Japanese Film Review #15: Shiraishi Koji’s DEAD GIRL WALKING (2004)

Title frame, circa HITCHCOCK

Dead Girl Walking is one of six segments of a made-for-TV series called ‘Hino Theater of Horror,’ all adapted from the works of manga artist Hino Hideshi. Hino Hideshi dreams up pretty dark ideas for his manga and he ranks just below Junji Ito as one of the most important Japanese horror-gore manga artists. Yuri (Maeda Ayaka), a young student, suddenly dies from a heart attack…except she doesn’t die. Though clinically dead, she continues to think, act, and feel just like any other high school girl. She attempts to ‘live’ on, even as her body begins to rot. Her family, forced to live with an abomination and deal with her increasing stench, try a variety of ways to actually kill her. Unfortunately she is already dead, so their efforts are in vain. Despised by everyone, she runs away and becomes a homeless vagrant, her body slowly falling to pieces. Walking along the road, she gets picked up by a strange man and forced into some bizarre circus act, where she may or may not have been raped by a group of perverse business men. Ultimately her decomposition progresses so far that she can no longer move and her family douses her body in gasoline and burns her ‘alive.’ Then there is some sort of birth/death sequence and, finally truly dead, Yuri can rest in peace.

The ubiquitous surgical mask

I have to say that this is an extremely unique premise for a zombie movie and has the potential to be a very interesting character study. Yuri is forced to watch as her body literally rots away. Her family begins to despise her and tries to kill her and her friends are horrified by her very existence. This has to be a situation that raises some very interesting existential questions. What does it mean to be alive? How do we define the meaning of our existence? What sort of terrifying experiences will Yuri have to endure in order to be reborn? The movie also contains the theme of social alienation (being a living dead girl could just be a metaphor for feeling isolated and different from everyone else) and the breakdown of the nuclear family. During the course of the movie, Yuri’s family is transformed from warm and loving people into resentful, murderous wraiths, their faces masked in shadows.

Tortured and alone...

Unfortunately, Dead Girl Walking wastes away its enormous potential. As you can probably guess, it is an extremely low-budget production and only 45 minutes long. I don’t really think that this is an acceptable excuse, however, considering the quality of the source material and the fact that the story doesn’t need to rely on expensive special effects or cinematography to be successful. The true horror is Yuri’s experience of becoming a freak of nature, a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster. And yet, despite her situation, the most intriguing comments Yuri can muster are “Am I dead now?” and “Look, my yellow daisy is dead too.” Honestly, I had hoped that schoolgirls were capable of more thought-provoking self-analysis.

So artistic it hurts

Shiraishi Koji’s directing is also extremely unimaginative. He switches back and forth between color-saturated scenes (to represent Yuri when she is alive) and black and white scenes (obviously to depict the dead Yuri). He also uses black frames with white dialogue to express Yuri’s inner thoughts (which aren’t extremely thought-provoking), Ring-esque close ups of her right eye, and the rather drab visual metaphor of a yellow daisy to parallel Yuri’s condition. After watching this movie, it’s hard to believe that Shiraishi Koji is considered one of Japan’s up-and-coming horror directors.

Yuri dies from a very believable heart attack

I want to like Dead Girl Walking for bringing something interesting and new to the zombie genre. The movie earns points with its imaginative premise. As a film, however, Dead Girl Walking is ultimately a failure. Thankfully, running only 45 minutes long, you don’t feel like the movie has robbed you of your life in addition to being bad.

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Comments (16)

  1. john flinn

    Do you think there are parallels to Kafka’s Metamorphosis? It is pitiful. Do young girls in Japan get to feel something akin to this poor soul?

    March 5, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Absolutely, yes! In fact, I think that the comparison of The Metamorphosis is a much more apt one that Frankenstein. Looks like you should take over writing the film reviews from now on. =P

      Unfortunately, Dead Girl Walking isn’t good enough to even come close to replicating Kafka’s work. IF it had been, it could have been awesome. In The Metamorphosis, Gregor’s epiphany is the realization that he was living the life of an insect even before his literal transformation into a cockroach (beetle, vermin, whatever). Similarly, Yuri’s epiphany could have been that she was basically a zombie even before she became one. Let’s face it, teenage girls are basically feral, angst-ridden zombies anyways. IF Dead Girl Walking had pursued this theme, the movie could have had some interesting commentary on many aspects of high school life – consumerism, group think, body image, etc. But, in order for this to work, I think the film would need to spend a little more time showing the audience what Yuri’s life was like before her transformation.

