Kurosawa Kiyoshi should be considered his own genre. While primarily known for his horror films in the West, he got his start with pinku eiga movies (like many other Japanese directors) then moved into yakuza territory before making the switch to horror. Highly skilled, Kurosawa can successfully move between genres but every film he has made is distinctly and undeniably his. He uses unorthodox techniques and favors convoluted storylines with intense thematic complexity. He likes playing with experimental techniques; in his work you will find everything from disorienting shot placement, to musical numbers, to short silent films. There are a few things, however, that he uses with regularity and have become part of his style – ambiguous narratives, the use of both static and tracking cameras that form exceedingly long takes, the tendency to film his characters from a distance, the use of reflection and light, illogical editing, extremely deliberate pacing. He also has very important things to say about Japanese society – social alienation, the gap between generations, the modern family and workplace, morality. But what makes his films so special is that he does these things while scaring the hell out of the audience.
RETRIBUTION (2006, Japanese title Sakebi, ‘scream’) isn’t the best Kurosawa movie and it isn’t the scariest, but it is a great example of what Kurosawa does. The film opens with a static shot of a murder, viewed from Kurosawa’s recognizably distant vantage point. A man in a black trench coat is holding a woman in a blazingly red dress face down in a muddy puddle. The scene is completely silent; when the man finishes his task he walks away. Detective Yoshioka (played by Kurosawa’s cinematic alter-ego Yakusho Koji) is tasked with investigating the murder. However, he begins to wonder if he is the murderer, as he uncovers evidence that seems to point to him and is haunted by images of the ghost in red. As he attempts to discover her identity, a series of similar killings take place in the area – seemingly random people are all drowning loved ones in seawater.
ADRENALINE DRIVE is one of the first movies I watched when I was initially getting into Japanese film. Back in 2000, VHS still reigned supreme and it was pretty difficult to get your hands on Japanese movies in Colorado. Upon realizing that I had exhausted most of the sci-fi movie selection at the local Hollywood Video (remember when people used to RENT movies from STORES???), I stumbled upon a VHS copy of ADRENALINE DRIVE. Up to that point, I had really only watched jidai-geki style samurai movies, so my 12 year old brain was pretty interested in seeing a ‘normal’ Japanese movie. Though I bought it on a whim, ADRENALINE DRIVE turned out to be a ridiculously fun parody of yakuza caper films.
The movie opens with Suzuki (Ando Masanobu), a spineless rental car clerk, accidentally rear ending a car full of yakuza. Always ready to exploit the situation, the yakuza force Suzuki to visit their office and settle the debt. After an uncomfortable moment with the yakuza leader Kuroiwa (Matsushige Yutaka), Suzuki is let off the hook when a gas explosion destroys the office. Hearing the blast, an off-duty nurse Shizuko (Ishida Hikari) rushes into the building to help. Seeing the dead yakuza, Suzuki and Shizuko leave with a case full of blood-soaked cash. However, a badly injured Kuroiwa knows their identities and, now bed-ridden in the hospital, sends a group of low-level chinpira after them to retrieve the stolen money. Now on the run from the yakuza, ADRENALINE DRIVE is about the bizarre misadventures the unlikely pair experience.
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).
This is one of the best movies you will see all year and everyone should watch it. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil is the funniest, smartest, and most lighthearted satire of horror movie tropes to be released since Shaun of the Dead. Playing with some of the most tiresome and common clichés of slasher movies, this film manages to cast the entire horror genre in an original and refreshingly light.
Opening on what appears to be a southern Appalachian forest and mimicking a shot made infamous in Deliverance (and echoed in The Descent), the film introduces us to a band of unwitting and mostly dull-witted ‘college kids,’ who we all know will meet a gruesome end by the film’s conclusion. Headed off on a Memorial Day camping trip (why would anyone ever go camping in the South? Seriously, only bad things happen there), they have a brief encounter with Tucker (Alan Tudyk, Firefly) and Dale (Tyler Labine), two well-intentioned rednecks off to fix up their dream vacation home. Unsurprisingly, they completely misinterpret Dale’s attempt to make small talk with the lovely Allison (Katrina Bowden of 30 Rock)…perhaps partially because he brings along a scythe to casually lean-on as he bumbles through an introduction.
