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.
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).
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.
Wild Zero follows the three band members of Guitar Wolf; Guitar Wolf (vocals and guitar), Bass Wolf (bass), and Drum Wolf (you guessed it, drums). This trio are the hottest musicians in rural Asahi-cho and only believe in three things; love, justice, and Rock’n’Roll. Tired of the dirty ways of their evil yakuza business manager, the Captain (played by Inamiya Makoto in a variety of wigs), Guitar Wolf decides to quit and continue their career as independent musicians. Thanks to some accidental help from Ace (Endo Masashi), a young rockabilly and avid Guitar Wolf fan, the band members manage to escape the Captain, but not before robbing him and shooting off two of his fingers. Recognizing that Ace lives by the same Rock’n’Roll code of honor, Guitar Wolf makes him his blood brother and gives him a whistle with instructions to ‘blow it if you ever need help.’ Sure enough, Ace and his love interest Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu) soon need help from the leather-clad rock stars to battle off a horde of zombies and save Earth from some nasty extraterrestrial invaders.
Tomomatsu Naoyuki’s Zombie Self-Defense Force (Zombi jietai) is one of the most ridiculous genre spoofs out there…and I mean ridiculous in a good way. A UFO crashes in a forest and releases radiation that can reanimate the dead. In close vicinity to the crash are a gang of yakuza and their chinpira lackeys, a photography crew on location to shoot a Japanese idol, and a few members of the Jietai (Japan Self-Defense Force) on a training mission. Pop idol Hitomi, Yuri (Watase Miyu) a female solider who is more than meets the eye, and a few others manage to survive the initial carnage. They band together and take cover in an isolated hotel. Zombie/alien/fetus/ghost/android madness ensues.
But, honestly, the actual plot is inconsequential. What the film lacks in budget and screenwriting it makes up for in some genuinely funny parodies.
Everyone who watches Japanese film knows about Versus. And for good reason, this is an awesome movie. I tend to shy away from movies that are excessively popular. This is because having never been popular myself, I harbor a deep subconscious resentment for all things that become popular. But, in this case, I will grudgingly accept that Versus has earned it’s popularity for good reason.
Written and directed by Kitamura Ryuhei, Versus stars Sakaguchi Tak and Sakaki Hideo in roles that garnered them huge cult status. Versus was so popular that it inspired the 2002 film Alive, starring the two actors in virtually identical roles and also directed by Kitamura.
After spending hours watching atrociously low-budget Japanese zombie films, Versus and the film’s amazingly choreographed action sequences look like works of art. This movie is a full throttle action movie. And, like any good action movie, the main characters are simply too cool for names.
The two main characters – Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi Tak) and The Man (Sakaki Hideo) – are trapped in a karmic cycle where every century or two they must fight to the death over the entrance to the 444th Portal (the Japanese equivalent of 666), the power contained within it, and the life of a girl.
Presumably set in Okinawa, Shiryo-gari (written and directed by Muroga Atsushi) is about an American military experiment on dead bodies that predictably results in a zombie outbreak. The hapless American soldiers enlist the help of Dr. Nakada (played by Kishimoto Yuji), a Japanese scientist who was involved in the original research, to help bring the situation under control. As luck would have it, a group of inept jewelry thieves, led by Jun (Asano Nobuyuki) and Saki (Shimamura Kaori) decide to use the isolated laboratory as a hide-out before the American soldiers can get there to clean up the mess.
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.
This installment discusses Shimizu Takashi’s 2000 hit JU-ON.
J-Horror Classics – Shimizu Takashi’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE
Despite the popularity of the 1998 RING, by 2000 it seemed like the Japanese horror boom had ended. At least, no films had been released that really could rival Nakata’s smash hit. In February, Shimizu Takashi released a straight-to-video film called JU-ON: THE CURSE. The production company expected it to a quick cash-in on the horror genre, nothing more. But Ju-On quickly became an underground hit much like The Ring had before it. The straight-to-video production of Ju-On had been made for the diehard purists, the kind of horror fans who line up to see movies on opening nights and whatnot. Realizing they could make a lot more on Ju-On, the studio funded a theatrical remake of the Ju-On which was released in theaters in January 2003 (This has been released in America as JU-ON: THE GRUDGE to distinguish itself from its predessor). The theatrical remake doesn’t offer too many changes to the original Ju-On story and has preserved the non-linear storyline that is a staple within the series. The only real change was the creation of the main character Nishina Rika, played by Okina Megumi. In fact, the roots of Ju-On can be traced all the way back to 1998.
I was recently contacted by Tinker-san, who informed me that he has mentioned my review of Yotsuya Kaidan on his website ホラーSHOX / HORROR SHOX! This is a great website and an amazing resource for all kinds of horror films. I am very flattered by his description of my review =^_^=
If you are interested in reading the original Japanese, please follow this link to his page:
I have also included a translation of what the article says (if you cannot read Japanese and are interested in reading it).
I found a YouTube video about Yotsuya Kaidan made by a foreigner. A beautiful blonde girl appeared, reviewing Yotsuya Kaidan. This person is amazing! “Yotsuya Kaidan is based on an old kabuki play. Because it is a very famous Japanese horror story, there are many versions of this movie. My favorites are definitely the one directed by Nakagawa and the Nakadai Tatsuya version. Nakadai Tatsuya is a big star, as big as Mifune.” Like that, she talks about the story very passionately. I wonder if she thinks that Japanese people are watching her YouTube video because she is speaking in very easy-to-listen-to English. So you should check it out. I bet that Japanese horror boys will be her fan.
She begins with an introduction of the basic story of Yotsuya Kaidan, then a summary of the historical background and gives her opinion about Japanese horror. Here is a rough translation of what she says:
“Black haired female ghosts set on revenge, water, trouble within families, and love relationships: these are all classic elements of Japanese horror. In my personal opinion, Nakagawa Nobuo’s version from 1959 has really good camera work. I like this one because it has a kabuki-like atmosphere. On the other hand, in the 1966 version Nakadai Tatsuya’s acting was very good. His acting with his big eyes creates a very nice haunted feeling…Women who are socially weak become ghosts with supernatural power and can seek revenge – I think storylines like these are the origins of Japanese horror. And there is a clear logic to it. In short, this means that if you do something bad, something bad will happen to you. Iyemon is in this exact situation. I think that this is a very traditional Japanese horror story, but there is a big difference when compared to modern Japanese horror stories. In modern Japanese horror, this logic is violated and, regardless of who you are, you are cursed. Many people die, just like in The Grudge. Some people say that modern Japanese horror has been influenced by the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack, but I’m not sure if this is really the case. It may just be a bad omen of modern society.”
When I see a foreigner who knows so much about Japan, I don’t why but I feel very proud and happy. I feel as if I am the one who is being praised, even though it’s not me who made the movie.