      Dead Girl Walking could also have mirrored Gregor’s relationship with his family. Superficially it does; Yuri’s family (like Gregor’s) no longer loves her after her transformation and eventually kill her. However, Gregor’s family relied on his salary to support themselves – he was already less than a person to his family (with the exception of his sister) before his transformation. After he stopped earning money, his family had no use for him. In Dead Girl Walking, its unclear if Yuri’s family really relied on her in a similar way.

      If anything, Dead Girl Walking demonstrates how weak familial love really is – as soon as Yuri begins to rot her family looks for a way to erase her existence. After all, its pretty problematic to have a zombie daughter…what will the neighbors think!? This potentially could be a critique of the Japanese family structure – in Japan, parents tend to try hide away all of the problems in the household. Spouses who don’t love each other will stay married, often living in the same house but not speaking to each other for years. Japan also has an increasing social phenomena of shut-ins, called ‘hikikomori.’ Hikikomori are typically in their teens or early 20s (and usually male). They basically shut themselves in their rooms and play computer games all the time. Their mother will leave their meals outside their door, buy magazines or videogames, and continue to support them in every way. Rather than admit that their child has a serious problem, seek help, or kick him out of the house (as many American parents might), Japanese parents usually just ignore the problem and let the kid stay in his room. Because of this, people are able to continue living as hikikomori for YEARS. Hikikomori demonstrate that there is something wrong with the Japanese family but it also makes one wonder what is going on in Japanese homes, schools, or society that will drive so many young adults to literally shut themselves away from reality.

      Dead Girl Walking had the potential to provide commentary on all of these issues…but it fails to on all accounts.

      I love your comparison to Kafka…but it also makes me even more disappointed at the wasted potential of this movie! On the other hand, its amazing that the concept alone is intriguing enough to generate some very interesting comparisons and analysis.

      March 5, 2010
  2. Taro

    Very interesting review/comments.
    An innocent zombie cruelty?…it sounds like witnessing a bully crime scenes.
    Have you read the original story? (family attitude is totally opposite from this movie)
    It was written before Japan goes into the long economic depression . (that increased “hikikomori”)

    The “ignorance” is the world wide problems (on the level from a house problem to a mass murderer)…which is very sad.

    March 6, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Having an ‘innocent zombie’ is an unique twist to the zombie genre. Zombies are usually evil, or at the very least completely unaware creatures who only desire living flesh. With the exception of Romero’s Land of the Dead (where zombies begin to develop the ability to think and adapt, but are still evil) and Andrew Currie’s Fido (a brilliant spoof of both the zombie genre and 1950s science fiction films, where zombies are more like pets) there aren’t many films that give zombies personality of the ability to think.

      As for the above comment, I wasn’t saying that Dead Girl Walking contains any of those themes. I was just mentioning what themes the film could have contained if we examined potential parallels between Dead Girl Walking and The Metamorphosis. The film itself doesn’t have much to say past a reincarnation/redemption theme. I haven’t read the original story, but given the time it was written I’d expect that it is quite different.

      The interesting thing about film and literature is not only the original intent of the author but the way our interpretations of the work can change over time. Film and literature offer not only insight into the period in which they were created, but also ourselves and contemporary society by revealing the themes or social issues that we identify within the work. Like history, film and literary criticism seem to be in a constant state of flux…and this is why I find these subjects so fascinating.

      Thanks again for always adding your valuable insight into these subjects. As an American, I will always view Japanese film, literature, or society as somewhat of an ‘outsider.’ Your perspective always helps me reexamine my own interpretations.

      March 8, 2010
  3. john flinn

    i appreciate Taro’s comments. As an “outsider” i hope Taro continues to input to this blog/channel. Would either Taro or Constantine have a suggestion: a very short list of books or magazines or e-zines to read (in English) that would help me know more about Japan, it’s culture and people.

    March 7, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Haha, I posted a response to Taro’s comment before reading yours…and said something very similar to your ‘outsider’ comment. It’s very true though. I know that no matter how much I study Japan, the language or the culture, what I choose to identify as important themes in film or literature might be extremely different from what Japanese see when they watch/read the same thing.