I’m a big fan of Asian Extreme cinema (Patrick Galloway’s Asia Shock is a great introduction). Like most nerds, I’ll watch all movies that fall into this category…even if I only end up liking 50% of them. Unfortunately this was the case with Kaji Kengo’s Samurai Princess (2009). Sporting the talents of Nishimura Yoshihiro (the man responsible for the effects in Tokyo Gore Police), this movie had a lot of promise to be another flick full of nonsense, gore, and gory nonsense. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver on every level.
I like Kevin Smith as a filmmaker. Though I had my reservations about him making a horror film (seriously, why? Why make a horror film?), I really wanted to like Red State. Overall the movie isn’t really bad per se; it is bizarre, fairly thought-provoking, and decently entertaining. While there are several moments in the film that make me blurt out, “What? Really?…Seriously?”, Kevin Smith is a good filmmaker who can create very watchable films. But, sadly, the overall effect of Red State is ho-hum.
Because extreme over-eating and mandatory quality time with in-laws isn’t gruesome enough already, here are the 10 Best Horror Movies for Thanksgiving. Remember, it’s hard to run away from monsters and cannibals with a stomach full of turkey, so plan the most efficient exit strategy out of your house before binge-eating yams and pumpkin pie. It might just save your life, or at least help you avoid a goodbye kiss from your great-grandmother Besty-Lou. If you’re like me, you may enjoy using horror movies to dissuade people from hanging out with you. But, for the social butterflies among you, I’ve divided this list into ‘funny’ and ‘gruesome’:
☆☆ If you haven’t seen Martyrs, I would STRONGLY recommend that you watch it without reading this review…or any reviews for that matter. I think it is best to go into this movie without any idea where the story is going to take you. You will only be able to experience watching this film for the first time once, so I suggest you make the most of it. ☆☆
Martyrs (2008, Written and Directed by Pascal Laugier) opens with the young Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) running down a deserted street, screaming and covered in blood. She had been kidnapped and subjected to extreme forms of torture before escaping. The authorities remain completely mystified about who did this to her and (more importantly) why. Severely traumatized, Lucie refuses to speak to anyone, save for her only friend Anna (Morhana Alaoui). Fifteen years later, Lucie knocks on the door of a normal suburban home and executes the entire family living there. She is convinced that these are the people who tortured her as a child, and calls Anna for help. Anna is skeptical about Lucie’s convictions – especially since Lucie also believes that she has been being attacked by a monster ever since her escape.
After a few plot twists that I won’t mention here, Anna discovers a sleek and completely sterile torture chamber hidden underneath the house. In the dungeon, she finds another woman who was being tortured by the family. Anna attempts to help her, only to be abducted herself when the leaders of a mysterious organization arrive at the house. The leader of the cult-like group reveals to Anna that they are torturing women in an attempt to recreate the experience of martyrdom. By using pain and violence, they want to push these women into a plain of higher existence in an attempt to discover what lies beyond life and after death.
(A) Run away
(B) Call the police
(C) Free her
(D) Fuck her
In Deadgirl (2008), the answer is always (D). When JT and Ricky find the girl in the basement, JT suggests, “We could keep her…just till tonight or tomorrow.” Despite the fact that Ricky’s moral compass has identified this situation as undeniably ‘Not Good,’ he isn’t enough of a man to stand up to his friend. So he leaves his friend and the girl in the basement. See no evil, hear no evil.
The next day, JT convinces Ricky to come back to the basement. And of course Ricky does, because that’s what friends are for. It turns out that – mid-rape – the woman started struggling and tried to bite JT. Obviously, the only thing JT could do in a situation like that is beat her to death. So he did. But she doesn’t die. She was dead all along.
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.