Horror is typically regarded as the least feminist genre of film; a genre that routinely objectifies, sexualizes, tortures, rapes and murders women and girls. However, if viewed from a different angle, horror films often feature story lines that grant wronged women the power and agency (in death) to respond to the injustices done to them in life.
‘Dead wet girls’ is a term coined by David Kalat in his book J-Horror to describe the unique female ghosts who are so iconic in Japanese horror. While popular Japanese films like RING and JU-ON have made this figure recognizable to Western audience, the wronged woman has been a prominent figure in Japanese ghost stories and mythology for centuries. Of course, the interpretation of these stories is fairly ambivalent; often the presence of malignant ghosts and spirits is connected back to the failure of mothers and wives to perform their womanly duties. In many Japanese folktales, female spirits are connected back to the savage and unpredictable natural world.
TRADITIONAL JAPANESE GHOST TALES
The best example of this connection to nature is the Yuki-onna (snow woman), famously depicted in Kobayashi Masaki’s KWAIDAN (1964). The Yuki-onna is a beautiful woman with long black hair, who typically appears before travelers lost in snow. The Yuki-onna typically kills the unfortunate travelers she meets, though she may also take unsuspecting men as lovers in a succubus-like fashion. She is essentially the manifestation of winter; beautiful and serene yet capable of ruthlessly killing those who are ill-prepared. She is also a reminder of a woman’s fury – like nature, no woman can ever be fully trusted. Kobayashi Masaki’s depiction of the Yuki-onna is captivatingly surreal. Starring Nakadai Tatsuya, the entire segment was filmed in an obviously artificial indoor set with swirling painted backgrounds (featuring an ominous eye).
Based upon the novel by Otsuichi, GOTH is about two morbid high school students who share a fascination with murder. Kamiyama (Hongo Kanata) is an outwardly friendly and popular boy who hides his potentially sociopathic nature with a carefree, happy attitude. Loner Morino (Takanashi Rin), on the other hand, does little to hide her strange nature; she never smiles, doesn’t interact with her classmates, and wears a long-sleeved, black school uniform even during the middle of summer. While these two seem to share little in common and do not interact with each other in front of their peers, their shared interest in death and murder has turned them into an unusual duo. Initially happy to exchange books on morbid subjects, a series of recent murders spark their interest and they begin investigating the killer. This serial killer has a fondness for cheerful young women and, after severing their left hand as a trophy, displays their dead bodies in public locations to be discovered. After Morino discovers the killer’s notebook in a local café, the two use it to see the corpses for themselves before discovery and attempt to discern his identity. Obviously, the closer they get to discovering him, the more danger they are in.
Yamada Yoji does not make action-packed Hollywood blockbusters. Stemming from the branch of Japanese filmmakers taught by Ozu and Mizoguchi, Yamada’s films usually take a more introspective, down-to-earth direction. While Kabei: Our Mother marks his 80th film, it was only in the early 2000s that Yamada gained the recognition of Western audiences. The films of his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor) are all more interested in the internal conflicts of the characters and potent characterizations of the decaying Edo era than in epic, choreographed swordfights. The effect is either lost on the audience or whole-heartedly embraced. In terms of samurai films, Ninja Scroll is a bowl of gyuudon and The Twilight Samurai is kaiseki ryori. Both are delicious, but both are eaten with distinctly different intentions. Additionally, Yamada has built most of his career around depicting two specific eras of Japanese history; the late-Edo (ending in 1867) and Showa (1925-1989). Both of these periods marked times of tremendous change in Japan; the forcible ‘opening’ of Japan to Western trade and end of bakufu (Shogunate) rule (shortly followed by the dissolution of the samurai class) and Japan’s ill-fated foray into imperialism.
