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.


  1. I don't know that the rule is one that you can apply 100%. Jason was indeed wronged, but who pissed in Freddy Krueger's Cheerios? (I know, later movies have kinda added a tragic past to him, but that was a long time after his first appearance.) What wrong is Dracula struggling to overcome? Lovecraft's stories (arguably not very horrible, but they're iconic as Western horror anyway) is very specifically not about punishing any wrongs; the horrible entities there are just really extreme foreigners doing their thing, which happens to result in gruesome deaths and insanity for us poor mortals.

  2. The point is more that the victims of Western horror directly incur the punishment they endure. They commit moral failures in the presence of an unstoppable punishing force. Lucy is lustful and wanton and falls victim to the Count. Lovecraft's heroes are overconfident in their own rationality. Krueger's teenage victims commit an array of sins -- but in each case it is the moral failure in the presence of an entity capable of punishing that failure.

    The victims of Japanese horror, on the other hand have no failure other than to have been randomly connected to the transmission mode of the horror -- the videotape or the hair extensions or whatever. The killer IS a wronged person, seeking justice, but they appear justified in taking that revenge on society at random, as though any victim were as good as any other.

    It's the social transmission of the suffering that marks these films, I'm arguing. Not that all horror is about a wronged person getting revenge.

  3. Ah, well that I can buy as a general rule of thumb.

  4. On second thought, to nitpick, I don't know that that holds true for Dracula after all. The novel goes in three stages of victims; Jonathan Harker for the first third, Lucy for the second, and Mina for the third. Only Jonathan, arguably, brought the horror down on himself by going into the castle and willingly offering to serve the Count's interests. Lucy as a wanton, sensual individual was a Francis Ford Coppolla invention, and not a theme of the novel, in which she was an admirably chaste young lady, and in fact her sluttiness as a vampire was arguably more horrifying to her three suitors and Van Helsing than the fact that she was a vampire.

    And Mina is just a random victim.

  5. Jonathon agrees to work with a foreigner -- he's damned. And of course, he just has to go and "open the door" that the Count told him not to.

    I'll have to re-read the book, but Lucy as I recall gives evidence of enjoying the attention of her suitors. Doomed. And Mina expresses desire for her husband. Doomed.

    I suspect Stoker's willing to just say, "Women. Doomed." and go with that, but I'd need to re-read.

  6. Hah! Well, that could be true, I guess. How can Mina and Lucy be called innocent when they're women, then bane of existence, the source of temptation?

    Of course, I'm not exactly fond of such a Freudian interpretation of Dracula, but it does hold up.