A Place of Rage
“Man is such a worthless animal” (Miho Kanno,
Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Out” (2002) illustrates
how mise-en-scene – perhaps even more than narrative – establishes genre.
Natsuo Kirino’s angry feminist crime novel, on which the film is based,
depicts four women who are spiritually broken on the wheel of patriarchal
power and indifference. They work the night shift in a run-down boxed
lunch factory in a blighted industrial neighborhood. These women
work nights both for the shift differential and to escape their families.
Their shabby residences reflect their social marginalization as the victims
of gender and age discrimination or downsizing. The shadow figures
of Kirino’s novel come to life through the radical and horrifying acts
of participation in murder, dismemberment and abandonment of family – blatant
violations of fundamental social norms. A faithful cinematic realization
of this narrative would involve darkness, poverty, aging, exhaustion, exploitation
and cruel disappointment, in addition to the gory symbolism of the dismembered
But Hirayama’s film transforms these desperately
secret lives into a series of encounters between smiling, well dressed
women who inhabit bright, airy homes and work in a spotlessly gleaming
high-tech factory – far removed from the stifling tatami rooms of the novel.
The film’s cinematic emphasis on brilliant skies and well-lit spaces suggests
anything but horror. The business of cutting up bodies – ankle deep
in blood and steaming intestines – is virtually excised from the film.
Instead it is conducted largely off-camera by the protagonists wearing
white plastic protective gear that both reassuringly suggests surgical
garb and makes them seem anonymous. The merest hint of blood connotes
surgery rather than butchery, and the film discreetly avoids lingering
on images that might otherwise code its female protagonists as monstrous
– such as the lead character “Masako Katori” (Mieko Harada) cutting off
people’s heads. Yet this betrays the narrative power of the novel
that invites identification with “Masako” strong enough to sustain sympathy
for her monstrous acts. The film also transforms her friend “Yayoi
Yamamoto” (Naomi Nishida) into the heavily pregnant wife of a partner abuser
who kills her husband in self-defense – rather than because she’s had enough
of him as in the book. Her character’s pregnancy in the film seems
a device to garner sympathy. It may be acceptable to kill in defense
of one’s unborn child, and her character’s demeanor seems to convey regret.
But this misses the dark heart of Kirino’s novel where “Yayoi” wasn’t pregnant,
and had simply had enough of her husband. She actually found it thrilling
and liberating to kill him, and when “Masako” kills another man it becomes
evident that the “beast” they have awoken is in themselves.
By constructing the murder of “Yayoi’s” husband
as self-defense and avoiding giving the female protagonists an active cinematic
gaze, key cinematic signifiers are aligned with other elements such as
bright, spacious surroundings and clinical, white garb to collectively
soften and deflect the impact of these women’s acts. While the novel
can easily be read as horror, Hirayama’s film adaptation adopts the gentler
mantle of drama. Such divergence offers an opportunity to note certain
conventions of genre cinema. Drama – as a “higher” genre than horror
– is positioned to offer social commentary but is simultaneously constrained
by conventions of taste. The “lower” genre of horror may actually
be better equipped to bluntly confront the troubling themes of gender,
power and desire that are often deeply buried in other texts.
Hiroki Yamaguchi’s “Gusha no bindume” (“Hellevator:
The Bottled Fools,” 2004) is everything “Out” should have been. Yamaguchi’s
film blends elements of horror with science fiction set in a parallel society,
culminating in a narrative resolution comparable to that of “Avalon.”
Luchino Fujisaki plays an eponymous 17-year-old schoolgirl attired in the
classic sailor suit and loose leg warmers so frequently fetishized in Japanese
cinema. Her blankly beautiful appearance and insouciant manner are
a thin veneer over casual violence and rage of psychotic intensity.
While her appearance may seem markedly incongruous in the dark urban dystopia
of the claustrophobic, vertical mega-city of Yamaguchi’s imaginings, “Fujisaki”
shocks even its twisted denizens with her brutality as she causes an explosion
that kills 113 people with a casually discarded cigarette, empties the
clip of a Mauser automatic pistol into a convicted murderer in gratuitously
bloody slow motion, and eviscerates a male microbiologist.
The driving force, seen in flashbacks whose repetition
captures their unending influence, is her legacy of physical and sexual
abuse by her father – ultimately butchered by “Luchino” with a pair of
shears. Although initially presented within the text as psychic,
“Fujisaki” actually appears psychotic. Her mind reading and mental
transparency result in classic paranoid imaginings of plots and secret
surveillance. “Fujisaki” slays the microbiologist under influence
of perceived mind control by a punk kid slumped on the floor of the massive
elevator where most of the film is set. In her imaginings he is an
undercover agent for the ubiquitous surveillance bureau, while the microbiologist
is about to unleash a viral weapon contained in a jar with a genetically
altered fetus. As she kills him, the jar rolls away spilling its
actual content of heart medications. Earlier, she suggestively imagines
that the woman with a baby carriage who is in the elevator has actually
killed her own infant by placing it in a locker.
