to have ink red blood spraying out of it. Chanbara films? Check out Kenji Misumi's Sword of Vengeance (Kozure Okami: Ko o Kashi Ude Kashi Tsukamatsuru, 1972)! Jidai-geki? Check out Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Koriida, 1976)! Teenage dramas? Check out Nobuhiko Obayashi's House (1977)! (My god, check out House!!)
Something happened in 1980s Japan. Trashy U.S. and Euro splatter releases must have leeched into the water table and somehow oozed across the pacific only to have been drunk up by the horror filmmakers in the 80s because suddenly all remnants of the old horror film was out and gore was in! Japanese horror movies at this time started to even look like their foreign counterparts - only more extreme with the underground spitting out films like Toshiharu Ikeda's Evil Dead Trap (Shiryo no Wana, 1988) and the boogeyman of extreme video nasties: the initially anonymously directed Guinea Pig series (1985). These naughty productions featured healthy (unhealthy?) doses of extreme violence - both sexual and not - bland plots of revenge and, well, whatever got the violence onto the screen the fastest. Like porno, these films were designed for the money shot, the gore in this case, and plots were only an inconvenience to get you from one place to the other.
These films were, it could be said, a reaction to the bland studio films that were playing throughout Japan. The studios weren't just making lame horror cinema, the entire industry in Japan was coughing and wheezing along, alienating an entire new generation of filmmakers who were dead set on doing something different and interesting.
One member of this group was a young Tokyo native, Shinya Tsukamoto. His film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) burst onto the scene, screaming for attention. Shot on 16mm black and white it was an incredibly unusual film at that time and, contrary to its popularity, we now know that it represented a direction that very few filmmakers actually went (Shozin Fukui's Pinocchio √964 (1992) and Rubber's Lover (1996) being two examples). With more art house sensibility and an industrial heart that pumped steam and blood in its David Cronenberg-inspired fleshy chest, Shinya Tsukamoto was connecting the dots from a legacy of children's kaiju TV, H.R. Giger, 60s Japanese New Wave cinema, and metamorphosis. While Tetsuo does contain scenes of extreme violence, unlike many other filmmakers working in the genre at the time Tsukamoto was definitely using horror as a metaphor. After growing up in the heart of Tokyo, surrounded by construction and the waste of an industrialized society he was making use of the tools at his disposal to talk about the world around him - and people domestically and abroad took notice.
Around this same time, there was a nostalgia developing in some of the new filmmakers for (what was at that time regarded as) the classic style of horror filmmaking; particularly towards filmmakers like Nobuo Nakagawa. A young office worker named Norio Tsuruta, employee at a video production company in Tokyo, had noticed that television shows about supposedly true ghost sightings and hauntings were extremely popular. Furthermore, he himself was intrigued both by the paranormal and those who had had paranormal experiences. Having made a few movies in college, but having basically shelved any dreams of becoming a director, he realized after finding a manga collection of supposedly true ghost incidents, that maybe there was a little space on the shelf of the local video store for this kind of thing.
Home video became hugely popular in Japan during the 1980s. Video stores were naturally filled with the latest video releases of both domestic and international films; but similar to the U.S. (and elsewhere), entrepreneurs had established companies which specialized in productions for direct-to-video releases (called V-cinema or Original Video/OV in Japan). However, unlike their foreign counterparts, the OV companies had a large, dedicated following with very little stigma surrounding it. On the one hand this allowed the nasty OV horror films like the Guinea Pig series to have a life, but it also allowed Norio Tsuruta to open up the bottle of what would become the template for the modern J-Horror boom.
Tsuruta's highly popular 1991 Scary True Stories (Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi) provided through low budget production on video, the look, mood, and style of what we now know as J-Horror. It would be ridiculous to say that he is responsible for everything that is out there now, but the current crop of J-Horror directors readily admits that his three volumes in this series were influential. What this means is that the use of abstract lighting, odd angles and camera movement, minimal (budget) music and bizarre/incongruent sound effects and design was consolidated in these productions. Furthermore, everyone's favorite black-stringy-haired girls showed up regularly to scare the pants off of our protagonists and presumably the audience, setting the standard which all subsequent films were to work off of.
But these points aside, what makes these videos surprisingly effective has little or nothing to do with the production tricks themselves, but rather with the grounding of these videos. They begin with candid snap-shots of normal Japanese folks who have had their eyes black-barred for anonymity. We start with the full photo on screen and then we cut into a close up of the ghost or spirit that has been caught in the background of the picture. These are regular folks who are being haunted. Remember that bit before about how the Japanese already believe in the notion of ghosts? Well Tsuruta figured out a way to put that innate fear into a videotape and what he got was lightning in a bottle. Too bad for him that he was just a low level director working at an OV company.
