“I just kept coming back to the stereotype . . . of the male personification of Death” (Sayaka Yoshino, “Boogiepop and Others”)

“Ringu” and successor films (“Rasen” – “The Spiral,” “The Ring 2,” “Ring 0:  Birthday,” “Ghost System,” “The Locker” or “One Missed Call”) foreground female protagonists, but often in a manner that emphasizes fear and helplessness.  It might be argued that, in general, the narratives of horror sub-genres might be parsed according to which aspect of the female body or perceived role will be gazed at for male viewing pleasure.  Where the “Ringu” sub-genre focuses on the fearful efforts of a single individual to preserve her safety, “Ju-on” and related titles (“Ju-on 1,” “Ju-on 2”) distribute this across a number of protagonists, evoking their collective, serial vulnerability.  Slasher films such as “Big Slaughter Club” and its three sequels offer opportunities for sado-masochistic gaze and identification, while the numerous titles in the ero-guro tradition offer literal deconstruction and “opening” of the female body.  Vengeance titles such as “Freeze Me” characteristically incorporate a character arc into their narrative, inviting close identification with the protagonist while also exposing her body and sexual behavior to a highly invasive, voyeuristic cinematic gaze.  Suffering may be explicitly eroticized by titles such as “Flower and Snake.”  Engagement in sexual activity can itself be made horrific (“Banquet of the Beasts”), while the perceived sexual power of young women is rendered horrifying in “Tomie” and its sequels, and in more bizarrely symbolic form in the zombie film “Stacy.”  Other titles such as “Living Hell” situate horror in the home and realm of family relations, or in the actions of a lethally deranged mother (“Baptism of Blood”).

One Missed Call, Juon
These examples perhaps suggest that much contemporary Japanese horror may be intimately concerned with relations between women and the patriarchal order.  It is worth recalling that the horror of “Ringu” is ultimately traceable to the tragic legend of Okiku – itself a commentary on social and sexual power differentials.  However, affirmations of personal autonomy in contemporary Japanese horror, when they occur, can also be muted and indirect.  The mere fact that “Yoshimi Matsubara” (Hitomi Kuroki), the central character of “Dark Water,” is a single mother who must juggle work and family scheduling conflicts entirely without assistance and in the face of prejudice is itself an instance of social commentary.  Similarly, “Chihiro” (Harumi Inoue) in “Freeze Me” suffers a home invasion in virtual silence, shamed by the possible impression of her past experiences on the neighbors.  Even her vengeance is taken discreetly.  Although such elements invite socially critical readings, these films’ characters do not necessarily triumph over adversity in ways that both directly challenge the patriarchal order and express individual empowerment or collective solidarity.
Freeze Me, Dark Water
A further perspective involves audience response to horror.  Film theorist Linda Williams has proposed a typology of “female body genres” in which horror is situated alongside pornography and melodrama as a genre of excess.  The “ecstatic violence” that constitutes horror is presumptively sadomasochistic in its appeal, complicating analysis of viewer response.  The frequent ambiguity of horror heroines is a corollary to this.  Fortunately, Asian horror films, like their action counterparts, are refreshingly direct in how they address gender.
Beautiful Beast, Beautiful Hunter
“Hakkyousuru kuchibiru” (“Crazy Lips,” 2000) is a case in point.  Directed in the manner of a low-budget independent by Hirohisa Sasaki who also directed its sequel “Chi no sû uchû” (“Gore From Outer Space,” 2001), “Crazy Lips” employed the considerable skills of Hiroshi Takahashi who had written the scripts for the cycle of “Ringu” films as well as Nakata’s pre-Ringu “Don’t Look Up.”  But Takahashi also wrote the screenplays for “XX: Utsukushiki Karyuudo” (“Beautiful Hunter,” 1994) and “XX: Utsukushiki Kemono” (“Beautiful Beast, 1995), films that subvert arguably affirmative gender-related themes in the “Girls With Guns” genre by foregrounding gratuitous and deviant sexual assault.  Such apparent recuperation of base themes of patriarchal power is arranged by first privileging “Shion” (Makiko Kuno) as a powerful assassin in “Beatiful Hunter,” then subordinating her to male sexual control.  This offers the presumptively heterosexual male viewer the opportunity to indulge in both facets of the sadomasochistic gaze theorized to lie at the basis of viewing pleasure across the genres of action, horror and pornography.
Crazy Lips, Gore from Outer Space
This is both the strength and dilemma presented by “Crazy Lips.”  Constrained by its budget, the script seeks to exploit the proven success of V-movie staples – sex and violence.  Here they are combined into violent sex, but given legitimacy by the acting credibility of Hitomi Miwa as “Satomi.”  Miwa plays one of two adult sisters whose brother is wanted by the police for the serial killing of schoolgirls.  Harassed by the police and reporters, “Satomi” seeks the intercession of psychic investigators.  This couple, however, contrives a virtual home invasion and sexually assaults both sisters and their mother.  All the principal female characters in “Crazy Lips” are subjected to sexual assaults and behave with disturbing passivity.  Their characters become complicit in their own victimization, and when “Satomi,” her sister and mother are ultimately revealed as the true murderers, their own deaths follow a paroxysm of violence modeled after a Hong Kong martial arts actioner.  Any discernible critique of patriarchal power is, at best, oblique.  The principal characters are depicted as ultimately venal and subject to manipulation by men who use a combination of sexual and physical violence.  Although this certainly invites a critical reading, to do so requires adopting an oppositional stance.
