A Japanese Horror Film Essay by Natalie Desantiago

12-24-13: 

Japanese Lost in the Information Age

A number of people refuse to watch horror films. What makes horror films absolutely terrifying to these people that they must refuse to watch it? Is it the gruesome theatrics, or the building suspense, or merely the fear of the unknown? The unknown is often played with in horror films; a foreign creature or substance can be horrific, because it has the capability of unleashing terror among the human race. Except Japanese Horror films do not focus on the unknown; Japanese Horror film directors know that there is something more terrifying closer to home: something that is often ignored, but never disappears – the social issues of Japan. These people who refuse to watch horror films may refuse the films because they fear facing the horrors that they deny exist.

Japanese Horror film directors utilize the genre horror as a vehicle to address the main concerns of Japanese society, because the concerns parallel with the horrifying nature of the film and the elicited response from the audience parallels with the actual disgust Japanese should feel toward the concerns presented. So if nationalism is the concept of an imagined community that is bound by a series of “icons, ceremonies and symbols” (Blake 8) then the intent of Japanese Horror films immediately trashes the idea of nationalism because the issues of the Japanese can be seen on a global scale as well. Other genres tend to bind Japanese concerns and fears and hide them with a nationalistic appeal (Blake 9). Japanese Horror films on the other hand expose the underlying issues of Japan and represent themselves faithfully, even if it is an unattractive representation of self. Japanese Horror films are not representations of the “oriental”, but rather a representation of Japan as a complex society, just as any western society, that faces issues domestically. Modern Japanese Horror films such as Ringu, Suicide Club, Marebito, Ju-on, and Chaku-shin Ari focus on the main issue of identity loss during the information age and through these films they not only discuss this issue, but reveal that because of the information age, a growing number of other social issues stem from the rapid growth of people who depend on technology.

The other social issues that are embedded within the issue of identity loss are easily identifiable in Japanese Horror films, but the bigger picture tends to be hidden within symbols and metaphors. The easily identifiable issues that are presented in Japanese Horror films are subparts of the main concern of the film. This guides the audience to look beyond the social issues and to question how these issues became a part of Japanese society. So Japanese Horror film directors lead their viewers to recognize that the main issue is technology and how technology destroys the Japanese peoples’ identity. Once the Japanese do not recognize who they are, and the role they must take part in Japanese society, it plants seeds of misfortunes such as suicide, neglect, isolationism and abuse.

Japanese Horror films’ settings take place in an urban topography.  Ringu’s Sadako, the vengeful spirit, was born on Oshima Island and her corpse ended within the waters of a well in Izu peninsula (Wada-Marciano 26). These areas are both rural locations close to Tokyo, the setting for most of the film. The fact that Sadako’s vengeance has reached Tokyo, but not touched the rural areas, unveils that the problem is within the city – a construct of modernization. Ringu delves beyond modernization and even utilizes film as the conduit for Sadako’s murderous intent. So once the victim views the cursed film, they only have seven days to live and the only way to escape their doomed fate is to make a copy of the film and pass it on to someone else.  Similarly, Chakushin Ari is about a vengeful spirit that uses cell phones as a vehicle to kill. Once the victim is killed, their phone dials their contacts and continues the chain of death. Metaphorically, technology is a conduit of destruction and “like an epidemic spiral, the more these everyday technologies are diffused, the more the horrific spreads along with them” (Wada-Marciano 27).

In both the films, the protagonists search for the origin of the horror in hopes to stop the curse, but even after they discover the identity of the culprit, the curse remains intact. The protagonist in Chakushin Ari even exclaims, as she has found the identity of the vengeful spirit and believes the curse dissipated, “she only wanted to be found”, but discovering the identity of the antagonist does not stop the curse. In the midst of an identity crisis in Japan, an individual who finds their identity does not halt the epidemic; technology continues to grab a hold of the masses and thus it is not a solution to heal the identities of all the Japanese. Along with the identity crises, both of these films present other issues. Chakushin Ari brings up the issue of abuse and Ringu brings up the issue of neglect. These issues, again, are not the main issues of the film, but a background setup of the film. Thus, it metaphorically is the build-up from the actual problem at hand, which is technology and identity loss.