Like Yamada’s samurai trilogy, Kabei is not a run-of-the-mill World War II film. The story follows Nogami Kayo (AKA Kabei, played by Yoshinaga Sayuri), a mother who must care for her two daughters after her husband, a professor, is arrested and jailed for expressing opinions contrary to the Imperial war effort. Forced to cope with the difficulties of being a single mother and her own reservations about the rising nationalism in Japan, Kabei raises her daughters with the help of her lovely sister-in-law, a rowdy uncle, and the clumsy and good-hearted Yamasaki. Uninterested in action, Yamada devotes the film’s energy to the portrayal of the characters’ experiences. Uninterested in romanticizing the past, Yamada also places his typical emphasis on historical accuracy and goes to considerable effort to accurately capture the look and atmosphere of Showa era Japan.
Already before Perfect Blue I wrote a script for another director [Katsuhiro Otomo], an episode of the omnibus film Memories called Magnetic Rose. It was also a story of confusion between memory and the real world. Because I didn’t direct it myself I was a bit concerned about how it was turning out. On many occasions I thought I would have done things differently. I got my chance to realize those thoughts with Perfect Blue. So I already had an interest in that kind of plot, to consciously compose the story in such a manner… To be honest, I care very little about the idea of the stalker in Perfect Blue. The storytelling aspects interest me much more. Looking at things objectively or subjectively gives two very different images. For an outsider, the dreams and the film within a film are easy to separate from the real world. But for the person who is experiencing them, everything is real. I wanted to describe that kind of situation, so I applied it in Perfect Blue. [Kon Satoshi, Midnight Eye Interview]
While all of Kon Satoshi’s work explores similar themes, the thematic line that runs through Magnetic Rose, Perfect Blue, and Millennium Actress (his first three works) is the strongest and easiest to identify. All three films are stories about the confusion between reality and fantasy, the subjective nature of perception and memory, and the identity of the female performer. While Kon explored many of these themes within the script for Magnetic Rose (which I discussed in the previous post), he was finally able to take the helm as director in the 1998 Perfect Blue. The result is an astounding cinematic tour de force. In her essay “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi” from Cinema Anime, Susan Napier elaborates, “I use the term tour de force because the film’s brilliant use of animation and unreality creates a unique viewing experience, forcing the viewer to question not only the protagonist’s perceptions but his or her own as he/she follows the protagonist into a surreal world of madness and illusion” (33). For this essay, I would like to examine the themes Kon addresses within Perfect Blue as well as the formal and narrative techniques that he employs to express them. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the film’s ending and interpretations.
Next up in the “Teaching in Asia” interview series is my friend Philip, who some of you may know as ToLokyo on YouTube. Philip graduated from university in 2003 with a degree in English Education – Secondary and a certification to teach grades 6-12 in Florida. During college, Philip did an internship abroad in Saipan. After graduating, he moved to South Korea in the summer of 2003 and started teaching English. Then, in mid-2005, Philip moved to Japan, where he made his living as a freelance English teacher until the summer of 2010. He is currently traveling around the world filming a YouTube video series called “Caught Doin’ Good,” that highlights individuals and organizations all over the world who are doing good things to build up the communities around them.. With seven years of experience living and teaching in both South Korea and Japan, Philip’s observations on living and working in Asia are extremely insightful and nuanced. Furthermore, as a formally-educated English teacher, his perspective on foreign-language teaching is much deeper than that of the average, run-of-the-mill ALT. He is also one of the most genuinely happy and fun-loving individuals that I have ever met; every time I see him, I am surprised by his positivity and enthusiasm. If you’d like to read more about Philip, his ‘Caught Doin’ Good’ project, or watch his YouTube videos, please follow these links:
Philip/ToLokyo’s website: http://www.locomote.org
Caught Doin’ Good homepage: http://www.cdg2010.org
ToLokyo on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToLokyo
Constantine: Why did you want to teach abroad?
Philip: When I graduated from university, I considered teaching around Asheville, NC in a high school. I knew I’d had enough of South Carolina and Florida, and I was ready to start something new. At that time, it was the beginning of the war in Iraq, and massive funds had been diverted from education programs all over the nation to be used in the war effort. I heard horror stories from friends who graduated the year before of having to teach with no textbooks or resources. In one fateful week, I randomly encountered about 5 teachers. They all had the exact same advice: “RUN~!!!! You’re young! You can do something else! You don’t have to be stuck in this hell of a job! Get out while you still can~!!!!” I took the hint and decided to look into a website I had heard of a few years back called Dave’s ESL Cafe.
