By Desmond Reddick
09 July 2007 — It is impossible to deny the influence of Japanese culture in the modern-day Western Hemisphere. In a two-part series, I will examine both the Japanese aesthetic and then the influence it has had on Hollywood horror films. Let's first take a look at the styles currently dominating Japanese genre cinema that set them apart from their American brethren.
In examining the Japanese aesthetic before applying it to American films, we have to first consider that not all Japanese horror films are alike; they're as varied as their American counterparts. The Japanese essentially created the giant monster movie over again with Gojira (something us gaijins would normally refer to as Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and its multitudinous sequels carrying on even today. Elements of horror are found in revered films by directors such as the master of samurai films, Akira Kurosawa straight through to the animated trend of tentacle porn.
Of course, the most common elements seen in today's Japanese films (what I have lovingly coined as Cinematic Sushi) is the excessive violence and ludicrous effects of the gonzo horror and the more widely known Japanese ghost film. Cinematic Sushi is in no way a derogatory term, it is a way of explaining that these films have not only been influential in the aping of their styles, they have outright been imported into America for mass consumption. Ichi the Killer and Uzumaki are fantastic examples of this. And then there are the major motion picture art films they continually produce. The only thing they all have in common is that they are all hard sells in Hollywood.
While the mass consumption I refer to is in no way equal to any Hollywood fare, it is indeed referring to a reverence found in a mass cult following. Ichi the Killer has just been repackaged in an awesome-looking, if not awkward and user-unfriendly blood pack. It is a symbol of the blood-soaked film itself. The bizarre and over-the-top methods to which the depravity of violence is depicted in this gonzo horror film make the films of Eli Roth and his American contemporaries seem like pretty tame fare. Thus the violence is almost stylized in a way reminiscent of something along the lines of Ninja Scroll. While the Hostel and Saw franchises can try to emulate one of the masters of this genre of über-violence, Takashi Miike's films like Ichi the Killer and Audition could never be released as-is into American theatres. The American Battle Royale remake's cancellation in lieu of the Virginia Tech massacre is a clear example of why these films don't transfer into a more conservative market very well.
Audition is a film that bridges the gap between the two sub-genres I'm talking about; its über-violence only surfaces after a long, eerie sadness. Audition is its own animal in a way that I have never before seen. Besides being what I consider the greatest horror film of the past quarter century, it would never have flown in America on its own accord. This is not because of its violence; it's in spite of it. The violence in Audition, while extreme in its own way, is not too over-the-top for American audiences. It's the quiet inaction of the first two acts that would be too boring for an audience used to sitting back and watching everything instead of being forced into a terrifying predicament they are unwittingly drawn into.
The ghost films from Japan are from an entirely different world compared to their gonzo brethren. I read an interview with Hideo Nakata, director of Ringu, where he outlined his method of creating fear. Nakata said, and I'm paraphrasing because I don't have a collection of five year old newspapers, that he takes great pleasure in truly disturbing people with mundane imagery. He mentions that instead of showing lots of violence he would prefer to film a dinner scene where one character asks another a question and he pans over to the person answering but on return to the shot of the character asking the question, there is now a ghost standing beside them. His goal is to temporarily unnerve and disturb the viewer, not gross them out. This side of Japanese horror asks the viewer to feel for the characters and become them in a way that no other kind of film-making can. They emulate real life by making long ponderous moments engaging and bringing a creeping terror into the folds of everyday life — instead of offering violent spectacle. When there finally is a reveal, it is ultimately terrifying; Dark Water is a perfect example of this. The endings of these films are almost always satisfyingly scary and downbeat, unlike some other kinds of Japanese genre cinema.
The Japanese trip-out films (again, my tag), are simply art in long form. Sometimes there is a cohesive story and other times not. Uzumaki is a gorgeous visionary journey through film-making that is tempered with a morose terror. Its inclusion on a current list of the best comic book inspired films is an outrage only in its low placement. The film captures beautifully the mood and story of the book and then offers something more. It's bizarre and is among some good company. It has a story, but — because it's an adaptation of the first volume of a longer story — it is intended to leave you wanting a sequel. Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris is one of those that fuck with your mind without delivering a real story in the true sense of the word. It is about a family that runs a bed and breakfast near an active volcano whose guests keep dying on them. It mixes zombies, suicide, bizarre claymation and musical numbers. That's right: musical numbers. The song they sing when they find their first dead body is one of cinema's most bizarre and hysterical moments. Now, Katakuris clearly doesn't take issue with its "this makes no sense" opening sequence, or with the fact that it's not going to provide viewers with the most elaborate of stories. But there are films like Suicide Club that parade themselves as regular horror fare but then delve right into the bizarre.
It's a mixed bag for sure, but almost every Japanese release is better than almost every Hollywood horror film. There are no rules to follow in Japanese cinema (other than the ghost story which follows a long tradition of little girl ghosts in Japanese legend), and you can be sure that any rules you think are being followed are very flimsy at best. There is nothing really resembling the ratings board. In fact, the only film I could find that was rejected by the Japanese Film Board was the British film Death of a President — which features a portrayal of President Bush being assassinated.
Japanese films are fearless, over-the-top, emotionally charged and, at times, very illogical. But they are not made by committee. Regardless of what you think of a particular film, you have to respect that it is the director's unaltered vision.