No Happy Endings
“Neither objectivity nor proof means a thing.
The image says it all.” (Hitomi Kuroki, “The Frame”)
Contemporary J-Horror does not present anything
akin to a unified front. Fractured along lines of gender and privilege,
many titles actively contest patriarchal power and some cast their female
protagonists in either subversive or heroic roles. The Final Girl,
when she appears, does not automatically betray her gender. Indeed,
some J-Horror horror narratives seek resolutions in acceptance rather than
in arranging destruction of “The Other.” Although such acceptance
– when coded female – might risk connoting affirmation of an essentialist
natural order, it is easy to misunderstand the resultant allocations and
sharing of power if this is viewed solely through a Western cultural prism.
The final scenes of “Umi wa miteita” (“The Sea
is Watching,” 2002) – Akira Kurosawa’s last screenplay – leave its female
protagonist “Kikuno” (Misa Shimizu) seemingly beleaguered on the roof of
a dwelling about to be submerged by the quietly rising waters of a flood.
Is her loss of everything – including her life – a defeat? In the
words of her character (“Well, here I am . . . alone at last. And
it feels fine.”) it is clearly not, since she experiences freedom and autonomy
in these extraordinary, transforming circumstances. This is the two-fold
subversive message of many contemporary Japanese horror films. The
evils flowing from patriarchal power take one form – expressed in social
and sexual controls. But the liberating responses of the individual
can be manifold – and perhaps even private. The dark water that drowns
Okiku and from which her vengeful spirit emerges – a symbol of yin in classical
artistic media – is found in many J-Horror titles. This affirms sexuality
and gender as the ultimate basis of horror. Horror, then, is indeed
a mirror held up to unspoken assumptions about roles. Accordingly,
its import must surely be culturally determined.
So what, exactly, might contemporary J-Horror
“confess” about women? On one level, the films chosen for more detailed
review are narratives structured around various themes that are readily
constructed as threats. Although perhaps neither specific to women
nor unique to Japanese culture, J-Horror articulates culturally constructed
rather than “essentialist” or technical perspectives on the uncanny.
The woman, in this scenario, while still taking her share of blame, is
nevertheless an unusually vigorous protagonist as well as sounding board
for broader social and political concerns.
“Flower and Snake” readily evokes the horror of
physical abduction and sexual exploitation, but is Yoshihiro Hoshino’s
“'Chô' kowai hanashi a: Yami no karasu” (“Cursed,” 2004) a
critique of a different kind – that of labor exploitation – as people become
zombies enslaved to their low paying service jobs? What of the attack
on pop culture and consumerism implied in “Suicide Circle,” or the unraveling
of inauthentic social roles in “Hellevator?” These, too, take aim
at larger social targets, as does the critique of uniformity and rejection
of difference implicit in “Ring 0.” Loneliness and the search for
love add pathos to “The Locker.”
Ubiquitous, intrusive technology has been a staple
of J-Horror since “Ringu.” The characters of “One Missed Call” cannot
live without their cell phones, so they die because of them. The
competitiveness engendered by patriarchal norms in the employment marketplace
forms the backstory to “2LDK.” “Embalming” takes aim at the objectification
of the body, while other titles address more direct aspects of abusive
male behavior involving physical assault (“Sky High,” “Tokyo Psycho,” “Flower
and Snake”) discrimination and abuse of power (“Audition,” “The Frame”),
exploitation (“Gore From Outer Space”), child abuse (“Audition,” “Battle
Royale,” “Hellevator”), attacks on custody rights (“The Frame”), as well
as more casual infidelities (“Tomie”) or attractions (“Boogiepop”).
Sick of it all, alienated people kill each other (“Battle Royale”) or themselves
Unlike Hollywood horror whose conspicuously repeated
formulae reaffirm modernist myths that things really will get better –
that the uncanny is but a threatening aberration – J-Horror knows better.
The horror is right here. We’re stuck in it, and no one’s getting
out. As one character says in “Suicide Circle,” “Kill yourself before
you murder someone.” All the ailments of unresolved modernity will
relentlessly insinuate themselves into our lives, no matter how many times
we bang shut the metal door to the tiny apartment or turn off the cell
phone. Modern culture and its ailments are inescapable, and inescapability
might constitute the central nexus of J-Horror.