Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre of Durham, Jim Carl gives his take on Japanese horror films.
“J-Horror” is a relatively new genre which began at the start of the 2000s. It’s a designation created by mostly American film critics which has slowly crept into the mainstream, like elevated horror and Funko Pops, and nowadays is widely consumed by almost everyone. It revolves around Japanese horror movies, but sometimes also lumps other Asian countries into the mix, like South Korea and Hong Kong, even though that’s technically incorrect.
One thing critics can mostly agree on is that J-Horror got its start with 1998’s “Ring;” a picture featuring an iconic image we’ve all grown to recognize: A creepy woman with long, unkept hair falling over her face, whose sole job is to scare the holy bejeezus out of us.
Sure, there had been other Japanese horror movies before “Ring,” like “Kwaidan” and “Onibaba,” but none made an impact on Western audiences like this one. Its success in America was mightily helped by 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project,” which ignited the found footage craze—for better or worse—and signified an advancement in horror movies away from the slasher pictures of the 1980s. It didn’t hurt that “Ring” involved a cursed videotape at a time when people were looking for the next “Blair Witch.” Both films featured grainy handheld footage and included shots that lingered for so long that we jumped when a twig snapped in the distance, signifying danger. But a gimmick is not enough. There must also be motivation, and characters who exist for some reason other than to run and scream.
What distinguishes Japanese horror films from the American ones of the same period, like “Final Destination” and “Urban Legend,” I believe, is that they dominantly focus on the demise of traditional Japanese family values rather than the demise of traditional American teenagers. They also place families into some truly fouled-up haunted houses, and US audiences hadn’t experienced a truly fouled-up haunted house flick since…what? “Poltergeist” in 1982? Monstrous mothers—a surefire hit ever since Janet Leigh took that shower in “Psycho” —also become a major theme, especially in films like “Ju-On: The Grudge.”
Thanks to “The Amityville Horror” and its sequels, you’d think everyone on Earth would now know to avoid moving into houses where the previous owners became possessed and were slaughtered by demons but—this being Japan, a country long respected for being cool as a cucumber—I can forgive its people for brushing aside such superstition, and simply believing all Americans are wimps. Besides, real estate is almost always a good investment: cursed, haunted, possessed, built on ancient burial grounds or not.
Japanese families in these pictures are also tough as leather, in fact, they don’t just ignore the ghosts in their homes, but also brush aside creepy cemeteries across the street, chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks, and pay no heed whatsoever toward their new neighbors—as they unpack their minivans—who are usually standing on the sidewalk nearby, waving their arms and hands in front of their faces, which is the Japanese equivalent of making the Sign-of-the-Cross, and never a good omen. Not for nothing are Japanese the largest consumers of rice wine on the planet.
When we finally meet the ghosts, they’re the usual snarling apparitions, pasty-skinned and revenge-driven, as tall as a giraffe and bristling with ominous energy, and whose only function appears to be leaving behind nasty little bits of petrified human remains for the main characters to trip over.
The movies aren’t just limited to haunted houses and mama bears. They reflect all the horrific technical advancements made in these types of pictures since Japanese audiences started watching them. For example, in 1968’s “Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell,” the camera loiters on a shot of a desert setting for so long that we begin searching the frame, anticipating the direction from which something terrible might jump out at us. In 2000’s “Battle Royale,” entire sets explode and come crashing to the ground just by aiming the camera in their direction. That’s advancement.
Battle Royale is a picture about a class of high school students who are brought to an island and forced to kill each other until there’s only one left standing, which is pretty much the equivalent of 1980’s American bad parenting. It’s a tough situation to survive, especially when half the kids dress like militants from Idi Amin’s army and wear shades. It’s so tough, in fact, the students’ backpacks are stuffed with thermite and leftover police tape. It’s the kind of place where Michelle Rodriguez wouldn’t seem out of place as a home economics teacher. A ragtag group of students go on a mission to escape the island—a mission that exists mostly of wandering off into the forest and getting killed—they have firefights and exchange hand grenades with other classmates, and national morale depends on a single surviving girl smiling creepily toward the camera. In the military command center, Takeshi Kitano screams, “Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it!”
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is so overloaded with plot, it can afford to hold some back for a sequel. It introduces bomb threats aboard passenger airliners, crash landings, UFOs, midair near-collisions, shootouts, hijackings, hostage situations, and end-of-the-world scenarios before the opening credits have even begun. The script doesn’t stop to offer us the obligatory love affair between flight attendant and captain because there’s too much else going on, as even the birds have gone bonkers and are committing suicide. It begins with a plane flying through creepy red clouds, looking very much like a scene straight out of a horror manga, then starts adding wit and suspense, growing more shocking along the way, moving faster and faster, until at last, in its third act, the story crescendos, cutting back and forth between pandemonium and Armageddon, almost strangling itself with overambition. It has an ending that is so bleak and is so nihilistic, you won’t believe your eyes, but its storytelling is so absorbing, and its visuals are so compelling, you won’t care.
JIM CARL is Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre of Durham. He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. Some of his favorite foreign horror movies include “Timecrimes” (Spain), “The Church” (Italy), “Monster Shark” (Italy), and “Dead Snow” (Norway). He loves Italian giallos and will watch anything involving black-gloved killers, creepy maids, piano wire, Michael Sopkiw, or is set in a lighthouse. His favorite foreign horror movie of all time is “Tintorera” (Mexico). Some of his least-favorite foreign horror movies include “Ichi the Killer” (Japan), “Conquest” (Italy), and almost anything involving Austrian home invasions. He thinks the most-overrated foreign horror film of the past 20 years is “Let the Right One In” (Sweden). He is a firm believer in the presentation of pictures that are fun and entertaining (and sometimes scary) and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it, except for “The Babadook.”