At the film’s close, “Fujisaki” is literally saturated
with other people’s blood. Far from saving the people whose lives
briefly come together in the elevator that travels between hundreds of
city levels, she is a heinous criminal. The film’s ultimate irony
is that she is sentenced to “disposal” and is duly delivered to the mysterious
“Level 0” in the orange jumpsuit of those so convicted. Instead of
dying, however, “Fujisaki” has her memories erased and emerges into the
nighttime in central Tokyo, on her own. Having started at the very
bottom, in a community for the mentally ill, “Fujisaki” rides the elevator
all the way to the top.
This provocative work can be interpreted on several
levels. Following a tradition traceable through Ridley Scott’s “Blade
Runner” to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” it presents a compelling vision of
urban dystopia that can easily be read as a metaphor for the woes of contemporary
society. People shuffle endlessly through a claustrophobic transportation
network that seems to have become their primary activity. The vertical
city-state is organized into occupational strata, physically separating
and stigmatizing its citizens. The gulf between a phalanx of identical
salarymen and others – a mother, young people – is unbridgeable.
Surveillance and order are oppressive. Officialdom is sadistic and
arbitrary. The elevator operators – beautiful young women with highly
stylized costumes and gestures reminiscent of mannequins – epitomize the
occupational plight of so many Japanese women.
This system – itself hellish enough – begins to
break down with the arrival in the transport elevator of two convicted
convicts – a murderer and a rapist-cannibal. With the explosion of
a terrorist bomb they break loose and begin to prey on the occupants of
the elevator. Only three people fight back – “Fujisaki” who is tipped
over the edge by any male advance, the microbiologist who is concerned
to save his money and career, and the female elevator operator who announces
she has been trained to deal with these types of emergencies. The
young man who is present remains alienated even from an existential threat.
These elements starkly present the crushing forces of patriarchal power
that privileges masculinity, rules, money and the subjection of women.
But this order is ultimately overturned by circumstances
that elicit the most basic of human passions – fear, lust, greed, rage
– the “beasts” of Kirino’s literary “Out.” Although they are the
catalysts, it is not the two convicted murderers who ultimately wreak mayhem.
Instead it is “Luchino Fujisaki” who achieves a blood-drenched climax involving
evisceration every bit as horrible as the crimes of those officially designated
as monstrous. This is social criticism of the most savagely primal
sort. Salarymen, scientists, elevator women, housewives, disaffected
youth and schoolgirls are quickly stripped down to those attributes imposed
on them by roles. Ultimately, all breaks down under the pressure
of extraordinary circumstances. Even the icy elevator lady loses
her composure. “Hellevator” makes no secret of its dystopian vision
or how it stands in relation to contemporary Japanese society, both metaphorically
and literally underneath it.
“Hellevator” seems relatively unusual for a contemporary
Japanese horror film. Its gritty reliance on both emotional and physical
violence and claustrophobic mise-en-scene, seem more reminiscent of the
elemental violations at the finale of “Audition” or cyberpunk excess than
of “Ring’s” legacy of spirits and truth-seekers. “Fujisaki” may inadvertently
find truth – but she’s certainly not looking for it. She’s come to
destroy, not to discover. Positioned in this fashion, “Hellevator”
invites reading as a “post-slasher” text in which violence becomes less
a means of reaffirming essentialist, patriarchal myths about power and
gender, and more a direct social critique.
It may be instructive to make brief comparison
with another cinematically impressive, well-acted, modestly budgeted production
that is unabashedly a contemporary slasher – the 2004 French film “Haute
Tension” (“High Tension”). This brutal film has many comparable elements
to “Hellevator,” including a female protagonist pushed to violence, small
cast, enclosed spaces, abject suffering and bloodletting, foreshadowing
and playfulness with time. Although the main protagonist in “High
Tension” is presented as delusional – as is “Fujisaki” – this is conflated
with her sexual orientation in a manner that codes her as inherently and
inexplicably monstrous. By contrast, although “Fujisaki’s” actions
may be monstrous, they are given context by presentation of a backstory.
“Hellevator” presents its female protagonist’s insanity and violence as
the product of patriarchal violence and oppression, whereas “High Tension”
treats its female protagonist as a decontextualized, incomprehensible threat.
This may illustrate an apparent point of divergence
between Western and Japanese horror narratives. Whereas many Western
horror films use narrative and subtextual codes to re-inscribe women into
a remarkably resilient patriarchal order, Japanese horror seems increasingly
dichotomized into egregious extremes of monstrous male behavior, and unexpectedly
brutal counter-violence by women. Even the ghosts that are Okiku’s
legatees crave vengeance. These films critique and subvert patriarchal
assumptions by speaking aloud when their Western counterparts remain discreetly
silent. In the end, when the monster is finally revealed, he may
well be a man dragging a pipe to batter one with as in Masayuki Ochiai’s
“Saimin” (“The Hypnotist,” 1999), or seeking to cut one’s heart out in
Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Sky High” (2003) – a metaphor for inevitable abuse and
betrayal. No matter how superficially charming, his power is ultimately
backed up by brute force, and must be equally violently confronted.