While a few years away from 1997 and what we could call ground zero, the movie field was starting to fill up with the directors that would define the J-Horror movement. Horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa was at this point moving over to horror from some pink film work with his homage to U.S. splatter The Guard from Underground (Jigoku no Keibiin, 1992). It would be a little while longer before he became the director of brainy, elliptical and oddly poetic horror films like Cure (1997) and Charisma (1999), but even in his early works his signature style pops up occasionally.
Additionally, a good seven years before he directed Ring, Hideo Nakata was directing some of his earliest works, coincidentally as part of the post Scary True Stories wave, called Noroi Shi Rei (Curse Death Ghost, 1992). An obvious cash-in on Tsuruta's popular series, the collection of video shorts is nothing to write home about with its weak scares, serviceable videography, and general budget quality, but is worth a look to see where the modern horror filmmaker Nakata first cut his teeth (which is precisely why it was re-released on DVD in Japan a few years ago - invariably, it will be picked up for distribution in the West).
What is arguably more fascinating - and cuts to the center of this article - is to see that even at this time, in 1992, J-Horror was already cannibalizing itself. The videos were cheap to produce and by merely slapping the words "True Stories" on a box it was possible to make some scratch from their video rentals. This sub-genre of horror, shinrei-mono, would have been a sidebar in the history of Japanese horror had there not been the resourceful producer (and occasional writer) of low-budget OV films Takashige Ichise, a few young directors who remembered these 'true' ghost story videos from the early 90s and a dose of good ol' dumb luck.
This, then, brings us back to the beginning.
Ringu dominated. People were scared and suddenly horror was all the rage in Japan. Anything weird, freaky, creepy, or just plain off was suddenly in production with only one aim in mind, to scare the bejesus out of the audience, right?
You've got to be kidding; it was about the money.
There were some very interesting entries into the horror and J-Horror cannon after The Ring and Spiral roared through - the aforementioned Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Cure being a great example. But even the double-feature sequel to The Ring and Spiral, Ring 2 and Shikoku, felt a little belabored.
Production companies are strange entities. It's next to impossible to get anything produced in the film/TV world, because no one wants to be the person who green-lit the big mistake. By the same token, no one wants to be the person who says no to the next big thing, which is precisely why hit movies and TV shows are so great: the production companies know what is already working so they'll just milk it until it's shriveled up and then they'll chuck it.
When Takashige Ichise was gearing up to make the original Ring, he didn't know that this was going to be such a hit. But no one asked Norio Tsuruta about it. Supposedly, Ring's scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi recommended Tsuruta as director, but Ichise didn't feel comfortable going with an OV director and instead chose Hideo Nakata, who already had a few feature films under his belt. Poor Tsuruta was left out in the cold, but he would get his day in the sun in the next couple of years, directing Ring 0: Birthday. Actually, he would get a number of other opportunities to direct as a result of his old Scary True Stories and its lasting impact on the new working horror directors: most recently he directed one of the first entries in Ichise's J-Horror Theater, Premonition (Yogen).
But man, if only Ichise had asked Tsuruta about the whole shinrei-mono and the new wave of Japanese horror. Tsuruta could have told him from his own experience that it doesn't take much money to make a good shinrei eiga; you just needed creativity and a good haunting, since the audience was already primed for such a thing. But we're talking about Japan here - and let me tell you a little secret: the new Japanese wave of horror was dead in Japan by 2000.
By the early 2000s, the phenomenal failure of films like Joji Iida's Another Heaven, Masato Harada's Inugami and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (Kairo) were a shock to the studios - and yet they weren't to the general public. But if the studios had paid attention they would've seen that the writing was on the wall: general theater attendance was slumping and people were tired of the horror clichés; how many times can you see ghost women that looked like they had just jumped out of a very cold shower and really care? In a country where trends zip in and out of fashion incredibly quickly, horror was done for; a total flat-line. But then a curious thing happened: in 2002, Hollywood director Gore Verbinsky remade Nakata's The Ring (now officially orientalised into 'Ringu') into the American The Ring and it was a blockbuster.
In the West, cult fans being a resourceful bunch, people began to discover the new wave of Japanese horror films. Hollywood, being an even more resourceful bunch and having much deeper pockets had discovered that they could acquire these really cool Japanese horror properties that the fanboys were calling 'J-Horror' for relatively little money. They could then produce a low-budget (by Hollywood standards) remake, which if it hit it did, and if it didn't, then go write it off.