In the film Ju-On, the curse did not spread through technology, but rather by contact with someone who was cursed, and to become cursed in the first place, someone had to come in contact with the cursed home. Typically in American films, haunted homes reside in a desolate area, but because Japanese Horror film directors are criticizing urban topography, the cursed home was erected in the city. In large cities of Japan, people encounter hundreds of strangers daily and so in a city, someone who is cursed can quickly spread the fate of death, and even if they are passing it along to someone they had barely just met. Japanese Horror film directors are criticizing how modernization has created a social model which people have become inept to communicate face to face regularly, because in a large city, an individual is surrounded by strangers and in order for that individual to create a connection with others, they must resort to technology.  Thus, the information age has altered the traditional social model, one which Japanese frequently encountered people they knew, to a model, which has led people further from communicating in person regularly (Iles). So the more we become strangers with others, the increase in potential danger which returns back to how the curse spread in Ju-On.

Marebito shows perfectly how technology can affect an individual’s identity. The protagonist is thrown further into the spiral of insanity because he estranges himself from human contact. The film also takes place in an urban location, which engrains in the viewer’s mind that the problem lies hidden within familiarity. The protagonist, Masuoka, is a camera man who searches for true fear. One scene, Masuoka is re-watching a clip of a man who commits suicide in front of a group of people and before the man commits suicide, he unsheathes a face of terror. Masuoka continuously searches through other clips to find the same expression the man had beheld, and as he is watching these horrific clips his face remains expressionless and he remains unsatisfied. The director, Takashi Shimizu, is critiquing how mass media desensitizes the Japanese, which is connected to the inability to communicate on a deeper level. It is connected because if Japanese cannot empathize with those who suffer or others in general, then it becomes more difficult to relate with others.

The information age not only desensitizes people, but allows its patrons to fall into a pit of artificial reality. Masuoka becomes so enamored with the idea of true fear that when he searches for it, he becomes lost in it. Masuoka follows hints of what could have caused the victim of suicide to express terror and it leads him to an underground tunnel. There he discovers an unknown species called Deros and he takes a female Deros with him. Along the way he encounters a woman who claims to be his wife and he ends up killing the woman and a high school student to feed the Deros. The film switches between Masuoka’s camera and an omnipotent view. The lens of the film expresses the idea of switching back and forth from actual reality and the reality that Masuoka is experiencing – an artificial reality (Wada Marciano 29). In actuality Masuoka had created this whole idea of the Deros in his mind because he was so enraptured by the idea of true fear. He ended up killing his wife and treated his daughter like a creature in order to fulfill his fantasies. His apartment was a cluttered mess that had remnants of food he ate weeks earlier and he constantly sat in front of his computer screens. This makes it apparent that technology had driven Masuoka to isolate himself from others and because he had no actual contact with others, he created his own reality and in the process he lost his identity. Because he lost his identity, he could not recognize his wife or his daughter. Marebito conveys the severity of the dangers that derive from technology, because Masuoka’s artificial reality led him to murder his wife.

Previously I have merely touched upon the definition of identity loss because Ringu, Chakushin Ari, Ju-On use the unknown identity of the vengeful spirits to represent identity loss and Marebito uses Masuoka’s artificial reality as a symbol of identity loss. The directors had created a puzzle in order for their viewers to recognize the bigger picture, but Suicide Club directed by Sion Sono does not hide behind ghostly apparitions or a psychotic breakdown, but shows the issues raw; raw and perhaps a little exaggerated. The film opens in a city and focuses on fifty high school female students giggling as they walk their way to the subway. Nothing appears to be out of the ordinary, until a subway approaches the line and the girls jump to their deaths.  Like all other Japanese Horror flicks, the film is set in an urban location. Their unexpected actions are a result of modernization. As earlier discussed, in a large city encounters of strangers are a part of everyday life and it parallels with the idea that the modern social construction denies people the ability to become familiar with others. This results in their unforeseen actions, because no one had the slightest idea of the girls’ intentions. The cops had a difficult time identifying the victims because their bodies had been dismantled and scattered by the subway train and it gives the hint that these girls are victims of the information age and had lost their identity.