Constantine: What sparked your interest in Asia?
Unlike the West, Japan does not have a history of strong feminist movements – or, at least, Japanese feminism is less focused on individual autonomy than Western feminism. Even today, most ‘feminist’ dialogue takes place within community or civil rights organizations, not feminist activist groups. While the position of women within Japanese society has changed since the 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEOL, AKA ‘Japan’s Toothless Lion’) passed, Japan is still a country characterized by an M-shaped labor curve for women and abortion is still a preferred form of birth control, due both to cultural factors and the difficulty and expense associated with using oral contraceptives. I would also like to point out that many observers believe that low-dose oral contraceptives were finally approved for use in Japan in late 1999 (after 35 years of debate) because that the Diet fast-tracked the approval of Viagra (which took about 6 months). Therefore, one must ask: how successful has women’s suffrage been within Japanese society?
The common treatment of the Heian court found in textbooks and survey histories depicts Japan’s ruling class as a group of leisured and effete aristocrats more concerned with composing elaborate waka (poetry) and mastering esoteric Buddhist practices than the effective governance of the country. Furthermore, efforts during the Taika Reform era to adopt a Chinese-style administration and military are dismissed as complete failures, abandoned only a few decades after their inception. As the court “became isolated to an extraordinary degree from the rest of Japanese society,” and could no longer provide an effective military or police system, “provincial residents were forced to take up arms for themselves…[which] allowed the development of large, private warrior networks.” In their respective works, both Karl Friday and William Farris seek to revise this misperception and argue that “the genesis of Japan’s bushi [warrior class] took place within a secure and still-vital imperial state structure.” In Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan, Karl Friday traces the evolution of Japan’s military system, from the foundations laid by the Taika Reforms in 645 to Minamoto Yoritomo’s “epoch-making usurpation of power in the 1180s,” to prove it was court activism that concentrated military control in the hands of the rural elite. Furthermore, Friday believes that the court’s growing reliance on the private martial skills of the gentry was motivated by the desire to maximize the efficiency of its military institutions and reflected the changing nature of Japan’s military needs. William Farris advances Friday’s argument in Heavenly Warriors: The Evolution of Japan’s Military, 500-1300 by arguing that the samurai class of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was the “direct descendant of the mounted archers of yore…[and maintains] that an equestrian mounted elite was a critical factor in society, economy, and politics as early as about A.D. 500.” However, while Farris asserts that the imperial reforms were essential to the evolution of Japan’s mounted military elite, he does not support Friday’s belief that the court successfully took control of the military from the hands of provincial elite. In the context of these two works, the evolution of Japan’s military can be divided into three stages: the centralization of military control and the adoption of Chinese-style mass infantry tactics under the ritsuryō codes during the eighth century, the subsequent ‘abandonment’ of infantry in favor of ‘the privately acquired martial skills of provincial elites and the lower nobility,’ and the further organization of private military networks around major provincial warriors during the mid-tenth and eleventh centuries.
Magnetic Rose (a rather loose translation of 彼女の想いで, “her memories”) is the first of three episodes based on the manga short stories of Otomo Katsuhiro (the genius behind Akira). Directed by Morimoto Koji, Magnetic Rose does not offer any insight into Kon Satoshi’s work as a director. However, he wrote the adaption of Otomo’s original manga story and the episode contains many of the key themes that Kon explores in his later work. Specifically, Magnetic Rose explores the boundary between reality and illusion, the role of perception and memory, and femininity.
Drawing inspiration from the story and music of Madame Butterfly and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Magnetic Rose follows the members of the deep space salvage vessel Corona. While performing a salvage mission, the crew encounters an odd distress signal emanating from the Sargasso region, ominously nicknamed ‘the graveyard of space.’ Each man has their own reasons for working in deep space, namely to ‘build houses in California.’ Specifically, Miguel is looking forward to being united with one of his beautiful girlfriends and Heinz longs to return to his family.