Suddenly, what the fans were calling J-Horror became the catch-all for every Japanese horror film done in recent memory and BAM! J-Horror became what it is now officially called. Hollywood was hungry for new stuff and there were many more to go to-especially after a young Japanese director with a penchant for remaking the same story over and over again, put out a series of shinrei-mono called Juon (The Grudge).
If you can say anything about Takashi Shimizu it's that he's tenacious. By my count, he's made Juon five times (more than that if you split hairs and count the individual episodes); come spring 2006, it'll be six times. And then he's done a slew of video shorts that deal with ghosts and also have the whole Juon feel. After crossing paths with him once in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo, I was surprised to find that he was so unassuming and that a) he was the J-Horror juggernaut that he was being billed as in the West and b) he would become the biggest Japanese director to work in Hollywood in a generation. Shimizu is a short fellow with dodgy teeth who somehow has a real knack for making videos that successfully combine weird pacing and simple components to create tension. I still count Juon 2 (the film, not the video release) as one of the best ghost films in recent memory and while it might not be for everyone, I was totally creeped out by it. I thought the U.S. Grudge was passable if you saw it in the right mood, but it was nothing to write home about. It was a strategic move for Shimizu and Ichise to gain a good foothold in the Hollywood market, which was a great gain for them, but for the audience it was a take it or leave it entry.
I'm going to jump out of the timeline here and make special mention of Shimizu's The Stranger from Afar (Marebito). As Jasper Sharp wrote in his Midnight Eye review, it is possibly Shimizu's best film and one of the more interesting and disturbing films to come out of Japan in a while. Produced in eight days, but presumably in post-production for months, the film seems mediocre at first but then gets really interesting, finishing on a high note. Rather than rehash what has already been written about it on this site, I think that all H.P. Lovecraft fans out there should see this film as it is more in tune with what old Howard Phillip was trying to achieve than most of the recent and very literal film adaptations of his stories have been. Don't believe the people who saw it but didn't get it; The Stranger from Afar does require some independent thought on behalf of the viewer and some ability at lateral thinking, but if you like what I've just mentioned then it's the film for you. This, I need to stress, was a great thing to see come out of Takashi Shimizu and I can only hope that his upcoming Reincarnation (Rinne) is something new. He obviously has a talent for a new kind of horror movie someplace inside of him and if his usual producer, Mr. J-Horror himself, Takashige Ichise, will let him explore it, then we'll all benefit from it. (And by the way, Ichise did not produce The Stranger from Afar; relative newcomer Tatsuhiko Hirata did).
The Line in the Sand
Part of the problem with J-Horror, in my belief, is that the market has killed it. We have all been so inundated with A, B, and Z rated knock-offs (from Hideo Nakata's original Ring alone we have: Ring 2, Ring 0, The Ring (U.S.), The Ring 2 (U.S.) and the Korean Ring Virus. And I just mentioned the insanity of the Juon explosion...) that are full of the genre clichés, that there is no desire for any creativity anymore. But what's weird about the J-Horror phenomenon is that because it is J-Horror, the filmmakers seem to be afraid to step away from the genre tropes. It's almost like they're worried that their audience won't get it without the usual tricks. Or is it that they're being forced to adhere to the tried and true? I mentioned earlier about the studio penchant for going with what they know works until it doesn't work any more. Hell, the godfather of filmmaking profitability Roger Corman is famous for this approach, having run the Carnosaur series through several sequels that all made money.
Just so there's no confusion let me be clear about what I think should be really obvious, but I'm having my doubts that it actually is: there is no accounting for how essential exploring new ideas are to any genre in order for it to survive. One of the things that set contemporary Japanese horror apart to begin with is that it was an alternative to the stale horror fare which has dribbled out of Hollywood for the last decade plus. The masters of the form had seen better days and audiences were relegated to the die-hard fans that wanted to watch a few 'chunkblowers.' Horror fans in the West can point their fingers at Kevin Williamson as much as they want and blame him for the horror slump of the last part of the 90s and early 2000s, but he was just part of something larger and more lazy that was going on: it's much easier to be ironic, rather than try to craft actual scares. It is for this very reason that the first two entries in Ichise's J-Horror Theater, Infection and Premonition, are particularly frustrating to watch. They're not bad films, per se, they're just so... mediocre. This is why I am wary of the J-Horror Theater concept. It seems to be more of the same aimed at who? Naïve fans who will gobble down anything with the J-Horror title emblazoned on it? I for one am less inclined to see this series precisely because it's called 'J-Horror Theater.' After watching the first two middling releases, I'm being proven right.
