Sunday, May 10, 2009

Japanese Horror: The Transmission of Suffering

The great explosion in a genre that can only be called "Japanese Horror" began back in 1998 with the little film called The Ring, by Hideo Nakata. And a little girl crawling up out of a well, and occasionally out of other things little girls have no business crawling out of.

Recently I watched one of the more unlikely follow-ups to Nakata's enormously successful film, Hair Extensions. Yes, this film is in fact about murderous fashion accessories. It's creepier than you might think, and a great performance from Chiaki Kuriyama gives it a weight it wouldn't otherwise earn. But it got me thinking about the phenomenon of Japanese Horror, and in particular how these films differ from, say, western horror films.

Now, in any successful horror film, it is clear to the audience that by the end of the film, judgement has been handed out. Those who died horribly may not have "deserved to die" in any realistic fashion, but the audience understands that they broke the rules and they must pay the price. This is a basic truth of all horror films -- they are reactionary, extremely conservative stories in which even the slightest mis-step is punished with torture and horrible death.

But in the western mode, the punishment comes typically at the hands of one who was wronged, with no mediation. Jason, the killer of the Friday the 13th films, was drowned in a lake as a child. The endless cycle of murders he perpetuates are his rightful claim to justice. But the killing is done by he himself.

In the Japanese tale, punishment is mediated by others. The Ring videotape is passed on from one viewer to the next. Evil extensions are placed in the hair of unsuspecting salon customers. The suffering of one is distributed throughout society. In a film like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, the suffering virtually destroys civilization entirely.

In Friday the 13th, those who commit wrongs are punished, but society itself is not implicated. In films like The Ring, all of society is made guilty for the suffering of one. The dreadful suffering of one little girl is EVERYONE'S responsibility. She has the right, says this film, to take her vengeance on any of us. We allowed this to happen; we must bear the punishment.

You can see it as a continuation of the theme of a film as old and tired as Godzilla -- all acts are social acts, and so we cannot dodge our responsibility for being part of the society that allows terrible things to happen.

A film like Hair Extensions is probably a sign that the "Japanese Horror" genre is overworked. None of the follow-ups to The Ring have lived up to that film's searing moments of terror. It will be interesting to see where the next great wave comes from.