The crew discovers a destroyed space station and Heinz and Miguel are sent in to investigate. Once onboard, Heinz and Miguel are lured deeper into the baroque interior of the space station, following various holographic images of the beautiful Eva Friedel. A famous opera singer, Eva fell from grace after she lost her voice and disappeared completely after the murder of her fiancée, Carlo. As the two men venture deeper into the ship, the holograms begin to reflect their own dreams and memories and the difference between illusion and reality become increasingly difficult to distinguish.
Though the narrative is about the two men, the story actually revolves around the feminine presence. It is the figures of Eva Friedel and Heintz’s daughter Emily who stand, in the words of Susan Napier, “at the nexus point between real and unreal, ultimately beckoning the men towards death” . The recurring images of roses and the haunting strains of Madame Butterfly are very powerful feminine symbols. Simultaneously alluring and sinister, Eva seduces Miguel into believing he is her fiancée. However, it turns out that it was actually Eva who murdered Carlo because he broke off their engagement. According to Eva, “Carlo lives forever. With me, in my memories…In my memories he will never change his mind.” This is, in fact, Eva’s own attempt to manipulate her own memory into reality.
Meanwhile, Eva similarly attempts to seduce Heinz with the image of his daughter Emily. At the beginning of the episode, the viewer is led to believe that Heinz is waiting to return home to his family. However, we ultimately discover that his daughter is dead and the photograph in his wallet only a memory. Though Heinz refuses to accept the hologram as reality, proclaiming “Memories aren’t an escape!”, this realization comes too late. The Corona and its crew are destroyed in the blast generated to break away from Eva’s ship and Heinz is sucked out into space. In the final frame of the film, Heinz is drifting away from the rose-shaped wreckage, holographic rose petals floating in his helmet.
Throughout Magnetic Rose, both men are motivated by their desires – for Miguel, the desire for the mysterious Eva, and for Heinz the desire to be reunited with his daughter. Because both desires only lead to destruction, the viewer is left with ‘a sense of the emptiness of desire’ . Furthermore, the fact that both of these desires are impossible to attain – both Eva and Heinz’s daughter are dead – speak to the inherent danger of memory and nostalgia.
Magnetic Rose contains several themes that Kon Satoshi moves on to explore in his later work; reality and illusion, as represented by the holograms, and memory and nostalgia, as represented by Heinz’s daughter. However, the character of Eva Friedel contains the clearest link between Magnetic Rose and Kon’s later work. More than an embittered woman, Eva herself was a victim. An opera singer, Eva lost everything – the admiration of her fans and the love of her fiancée – when she lost her voice. His murder and Eva’s subsequent retreat into the space station represent both an act of vengeance and an attempt to preserve the memory of her former glory. In particular, the numerous images of Eva that cover the interior of the ship, old news clippings, and the holographic representations of her fans have a strong connection to Kon’s next project Perfect Blue.
For me, Magnetic Rose does fall prey to one of the more amusing characteristics of anime. The names and characterization of the characters are quite ridiculous. The name of the ship, Corona, makes me think of the beer and the characters sport names like Ivanov and Miguel (you know, to represent how international the crew is). Heinz is the best example of this. His blonde hair, blue eyes, and hulky build identify him as foreign. When we are transported into his memory of home, German music plays in the background. Clearly, with a name like Heinz, he must be German (or a member of the ketchup dynasty).
Joking aside, Magnetic Rose alone represents a strong addition to the anime genre. The animation and mecha designs are top notch and the story is absolutely fantastic. It is also a short and easy introduction to Kon Satoshi. Highly recommended.
Coming up next is Perfect Blue.
Napier, Susan J. “‘Excuse Me, Who Are You?’: Performance, the Gaze, and the Female in the Works of Kon Satoshi,” Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements With Japanese Animation. Ed. Steven T. Brown. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006.
Alright, I realize that by doing something like this I am going to be revealing just how much of a nerd I am to everyone who reads this blog. However, considering my last blog post mentioned that I have history-induced orgasms, I guess I’m not fooling anyone into thinking that I am coolness personified.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series of critical essays and reviews on the works of Kon Satoshi, who has recently passed away. (To read a translation of his final words, please visit Makiko Itoh’s blog.)