      As for a list of books…a lot of books about Japan (culture, people, history) can be classified into one of two categories – books written by academics and books written by journalists, observers, etc. The books in the former category contain a much higher level of academic scrutiny, research and fact-checking, while the books written by journalists and the like are more anecdotal but offer interesting looks into daily life. They also reach conclusions that are extremely difficult to prove outside of the immediate period in which they were written. Which would you be more interested in?

      March 8, 2010
  4. Stephen J. Haessler

    Sorry to be out of sequence, but I am so delighted to have found your blog. On March 7, 2010 I posted a post on my blog about my favorite movie, Harakiri. When I was looking at YouTube for a sample clip, I discovered your outstanding review. My post can be seen here: http://www.shotokancrossfit.blogspot.com titled Corruption and My Favorite Movie. Your review provided so much useful information, I like the movie even more. Brilliant film. If you have time, I would be honored if you left a comment on my post. All the best,

    March 8, 2010
  5. Taro

    My comment was to “potential parallels”..that’s way I said “very interesting review and comments” at front. I couldn’t make positive comment of the movie because I have not seen it.
    Maybe its not good idea , forcing myself to comment.
    From my point of view, a horror film seem getting violent each year.
    It was my own comparison of 70’s 80’s.

    March 8, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I like your comments, I hope you keep making them!

      I agree with your point of view – horror films are becoming increasingly violent. I actually think that there should be an entirely different category called gore films that should be considered entirely separate from horror films because they don’t try to be scary at all. Actually, come to think of it, I think the genre does already exist… Films like Tokyo Gore Police and The Machine Girl fall into the gore category, not the horror one.

      I consider films like Eli Roth’s HOSTEL to be torture porn. Its basically pornography, primarily based on violence and humiliation of women, with a high production value. Needless to say, I dislike Hostel. =/

      March 8, 2010
  6. Simon


    As a fellow Japan nerd and movie lover (and maker) I have really enjoyed your Youtube channel and blog. I can’t even remember how I found it now but I’ve been reading it all day and am now very behind on work!

    But I feel I must defend the movie Hostel. It is not torture porn and it’s not based on male violence toward women. Exactly the opposite in fact.

    Here is where i’d normally belittle you with a condesending definition of pornography. However, you’re clearly very intelligent and I’m sure you know what porn is? So I’m guessing you haven’t seen Hostel? The presentation of violence in this film is in no way similar to the way pornographers approach the depiction of sex.

    Interestingly enough the only films I would stoop to call “torture porn” are Japanese in origin; Guinea Pig:Flowers of Flesh and Blood and the more recent Grotesque.

    The term “torture porn” is really just another meaningless media catchphrase branded about by film snobs, or moral “guardians” and you are neither..

    so take it back!!!

    Keep up the good work.

    March 10, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      It is pretty self-evident that I love gore. I love horror films. I don’t consider HOSTEL to be too graphic and (having seen the GUINEA PIG series and GROTESQUE) I completely acknowledge that the Japanese film industry produces some of the most violent and bloody horror films out there. I have misogynistic tendencies, so I don’t particularly care about the so-called ‘exploitation of women’ within the film. Hey, I’m a moral relativist.

      I’m not saying that HOSTEL uses torture and violence to stimulate a sexual response from the viewer. That’s not what I mean by ‘torture porn.’ I haven’t really seen this phrase used before, but allow me to explain what I mean when I say ‘torture porn’…

      People who watch films like HOSTEL or GUINEA PIG do so to fulfill a voyeuristic urge. It is an indulgence and people receive pleasure from it. This is the same reason why people view pornography. It is a voyeuristic activity designed to produce pleasure, satisfaction, and release. This does not need to be exclusively sexual. I can use the word ‘pleasure’ without meaning erection and I can use the word ‘release’ without referring to orgasm. People might watch HOSTEL because they enjoy being scared, because watching gore films entertains them, or because they want to see how much violence, brutality, and blood they can handle without getting sick. Just as pornography is designed to produce sexual release, HOSTEL provides a psychological release. While the specifics will vary, it is a well-known and oft-cited fact that the horror genre exists to momentarily relieve or release psychological tension and stress. Horror is an eternal genre because people will always want to engage in this form of escapism. Many movies, not just HOSTEL or horror/gore films, are designed to gratify the audience and give them some form of release from reality. Movies are, by their very nature, indulgent.

