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