These will be the first Japanese anime reviews that I have ever posted on this page. You will see that this is not because I don’t watch anime. In fact, I have seen more anime than I care to admit. I was obsessed with anime and manga for the majority of high school. The reason why I tend to keep this under wraps is because I don’t want people’s perception of me and my essays to be clouded by this fact. Let’s face it, anime fans have a horrible reputation (and not undeservedly so) and I already have to contend with enough comments calling me ‘Wapanese.’
Anime is a fairly big deal in the United States. Anime and other forms of Japanese pop culture play an enormous role in influencing the way the younger generation of Americans perceive Japan, and for that reason it is probably one of Japan’s most powerful exports (in terms of soft power). However, the distribution of anime does not necessarily lead to a more informed or accurate view of Japan or the Japanese people. No one is going to develop a deep understanding of Japan through watching big-breasted school girls or giant robots. In terms of cultural understanding AND film studies, anime is mostly consumerist crap that facilitates escapism (trust me on this, I’ve seen a lot).
One of the exceptions is Kon Satoshi. Like Miyazaki Hayao and Oshii Mamoru, the works of Kon Satoshi not only hold their own against the classics of live-action cinema but also show us the potential of anime as a serious filmmaking genre.
In light of the impact and importance his work has had on the genre, Kon Satoshi’s filmography may seem surprisingly small. It includes:
- ‘Magnetic Rose’ from Memories (1995) – writer
- Perfect Blue (1998) – director and animator
- Millennium Actress (2001) – writer, director and animator
- Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – writer, director and animator
- Paranoia Agent (2004, a 13-episode series) – director
- Paprika (2006) – writer and director
Kon’s last work The Dream Machine will be released posthumously in 2011.
Kon explored a number of themes in his work – the tenuous relationship between reality and illusion, the subjective nature of perception, the power of memories and nostalgia, Japanese history and society, the female image, and an unrelenting examination of psychology.
My first experience with Kon Satoshi was back in 2000 (I was 13). I had recently been exposed to Japanese anime and this was around the time that mainstream retailers like Blockbuster began to carry anime titles. I was happily devouring as much anime as I could get my hands on and rented Perfect Blue.
It blew me away.
Not only did Perfect Blue fuel my interest in the anime genre, I list it as one of the films that has had the most impact on me personally. Along with films like Deliverance (John Boorman, 1972), Audition (Miike Takashi, 1999), A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), and The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Perfect Blue has had a profound impact on how I appreciate and analyze cinema. Shortly after watching Perfect Blue, Kon’s Millennium Actress was released on DVD in America (I actually preordered it, lame). Kon’s deeply touching and nostalgic exploration of Japanese history and cinema motivated me to explore other genres of Japanese filmmaking. I can honestly say that the works of Kon Satoshi had a major influence in how I became the person I am today.
The force and impact of Kon Satoshi’s work not only transcend the boundary between animation and live-action filmmaking but have expanded the limits of the anime genre. As a fan, I know that his death will be deeply felt – within the anime industry as well as the film genre, internationally as well as domestically.
I will be reviewing Kon Satoshi’s work chronologically. Because all of his work has a strong thematic unity, I believe that watching and studying his work in chronological order reveals his stylistic development as a director and how key themes have been developed and expanded upon over the course of his career.
Some of you know that I recently went back to America during part of summer vacation. While I was in Los Angeles, my friend Worm (it’s a nickname, don’t ask) was kind enough to take me up to see the Southern Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) at Camarillo Airport where he volunteers as a pilot. The CAF is a completely volunteer-run non-profit that restores and flies military aircraft – primarily WWII aircraft. Though the United States produced over 300,000 aircraft during the Second World War, almost none remained by 1960. Now, the CAF holds nearly 160 aircraft (60 different types) in various locations across the United States. The fleet includes aircraft from several different countries and aircraft from conflicts since WWII.