      Case in point – the film FUNNY GAMES, either the original German version or the American remake. This is a horror film that purposely refuses to provide gratification. FUNNY GAMES is a critique of the horror/gore genre because, by refusing gratification, it demonstrates exactly why we watch these films in the first place. What if everyone dies? What if there is no revenge, no triumphant survivor, and no success? What if the bad guy wins (in the cases of movies where don’t want the bad guy to win)…and wins easily? Then the movie becomes pointless. At the end of FUNNY GAMES, the audience is left wondering, “Why that hell did I just watch that movie?” This is why FUNNY GAMES is brilliant, because by defying genre expectations it forces the viewer to question their motivations for watching horror films in the first place.

      So, when I call HOSTEL ‘torture porn,’ it’s not necessarily a condemnation. But, let’s face it, HOSTEL is not a brilliant movie and Eli Roth is no auteur. I remain unconvinced that anybody with a similarly macabre imagination could not also create films like Eli Roth. From a screenwriting perspective, HOSTEL is predictable and borderline boring. There is nothing in the story that is in anyway surprising, scary, or thought-provoking. The concept is just an updated version of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Normally movies are criticized for possessing these characteristics. However, in the case of HOSTEL, Eli Roth and the audience share an implicit agreement that the movie will not (indeed, should not) contain any of those elements. The audience already knows exactly what they will see before they even enter the theater; naked women and gore. That’s all the audience wants to see and that’s exactly what Eli Roth gives them. Let’s not kid ourselves that HOSTEL is anything more.

      However, I demand a little bit more from movies than blood and gore if I am going to consider them good. At the very least, it is absolutely necessary to have a good story or a good concept. HOSTEL barely has a story at all. It just has a bare-bones premise; an uncomplicated, reasonably believable way to line up the poorly-developed characters for butchering. Let’s not kid ourselves that HOSTEL is anything more. HOSTEL even lacks the campiness of Eli Roth’s CABIN FEVER. The only part of HOSTEL that I found entertaining was Miike Takashi’s 15 second cameo. I don’t need to be a film snob or a moral guardian to build a legitimate claim that HOSTEL is not a good movie.

      So, unless you can convince me that HOSTEL is has something more to offer than ‘Blood, boobs, blood, screaming, blood and a popped-out eyeball,’ then I will continue to stand by my assessment that HOSTEL is torture porn. While you might have the urge to quibble with me over semantics, I think we can at least agree that HOSTEL is just another form of mindless self-indulgence. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

      March 10, 2010
  7. Simon

    Yes but, Pornography is by definition the exploitation of the sexual act to the extent where other features such as plot and character are completely obscurred or even obliterated.

    Wether you like it or not Hostel is constructed around a narrative that has a beginning a middle and an end and characters that inhabit it and the consequences endurred. The explicit scenes of violence probably total no more than 3-4 minutes. A film with 3-4 minutes of graphic sex (out of 90) would not be regarded as porn.

    Hostel is social commentary at it’s most ham fisted, but it is still social commentary and it’s no more obtuse than Romero’s social commentary in his Dead films.

    It is about a group of people who go off in such of visceral thrills, they arrive in a place where they can buy sex and alike as a commodity. Initially their response to this is that it’s “way cool” or alike but then the picture turns the tables on them and questions this. It takes that idea to it’s logical conclusion and proposes that if someone has enough money spend they could pay to do anything at all to you, even torture and kill you so is it actually “way cool?” We think not.

    As well as being a comment on the sex trade his can’t help but conjour images of how big money is used everyday as a way to seduce the needy masses into acting in what would normally be considered immoral ways.

    Like I said, Roth paints this picture using crude extremes, but it is there none the less.

    What he also does is turn the final act into a revenge movie so once you’ve been repelled by the violence you are slowly seduced into wanting more as you will the surviving character on his way, challenging your own reactions to the previous on screen attrocities.