After this incident, an epidemic of suicides grabs a hold of the Japanese. The majority of the film focuses on Detective Kuroda and his search for the cause of the suicides. Detective Kuroda discovers that there is no actual cause, but a fad. Other high school students jump on to the idea of killing themselves merely because the publicity that the fifty high school girls had received. Japan is one of the top countries with the highest rates of suicides so Sion Sono is expressing that social issues such as suicide may be a result of fads or identity loss. One example is the Aokigahara forest, it was once merely a forest, but has become a popular location for suicides. A rise in suicides in this location occurred because a pop culture book had romanticized the location for suicides. Once suicides took a rise in the location, the media grabbed more attention from the Japanese about this location. The film emphasizes a J-Pop group Dessert throughout the entire film and their songs play during montages of suicides which leads the audience to believe that somehow this J-Pop group is connected to the suicides. Sion Sono is trying to express that those who lose their identity identify themselves with external sources such as fashion, tattoos and pop music. Urbanization has created mindless consumers. The montage of suicides expresses how fads are destroying the Japanese. It may appear harmless, as the suicides are committed in a natural and mundane manner, but in actuality it is destroying them.

Detective Kuroda, who at first believed the suicides were linked to a murderer, realizes that it is not only a fad, but is occurring because those who are killing themselves are identity-less. In the beginning he receives a call from a child who asks if he is connected with himself, and Kuroda undoubtedly believes he is, but as soon as he discovers his family had killed their selves, he realizes he is not connected with himself. He identified himself with the failure to protect his family and so he killed himself as well.

On the other hand, a sub-character, Mitsuko, tragically crosses paths with her boyfriend who leapt from a building to end his life. As she leaves her boyfriend dying she exclaims that she must keep living. She does not identify herself as her boyfriend’s girlfriend, but she identifies herself as an individual so she does not follow her boyfriend’s footsteps. At the end of the film Mitsuko encounters a young boy and an entourage of children after she discovered Dessert, the J-Pop group, is connected to the suicides. This young boy is the same boy who had called Detective Kuroda if he was connected to himself and asks Mitsuko the same question. She replies that she is and so they lead her to a back room where an unidentified man slices a piece of her skin, earlier in the film a reel of sliced skins were found at the crime scenes of the mass suicides and most of the skins were identified with the victims. The unidentified man slices the piece where she has a tattoo; the tattoo represents consumerism and the identity-less mass of people. The film closes with another detective, Detective Shibusawa, who discovers a reel of skin with the piece of Mitsuko. He runs into her at a subway station and fears that she is going to kill herself, but she angrily rejects his help and claims that she is not going to kill herself. Mitsuko did not identify herself with outside sources such as her tattoo, or her boyfriend, and without them she showed that she could still live, but the fact that she rejected Detective Shibusawa who represents compassion and sincere contact shows that the issues of Japan will not dissipate with an individual who knows their identity. It goes beyond than that. Suicide Club suggests that the resolution relies with children, such as the children who continued to question others if they were connected with themselves, because children are pure and have not yet been affected by the information age.

Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 2006.

“Analysis of Suicide Club. Deviantart. 24, October 2011. Web. 14, December 2013.

Hakari, Adam. “Tales from the Underground”. Reel Talk Movie Reviews. 2013.Web. 14, December 2013.

Iles, Timothy. “The Problem of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Horror”. Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. 10.6 (2005).Online Journal. 12.17 (2013).Web. 30, November 2013.

McDonald, Keiko. Reading a Japanese Film : Cinema in Context. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.

Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo. “J-HORROR: New Media’s Impact on Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema.” Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 16.2 (2007): 23.Web. 10, December 2013.

Wee, Valerie. “Patriarchy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine: A Comparative Study Of Ringu and The Ring.” Feminist Media Studies, 11.2 (2011): 151-165.Web.10, December 2013.

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