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 Sea is Watching
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.
Dark Water, Frightful School
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.
Cursed, The Locker
“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.”
Tomie, Shikoku
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 (“Suicide Circle”).
Suicide Circle, One Missed Call 2
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.