    So to conclude, wether you find them to your tastes or not, all the elements of good film mking are present they are just presented in a trashy way and aimed at a low-brow audience. The nudity being prime example of this. Roth would probably defend this by saying it’s Ironic and a homage to 70’s-80’s exploitation flicks which is where i fall out with him. It’s not a homage to an exploitation flick.. it is an exploitation flick. The sex is there for no other reason to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

    But, I enjoy the juxtaposition of trash cinema and genuine ideas. Hostel is not a movie that appeals to my tastes at all on paper, but in reality I think it does have a heart. Wether Roth is an auteur or not? Well it’s too soon to tell really.

    So there! x

    March 12, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      Yes, but I was never saying that Hostel is pornography, but that the motivation for watching Hostel is very similar to the one for watching pornography. Just replace sex with violence. Hostel does not show violent sex, but violence itself as the sexual act. If Roth did intend to comment on the sex trade and human trafficking, then it makes perfect sense that violence replaces sex within the film.

      I give you credit for constructing that argument in favor of Hostel and I think that the points you raise are completely valid. I paused and reconsidered the movie with your comments in mind. However, Hostel is still not a good movie. Arguably every movie contains social commentary because every movie is a product of society. The revenge story, critique on the corrupting influence of ‘big money,’ condemnation of the sex trade…it has all been done before and done much better than Hostel. And the plot and character development is just nonexistent. Hostel is not interesting, it does not bring up new ideas or present old ideas in an original way. It’s just…well, meh. It’s so-so. And upon rewatching it I find it boring.

      In any case, I don’t find Hostel morally repugnant in any way. I just think its a mediocre movie. So, I can see why you might like it and think that it has a lot to say about society or the horror genre in general. But I just don’t share that opinion.

      To quote a friend of mine, “Well actually, yes, I do want to be stupid sir. Because to live in a world where Hostel is considered a good film it is better to be considered stupid. I bid thee good day…I said good day.” =)

      – C.

      March 12, 2010
  8. Simon

    Ha ha! Thanks

    Ok but I still disagree with the casual link to porno. To simplify, you state that people “only” watch porn for the sex. Obviously that’s true, but moving on to people “only” watch Hostel for the violence is just too presumptious.

    The fact that there is a good 45 minutes of story before we witness any violence at all is also testament to the fact that it wasn’t conceived that way either. On the other hand Grotesque IS a film that I think is applicable to your jugement. I can’t think of any reason to watch that than to enjoy the violence in some way…but maybe now I’m being presumtious.

    I think you’re right to suggest the “message” of Hostel is ultimately hackneyed and old hat, but themes genuinely come that way due to repetition and they are only repeated in the first place because they are important themes which strike a chord. So does that make them uninspired soap opera plays or timeless archetypes?

    I also think Hostel does enough of a job freshening these themes up but it clearly could have been better.

    I think your dislike to it is personal, you just didn’t find the characters, concept or execution that appealing. To be honest I’m suprised that I do like Hostel so much as at first glance I would agree with you and it’s not really my type of film even though I am a horror fan. I hate SAW for instance, but I think Hostel has enough genuine heart and good intentions (just) to redeem it and it’s unfair that so many people are quick to judge and dismiss it and describe it as being as vacuous as pornography.

    Plus I bet you can name a few Italian horror’s which are much more empty headed than Hostel that you still love. Nostalgia and campiness making us much more sympathetic to features we would normally find distastefull.

    I’m glad you re-watched Hostel though and at least made the effort!

    March 12, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I really think we can argue this back and forth until we are both blue in the face and still not change the others opinion. So rather than respond to what you just wrote, I’m going to repeat what I said earlier – we’ll just have to agree to disagree when it comes to this film.

      March 12, 2010
  9. Simon

    Of course you are right. I just get riled when people present their personal opinion as a balanced critique. Plus as a writer and director I find it frustrating that people STILL have a chip on their shoulder or a desire for moral distancing of themselves and horror movies or in this case a particular horror movie.

    The phrase “torture porn” was branded around in the UK media for months around the time of Hostel , Saw etc. with lots of critics acting superior and dismissing films like this. Then you quickly arrive in the territory where it’s ok to condem the audience too as “they MUST be sick to get a kick out of this – FACT”

    The first step towards tyranny is the rejection of nuance and the second may well be personal opinion presented as somehow being moral supirior to that of others.

    Not that I’m accusing you of either!

    March 12, 2010

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