The CAF defines their mission as:
The CAF was founded to acquire, restore and preserve in flying condition a complete collection of combat aircraft which were flown by all military services of the United States, and selected aircraft of other nations, for the education and enjoyment of present and future generations of Americans.
More than just a collection of airworthy warplanes from the past, the CAF’s fleet of historic aircraft, known as the CAF Ghost Squadron, recreate, remind and reinforce the lessons learned from the defining moments in American military aviation history.
The CAF travels internationally to hold educational exhibitions and perform air shows. The Southern California Wing of the CAF sports a ridiculously impressive collection of aircraft –
- Grumman F-8F Bearcat, N7825C – Flying
North American SNJ-5 Texan, N89014 – Flying
Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat, N1078Z – Flying
Mitsubishi A6M3 Zero, Model 22, N712Z – Flying
Fairchild PT-19 Cornell, N641BP – Flying
North American SNJ-4 Texan, N6411D – In restoration
Curtiss C-46, China Doll, N53594 – In restoration
North American B-25 Mitchell, N5865V – In restoration
Supermarine Mark XiV Spitfire, N749DP – In restoration
Obviously, I consider the Mitsubishi A6M3 ‘Zero’ to be the crown jewel of their collection. It has been completely restored and it is ONE OF ONLY THREE FLYABLE ZEROS IN THE WORLD. Because Worm is currently being groomed as the Zero’s new pilot, I got to crawl all over the damn thing.
For WWII history buffs, the Zero has acquired an almost mythic reputation. I would argue that its silhouette is THE most recognizable of any WWII aircraft. No one can forget the images of Zeros flying over Pearl Harbor…even if it was a short clip from high school US History class or the images from Michael Bay’s atrocious Pearl Harbor (2001).
Picture Constantine having a history orgasm in the middle of an airstrip in SoCal and you’ll have a good idea of how excited I was.
The Zero was arguably the best carrier-based fighter during WWII, with a maneuverability and range that repeatedly devastated US fighters in dogfights during the early years of the Pacific conflict (especially considering the out-dated equipment that the US was using during 1941). By 1942-1943, however, an improvement in US equipment and tactics undermined the Zero’s ability to hold its own against the US military-industrial machine.
The Model 22 Zero at the SoCal CAF is not the model that was used during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The A6M3 Type 0 Model 22 (零式艦上戦闘機二二型) was produced between December 1942 and summer of 1943. It’s sports a new version of the Model 21’s longer folding wings, a more powerful engine and the longest range of all the Zeros. 560 Model 22s were produced.
To give you an idea of how rare the Zero is – the epic 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! (and most film and TV productions) use modified and repainted t-6 Texans. Only one Model 52 was used during the production of Bay’s Pearl Harbor.
Worm and some of the awesome men at the CAF explained to me that the Zero possessed maneuverability, speed and firepower at the expense of protection. There is only one small armor plate behind the cockpit that would do very little to protect the pilot. In contrast, American-built fighters had large amounts of armor plating, which protected the pilots at the expense of weight, maneuverability and speed. Comparing the planes up close, the Zero is absolutely dwarfed by the formidable Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat. One of the pilots ironically described the Zero’s construction as ‘chintzy’ and, indeed, there are large square areas on the Zero’s wings that you must avoid putting any weight on because of the thin metal. But this, too, speaks to the Zero’s efficiency as a carrier-based fighter.
Now for some orgasm worthy pictures (not great quality):
I was also happy to see the P-51 Mustang, complete with a Nazi death count on its side.
I was exceedingly lucky because the CAF were in the process of getting all the WWII aircraft ready for an airshow at a nearby naval base. I therefore got to watch a whole slew of aircraft – including the Zero – take off and fly away in formation. You, readers, are unlucky because I forgot to bring my camera and capture it all on film for you. Better luck next time!
I can honestly say that I would move to LA just to have the opportunity to volunteer at the SoCal CAF and drool over WWII planes (and veterans…and pilots…and Worm) on a regular basis.
For more information:
The CAF Southern California Wing – http://www.cafsocal.com/
The CAF Official Homepage – http://commemorativeairforce.org/