Crazy Lips
From at least the time of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” the Western horror film has not only foregrounded women as victims but also made them largely responsible for the monstrous behavior of assailants when these are real individuals.  Identifiable backstories leading to monstrous male behavior include extreme disturbance of maternal relations, histories of rejected romantic advances, or profoundly stigmatizing trauma.  Women’s actions are frequently located at the source of this disaffection, while the rash, self-directed behavior of potential victims within the narrative generally portends their demise.  The frequent construction of one female character as an androgynous “Final Girl” is theorized to allow male audiences to savor the identification possibilities associated with both suffering and vengeance – viewed from the perspectives of both perpetrator and victim.
Pyrokenesis, Ms. 45
While this narrative tradition has certainly influenced the construction of protagonists in Asian horror films, the site of their horrifying import is more likely to be located in the extreme reactions of female characters to exploitation and abuse rooted in patriarchal controls.  Classic female perpetrators in Western horror films such as “Carrie,” “Fatal Attraction” or “Basic Instinct” are portrayed as having essentially a free-floating responsibility for their actions.  Their victims are largely blameless until they provoke the perpetrator’s immediate attention.  By contrast, “Junko” in “Pyrokinesis” – a clear counterpart to “Carrie” – is motivated by vengeance against the male perpetrators of crimes.  Some Asian horror films such as “Freeze Me” weave the conventions of “Ms. 45” directly into their narrative, while many others identify the abuse of females by males as their backstory.  The horror of “Ringu” and “Ju-on” is associated with the vengeance of a spirit for violence at the hands of male family members.
Tomie, Audition
By self-consciously provoking her own killing, the manga-inspired “Tomie” makes explicit the intimate connection between eroticism and death at the heart of horror, while simultaneously critiquing the violence and inequality of relations based on patriarchal norms.  The horror of “Raigyo,” “Freeze Me,” “Audition” and “Living Hell” flows from the exaggerated retaliation of women who strike back at more than the immediate perpetrator.  Even though “Sakura” is murdered by her own mother in Kenichi Yoshihara’s “Senrei” (“Baptism of Blood,” 1996), this is to steal her younger attractive body as a vehicle for her mother’s brain.  The motivation for this bizarre crime is located in her mother’s acting background in pinku film within cultural influences that privilege physical appearance.
All Night Long, Ring O
Children, particularly girls, may be abused and killed by their parents (“Ringu,” “Ju-on,” “Baptism of Blood”) or even as young adults continue to suffer the social consequences of parental crimes (“Crazy Lips”).  The deadly effects of male dominance and control within relationships is alluded to in the “Tomie” series, while young women become the victims of monstrous stalkers and assailants (“Evil Dead Trap,” “Guinea Pig,” “All Night Long,” “Blood Sisters,” “Freeze Me”).  Even seemingly well intentioned men can perpetuate the coercive effects of patriarchal power (“Audition”).  Within families, obligations to extended family members may prove devastating (“Living Hell”).  Although these films include all three elements of the monstrous – reincarnated, psychic, dyadic – their real power to horrify arises from the violation of expectations concerning the familiar and associated obligations.  Danger and destruction are experienced at the hands of trusted family members or suitors, and are visited on individuals whose everyday behavior is wholly innocuous.  These films seek to undermine the very foundation of the everyday social order.
Evil Dead Trap
Some of these titles pack a double punch.  It is relatively straightforward to identify how films such “Evil Dead Trap” horrify.  The abhorrent actions of the perpetrator violate numerous boundaries and thereby facilitate two reading strategies – as an instance of sadistic scopophilia or as an indirect critique of patriarchal norms that enable such behavior.  Where does “Freeze Me” or “Audition” stand, however?  These titles not only incorporate the familiar horror elements of violence against women but also have narratives grounded on female counter-violence that exceeds that of the traditional Final Girl to an extreme degree.  These films enter the terrain of rape-revenge films and dwell on the carnage inflicted by female perpetrators.  Gender neutral identification appears to present no difficulty.  Interestingly, the protagonists’ acts are constrained by the narrative construction to the boundaries of home, familiar routine and relationships – and thereby stand in distinction to the free-floating, decontextualized possibilities of the action protagonist.  Yamaguchi’s “Hellevator” is a provocative exception to this latter point.
Hellevator, Freeze Me
If correct, this could suggest that horror may be constructed as intimate suffering and retaliation experienced and enacted in a private space by familiar protagonists, in contrast to the more widely ranging and more impersonal possibilities of action film.  The protagonists of Asian female action films often rage against male enemies in general, forcing open a public space for autonomous activity.  By contrast, the rage of female protagonists in Japanese horror films often occurs in private.  But the motives may ultimately be the same.  The home as a potential site of danger is the subject of gothic horror in which the private or domestic sphere is coded feminine while the public sphere is typically coded masculine.