In fact, you'd have thought that instead of a circulating cursed videotape that killed people, it was a cursed tape that made people put out uninspired cash-ins on lame stories. This is tough stuff I'm saying but if you haven't walked into your video store lately and seen that everyone and their mother is putting out the most generic nonsense under some sort of J-Horror, K-Horror or whatever Asian horror sub-label, then you're in for a shock. How are you supposed to find a gem like Sogo Ishii's 1994 Angel Dust if you have to dig through generic genre crap? Flooding the market is bad for the industry AND the viewer, both loyal hardcore fans and the precious new viewers are going to be driven away. Horror as a genre is never going to be for everyone, nor is "J-Horror." Stop trying to dilute it for the masses. In a totally inundated market, the wheat doesn't always separate from the chafe.
Getting back to the problem of the mediocre releases, part of the issue here, I believe, lies with the choice of source material (which would implicate the producers), the writers, the choice of filmmakers and their approach to the materials. Try something different folks! Maybe start by adding some young blood? Use writers from outside of the genre, or better yet, filmmakers from the independent dramatic film world. If you don't agree with me on this then I recommend taking a look Fruit Chan's brilliant 2004 film, Dumplings, starring Bai Ling. (Ignore the short entry in the Three Extremes omnibus and track down the DVD of the feature film version.) This movie is an example of everything that can be right about horror. The film is dark, disturbing, provocative and stimulating to watch. It's also a real trailblazer, I believe. Fruit Chan, by the way, has no previous horror filmmaking history but is instead from the rough and tumble Hong Kong independent film world. His previous films were often micro or low-budgeted human dramas and regularly featured non-actors. For Fruit Chan, story and performance is everything and it shows. The film has a relevance and an immediacy about it that is thrilling to watch. (Watching that and Old Boy in the same night fucked me up for more than a year!)
But all is not lost in Japan. I mentioned Shimizu's great The Stranger from Afar a moment ago, but what about Takashi Miike's incredibly intense Audition? I'm going to take a moment and do something I don't really like to do, and quote another reviewer that I think brilliantly summed up why Audition is one of the best modern horror films. Patrick Macias, in his Tokyoscope book, sums up his review with this: "...Miike violates the implicit trust that an audience lends its filmmakers. He loves to toy with us, and because that usually means entertainment, we are complacent. In Audition's final moments, Miike goes beyond the limits... The fact is that for the last 90 minutes or so, we've gone and given away the keys to the car and made a filmmaker our god. And like a revelation of Gnostic proportions, the peeling back of truth hurts even as it sets you free."
Yes! Audition is a great example of story, performance and filmmaking ingenuity that creates a horrifying world of twisted psyches, tortured souls and excruciating revenge. While a strong argument exists that Miike's Audition is not 'J-Horror,' in the shinrei-mono sort of way, but rather dark psychological horror, I feel that this defining of genre comes down to whether or not a film has the listed J-Horror clichés. The critical issue - and the reason why I quote Macias - is that Miike places the audience FRONT AND CENTER. He wants us to feel something from his film. Miike doesn't care if it fits into the genre description that everyone needs - from the fanboy in his chat room squat to the video store owner who is trying to organize his store to the Hollywood studio jerk who needs to find an easy way to market the film to the general public, who he disdains. Keep the audience the focus of the film and do something with them, make them feel something.
When Audition played in NYC at the end of August 2001, I remember walking down the street behind two guys who were talking about whatever, until they saw the poster for the film plastered on a wall. One of the guys points up at the poster and says: "You've seen that right?" "Nu-uh." "That's the fucking scariest movie I've ever seen." And I smiled; I liked hearing that. It made me oddly proud.
That's what horror should inspire in people. And that's what Japan needs to do again.
Looking to the future we see that Takashige Ichise's next film in the J-Horror series is Takashi Shimizu's Reincarnation. Based on an original screenplay by Masaki Adachi, both Hideo Nakata's and Takashi Shimizu's former assistant director, it looks like it might be more of the same. But never one to cast judgment ahead of time we'll have to wait until after January 2006 to see whether the film will breathe new life into the already atrophying Japanese horror scene. In the meantime, we can always hope, and my challenge remains: Japanese horror can and should be better-the history is there. Moreover, and this might be like screaming into a void, but Ichise-san, you owe it to your audience to make better Japanese horror films and not let Hollywood's pressure you to do more of the same. You can do better than that.